Living the Life of a Cowboy through His Songs
by Paige Kinzie
Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day. (Lomax, Best 213)
For many people, these well-known words epitomize the beauty of the American West, and most credit Dr. Brewster Higley with their creation. Throughout my childhood, my family and I bellowed this song on every road trip through the plains of Kansas, not only because of its poetic quality but also because of our familial connection to Dr. Brewster Higley himself. Although no one actually created a detailed family history proving how we were related, the rumor is that my paternal great-great-grandparents, Richard and Emma of Cummings, Kansas, were of the same Higley clan. Regardless of the truth of this family legend, “Home on the Range” does not belong just to Dr. Brewster Higley and Kansas, even though it is our state song. In fact, “Home on the Range” is considered a cowboy song because similar versions were sung outside of Kansas, including Colorado and Arizona (Davidson 210). As a result of its travel throughout the American West, “the folk have rubbed off its rough edges and improved the poesy” (Lomax, Best 197), transforming it into the song people love today. “Home on the Range” paints a perfect portrait of the beauty of the American West, but it represents only one category of traditional cowboy songs.
People idolize the image of the cowboy from “his wild life of duty and danger” to his “leggin’s of fancy fringed leather” (Lomax, Songs 127), and many cowboy songs, including “The Cowboy,” portray this Hollywood-ized image, emphasizing a cowboy’s “pride in his boots and the pistol” (Lomax, Songs 127). In all actuality, “[the cowboy] is not unique; he too is a part of [the] universal sameness” (Cadlo 335). Universal sameness is, according to Joseph J. Cadlo, the idea that “folk culture is a universal quality to be found to the same degrees in all races, countries, sections, and occupations” (335). All peoples sing of their life experiences—their work, their love, their amusement, their hero, their death, and their religion (Cadlo 335). The cowboy was no different.
The life of a cowboy was often glamorized; they spent cloudless days enjoying the sun’s rays and starry nights listening to the melodic sounds of nature, but firsthand accounts, on the other hand, reveal that a cowboy’s life often consisted of endless dangers and discomforts, especially while on the trail. Probably the biggest danger the trail posed was the stampede. By some stroke of luck, W.A. Tinney managed to make it through his first trail drive without a stampede, but W.L. Rhodes never managed to be that lucky. During one of his trail drives, “a couple of house cats went to fighting, and stampeded that herd: House cats! They sure caused us a heap of trouble, because we were two days rounding that herd up again” (Slatta 128). Although not all stampedes began in such humorous ways, they all posed a threat to cowboys. This common threat made its way into many of their songs, including “The Stampede:”
In the north black clouds like funeral shrouds
Rolled down with an icy breath,
And we faced a fight on a brutal night
With odds on the side of death;
For a trailing herd when it’s rightly stirred
Is a thing for a man to shun,
And no coward band ever holds command
When the norther’s on the run. (Lomax, American 393)
After the sun set and darkness took over the plains, cowboys found themselves at the greatest risk of facing a deadly stampede. To help calm the cattle, cowboys composed impromptu songs that were often based on the rhythm of a horse’s gait. “Some had mournful tunes but no words and were termed ‘Texas lullabies.’ Others had standard verses that . . . became favorites” (Forbis 154). Two popular lullabies to soothe the jumpy cattle were “Little Joe the Wrangler” and “The Old Chisholm Trail” (Forbis 154). Choices of night herding songs varied from cowboy to cowboy, though. One cowboy played his fiddle while on his horse and believed that the cattle loved his own favorite songs, “Dinah Had a Wooden Leg” and “The Unfortunate Pup,” while Baylis Fletcher used his knowledge of Presbyterian hymns to keep the cattle calm (Forbis 156).
