Visit Cowboy Songs and Singers: Of Lifeways and Legends for audio and video of cowboys performing their music. Read articles about cowboy songs and authentic cowboy poetry. Teaching material developed for classroom use is available in the issues and activities section.
Contributed by John Vorsheck
Mus 334 Professor Sturman
September 30, 2002
Cowboy music is linked to cowboy poetry and both have existed at least as early as the 1870's. By 1880 and 1890, verses were appearing in Western newspapers, cattleman's journals and elsewhere. A little later, cowboy poetry surfaced on the East coast as songs and fragments of songs in "Western" stories and novels. In 1908, N. Howard (Jack) Thorp published the first collection of cowboy songs - Songs of the Cowboys. Two years later the famous Cowboy Songs and Frontier Ballads by John Avery Lomax appeared. Although the word "songs" appear in each in title, both were basically collections of poems and featured some texts without music. It is therefore likely that some of the pieces in each book were never sung, but rather recited from memory. "The Old Chisholm Trail" and "Utah Carrol" are well known examples of these early cowboy songs.
While in most cases we don't know the authors, we do know a little about the ancestry of some of the songs. For example, "The Trail to Mexico" and "Oh Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie," both seem to be adaptations from earlier poems or songs about sailors. Many of these older songs dealt with circumstances of the trail life, often tragedies or the results of leaving home for extended periods of time. Another common topic was famous outlaws, like Sam Bass or Jesse James. It was not until later that cowboy poets started writing in a more lighthearted manner. By 1935 the impact of recording and radio had propelled the music into the mainstream. Although musicians had been recording fiddle tunes (then known as Old Time Music) in the southern Appalachians for several years, it wasn't until August 1, 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee, that Country Music emerged as a commercial category. On that day Ralph Peer signed Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family to recording contracts for Victor Records. These two recording acts set the tone for those to follow as Rodgers established a model for solo singers with his unique singing style and the Carters influenced repertory.
The songs of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and the Sons of the Pioneers put the Western in Country and Western Music. Much of this music was written for and brought to the American public through the cowboy films of the 30's and 40's and was widely popular. Known as the "King of the Cowboys," and a major western movie star between 1938 and 1953, Roy Rogers was born Leonard Slye in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1911. Influenced by his father, who played mandolin and guitar, Rogers began playing at local functions during the 1920s. After stints with such groups as the Rocky Mountaineers and the Hollywood Hillbillies, he formed his own band, the International Cowboys. Later with the aid of Tim Spencer and Bob Nolan he formed the Sons of the Pioneers. Though this outfit established a considerable reputation, Rogers set his sights higher and began playing bit parts in films, first under the name of Dick Weston, and then assuming his guise as Roy Rogers, eventually wining a starring role in "Under Western Skies," a 1938 production. Rogers, along with others like Roy Acuff and Hank Williams, helped exploit the cowboy image as one of strength and virility as opposed to the hillbilly image associated with country music in the 1920's and early 1930's.
Many people automatically associate country music with cowboy music. Although there are similarities, cowboy music incorporates more culture and experience where as country music is geared more to a pop culture or to what some people refer to as the urban cowboys.