Cowboy Songs and Singers: Of Lifeways and Legend

Issues and Activities

Instructors are welcome to use this page to promote class discussion. These issues and activities were developed by Dr. Janet Sturman and Elaine Mariolle for use with Dr. Sturman's Music 334 class, Fall 2000.

  1. Brainstorm: List all associations that you can think of connected to cowboys. Be creative, you can include references to food, film, television, music, billboards, novels, commercial products and advertising, etc. Let's see what we can collectively accumulate.

  2. The song the "Sierry Petes" exists in several different versions. Indeed text and musical variants have long interested collectors, performers, and scholars alike. Writing about Gale Gardner's role as composer of this song, singer and folklorist Katie Lee also points to conflicting views regarding the song's origin. Compare her commentary on the "Sierry Petes" to that of Alan Lomax in his book Folksongs of North America. Lomax lists the song under "Tying' a Knot in the Devil's Tail." Discuss which song history you find the most convincing and why? What do you learn about the process of composing cowboy songs from this site? How and why do some songs become standards while others do not? What role is played by the recording and publishing industries in popularizing a cowboy song?

  3. Compare any one of the cowboy musicians featured in the Cowboys Songs and Singers website to one of the more commercially successful "cowboy" singers such as Roy Rogers or Hank Williams. In your response include a discussion of how the cowboy image promoted by the entertainment industry compares to the music and lifestyle of the musicians profiled here. Many find it helpful to make a distinction between "cowboy songs," technically songs that are connected to the occupation lore of the cattle industry, and "western" songs, which are those more closely associated with the entertainment industry. Many of these latter songs were closely associated with the "singing-cowboy" films of the 1930s-50s. As Southwest folklorist Jim Griffith notes, western songs may indeed concern aspects of cowboy work, but usually from a general perspective easily understandable to those outside the culture.

  4. Compare any of the lives and music of the older cowboy musicians profiled on this site to one of the contemporary cowboy performers today. We have included links to several of these currently active cowboy singers, but you should feel free to find additional examples. In your answer compare issues such as how the musicians learn new material, how they promote themselves and their material, how songs made their way into the performer's repertoire, who are they singing to, and what role these songs play in the lives of listeners as well as the musicians. Think about issues of ownership. How is a composer or author's rights determined and how do the ways that songs have been transmitted affect their character, audience, and reception. Compare, for example circulation via the internet with circulation via word of mouth or commercial recording. How much control do (or did) the singers have regarding what, how, and when they perform?

 

 

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