Cowboys never faced the dangers of the trail alone; their horses always accompanied them, serving an important role in cowboys’ lives. The relationship between the cowboy and his horse began when the cowboy first broke his horse and continued to develop throughout their time on the trail. Many cowboys recorded the development of this relationship in song, as seen in “Pardners:”
For we have slept on the barren plains
An’ cuddled again the cold;
We’ve been through the tempests of drivin’ rains
When the heaviest thunder rolled;
We’ve raced from fire on the lone prairee
An’ run from the mad stampede . . . . (Lomax, Songs 100)
Because cowboys spent a significant amount of time with their horses, the horse acted as “the basic ingredient of the cowboy’s function and his identity . . . .” (Forbis 26). The relationship between the two was purely practical. This did not stop cowboys from making powerful declarations of their respect, and possibly love, for their horses through song:
But now—well, say, old hoss, if John
D. Rockefeeler shud come
With all the riches his paws are on
And want to buy you, you bum,
I’d laugh in his face an’ pat your neck
An’ say to him loud an’ strong:
“I wouldn’t sell you this derned old wreck
For all your wealth—so long!” (Lomax, Songs 100)
Even though cowboys felt affection for their horses, they developed strong feelings for women, as well. As the trail became a lonelier and lonelier place, cowboys created more and more songs glorifying ideal women. In the cowboy’s mind, ideal women were those who “followed a rigid path of innocence, sweetness, and fidelity” and remained “faithful forever” (Cadlo 337-338). Because cowboys spent so much time on the trail, a woman’s loyalty and his hope for a future together were very important. The chorus of “A Cowboy’s Love Song” perfectly depicts the cowboys’ aspirations when overcome by the loneliness of the trail:
I take my saddle, Sundays,—
The one with inlaid flaps,—
And don my new sombrero
And my white angora chaps;
Then I take a bronc for Susie
And she leaves her pots and pans
And we figure out our future
And talk o’er our homestead plans. (Lomax, Songs 66)
Some cowboys longed for a woman who fit into their current lifestyle—a “loyal plainsman’s wife, who helped her husband with the herding, fought Indians, and ‘loved her red liquor’” (Cadlo 338). In the song “Lasca,” a cowboy sings about his woman Lasca who only cares about riding by his side. He says, “She would hunger that I might eat;” and he reminisces about the time “she drew from her garter a little dagger” in an attempt to wound him because he purposely made her jealous (Lomax, Songs 23-24). Women like Lasca did not just exist in cowboys’ songs. W.F. Cude knew a family whose two grown girls “. . . would assist their father in hunting cattle, and carried their pistols with them where they went. They had a pack of hounds and hunted with them” (Slatta 103). Many women learned to love not only the cowboy, but his lifestyle, as well. Mabel Luke Madison started a ranch in New Mexico with her husband James during the mid-1880s: “I liked ranch life right from the start . . . for I rode the range with Jim, learned to cook and eat chuck-wagon food and to ride and rope with the best of them” (Slatta 103).
Women like Mabel Luke Madison were not always easy to find or to keep; therefore, many cowboys suffered from unrequited love, which became another favorite theme for their love songs (Cadlo 338). The most popular example of this type of love song is “Red River Valley.” The girl that a cowboy loved left the Red River Valley, and he lamented his loss of her:
Do you think of the valley you’re leaving?
O how lonely and how dreary it will be.
Do you think of the kind hearts you’re breaking?
And the pain you are causing to me? (Lomax, Folk 221)
The cowboy’s song ended with his declaration that he will be buried in the Red River Valley because he cannot live without the girl.
To overcome the loneliness of not having a woman by his side, the cowboy sought out various forms of amusement. Life on the trail was rough and did not offer many forms of entertainment, but “the cowboy took full advantage of them and supplemented them with his own crude humor” (Cadlo 339). While on the trail, cowboys used humor as a way to relax. They told tall tales and took great pleasure in boasting; both pastimes transformed into songs of entertainment. One such song was “The Legend of Boastful Bill.” Boastful Bill boasted his entire life, even as he flew into the sky with his saddle. According to the song, Boastful Bill’s return is inevitable: “he’ll come back sometime a-straddle / of a bald-faced thunderbolt” (Lomax, Songs 10). After his return, Boastful Bill will say:
I was the first, as old raw-hiders all confest,
I’m the last of all rough riders, and the best.
