A line of 3,000 cattle spreads out over nearly a mile. A small group of cowboys leading them along, spread so thin that only their lanterns are visible, little dots lighting the trail along with the moonlight. And a song began somewhere in the long march, “and as it surged up and down the line, every voice, good, bad, and indifferent, joined in,” Andy Adams wrote in his 1903 book, “The Log of a Cowboy: A Narrative of the Old Trail Days.”
When cattle outnumber men 140 to 1, keeping them from stampeding is usually is a top priority, and the cowboys of days past believed that singing is one of the best ways of doing this.
Adams writes that even when all the cattle are sleeping, “The guards usually sing or whistle continuously, so that the sleeping herd may know that a friend and not an enemy is keeping vigil over their dreams.”
The songs they sang carried a deeper history than even the cowboys may have realized. Most of the old cowboy songs are based on melodies from Irish and Scottish folk songs. Immigrants brought them over on ships, and as they moved West, the songs went with them. The lyrics changed as time went by, and the songs became saturated in the stories they told and the histories they recorded.
Many of these songs would have been lost to time were it not for the work of Jack Thorpe and John Lomax, who collected and documented many cowboy songs in the late 1800s. Today, their work would have likely been forgotten were it not for Don Edwards and some of the last cowboy troubadours.
Edwards is a cowboy balladeer, and also a Grammy-nominated songster and historian on cowboy music. He is one of the leading authorities on the genre. Two of his collections, “Guitars & Saddle Songs” and “Songs of the Cowboy,” are included in the Folklore Archives of the Library of Congress.
“What happened was that actual musicians saved the songs—because the cowboys couldn’t have cared less,” Edwards said in a phone interview. “They just did what they did and it was just part of their everyday life, and they never thought of it as being a genre of music or an art form.”
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Photo courtesy of C. West