Huh! You soft and dainty floaters
With your aeroplanes and motors,
Huh! Are you the greatgrandchildren of the West? (Lomax, Songs 10)
Some boasting songs’ purpose went beyond entertainment; some cowboys sang boasting songs while riding a wild horse for the first time to help calm the horse’s nerves as well as their own. “Each line of the chant measure[d] the period while the horse [was] in the air. The chant [went] on indefinitely, other verses being added or the first being repeated, until the final exclamation when the horse suddenly stop[ped] to breathe” (Lomax, American 381). Since fear, or at least great exertion, overcame the bravest cowboy while riding a wild horse, most of the songs came out nonsensical until rewritten later.
Cowboys never hesitated to claim practical jokes as one of their amusements. Unfortunately for them, newcomers provided easy targets. Sometimes cowboys beat the new hands with a pair of leather leggings and proudly called it “putting the leggings on him” (Slatta 159). Other practical jokes included putting yellowjackets in beds and cockleburs in boots: “That was their idea of fun and if a guy come through without too much kickin’ he was called good and soon became one of the boys” (Slatta 159). Tom J. Snow admitted that a cowboy’s favorite trick “. . . was to put a greener [new hand] on a bucking horse and tell the fellow the animal was a good saddle [easy to ride]” (Slatta 159). This tomfoolery is what made it into the cowboys’ songs, such as “When Bob Got Throwed:”
He crawled on that Andy bronc
And hit him with a quirt.
The next thing that he knew
He was wallowin’ in the dirt. (Lomax, Songs 92)
A later verse in “When Bob Got Throwed” serves as an example of another aspect of the cowboy’s amusement—appreciating a joke on himself (Cadlo 339). Sometimes, practical jokes backfired, leaving the trickster as the one being laughed at: “’Twarn’t more than a week ago / That I myself got throwed . . . .” (Lomax, Songs 92). At other times, cowboys learned to laugh at themselves when they became aware of how outsiders viewed them. Pete Clausen reminisced, “We were tending our herds when a buggy, occupied by a preacher, his wife and small daughter, drove up. The daughter, after looking around carefully, turned to her mother and said, ‘Do cowboys eat grass like the rest of the cattle?’ ‘No,’ her mother answered. ‘They’re part human’” (Slatta 157).
Cowboys’ amusement did not always come at the expense of others or of themselves, though. After a long trek on the trail, most cowboys enjoyed a simple hoedown. Unfortunately, on numerous occasions, the men outnumbered the women. R.L. Maddox remembered one particular dance near Paint Rock where this occurred: “Sometimes, and this was one of them, when we were short of girls and wanted to dance a square, some of us boys would tie a bandanna around our head or arm and take the place of the Miss” (Slatta 165). To keep the ladies who actually attended the dance from leaving early, cowboys turned the ladies’ horses loose, forcing them to continue to dance the night away (Slatta 165). Of course, cowboys decided not to include these unromantic details in their songs. Instead, they sang of the dance itself, such as in “An Idaho Cowboy Dance:”
Git yo’ little sage hens ready, trot ‘em out upon the floor;
Line up there, you cusses; steady, lively now, one couple more.
Shorty, shed that old sombrero; Bronco, douse that cigarette;
Stop that cussin’, Casimero, ‘fore the ladies. Now all set! (Lomax, American 415)
Even though cowboys knew how to enjoy themselves, they took their work very seriously. Since there was little to no law in the American West, they created an unwritten code, The Code of the West, to protect their reputations and their jobs. Part of the code dealt with a man’s word; if a man gave his word, it acted as a guarantee. Some men failed to be this admirable, though, and went back on their word. Others even turned to a life of crime. When this occurred, many cowboys formed vigilante groups and acted as the law. For example, cowboys near Fort Griffin, Texas decided to handle the problem of horse thievery themselves: “On April 9,  the vigilantes, patrolling at night, caught a man in the act and immediately hanged him from the nearest pecan tree. Beneath the dangling body they left a pick and shovel in case someone cared enough to dig a grave” (Forbis 209). People in the community sometimes supported the cowboys’ actions. A local newspaper commented, “As long as the committee strings up the right parties, it has the well wishes of every lover of tranquility” (Forbis 209). Because similar situations occurred throughout the American West, many cowboys sang songs about the occurrences. One such song was “The Vigilantes:”
We are the whirlwinds that winnow the West—
We scatter the wicked like straw!
We are the Nemeses, never at rest—
We are Justice, and Right, and the Law! (Lomax, Songs 150)
Between the threat of the stampede and the displays of vigilante heroism, cowboys found their lives endangered constantly; thus, many cowboys sang songs dealing with death. Like life in the American West, death in the American West was often “rough and violent” (Cadlo 336). Many cowboys died from stampedes, prairie fires, lightning, and other severe weather, such as snowstorms. The most common cause of death sung about by cowboys was the stampede because they feared the inevitable physical mutilation. “Little Joe, the Wrangler” and “When the Work’s All Done This Fall” were two common songs that discussed a man’s death from the stampede (Cadlo 336). Both songs provided a brief history of the cowboy’s life and end at his grave:
Poor Charlie was buried at sunrise
No tombstone at his head
Nothing but a little board
N’ this is what it said
Poor Charlie died a sun-day
He died from a fall
Poor boy won’t see his Mother
When the work’s all done this fall. (“When”)
Although many cowboys died during tragic events, many more died from natural causes. In most cases, “the ordinary [was] forgotten; the spectacular [lived] on” (Cadlo 336). A few songs focused on the average cowboy’s death, though, such as “Jack Dempsey’s Grave:”
That man of honor and of iron,
That man of heart and steel,
That man who far out-classed his class
And made mankind to feel
That Dempsey’s name and Dempsey’s fame
Should live in serried stone,
Is now at rest far in the West
In the wild of Oregon. (Lomax, Songs 53)
Cowboys were not exempt from using death to teach a moral. Due to their lifestyle, many cowboys turned “bad,” meaning that they failed to live up to others’ high moral standards. Whenever these cowboys found themselves on their deathbed, they miraculously realized the error of their ways and felt obligated to warn others—at least that is what the songs said. “The Cowboy’s Lament,” also known as “The Streets of Laredo,” was a well-known example of “the young cowboy ‘gone wrong,’ who pays for his sins” (Cadlo 337). The song tells the story of a cowboy who was facing death due to a gunshot wound. He shared his story with a stranger, confessing to his sins:
Then swing your rope slowly and rattle your spurs lowly,
And give a wild whoop as you carry me along;
And in the grave throw me and roll the sod o’er me
For I’m a young cowboy and I know I’ve done wrong. (Lomax, American 207)
Because death constantly loomed in front of cowboys, they sang many religious songs. Their religion was not of the traditional kind, though. Instead, they created a religious connection through nature: “to the cowboy, the glories and wonder of God were reflected in nature; the cowboy was close to God, because he was close to nature” (Cadlo 340). One song that exemplifies the cowboy’s religion is “Home on the Range” because the entire song marvels at the beauty of the land and depicts man’s longing to be amidst it all:
How often at night when the heavens are bright
With the light of the glittering stars,
Have I stood here amazed and asked as I gazed
If their glory exceeds that of ours. (Lomax, Best 213)
Regardless of the obstacles thrown into cowboys’ lives, their connection with nature rarely diminished, at least according to their songs. They felt alive when surrounded by nature and could not ignore nature’s call:
Ho, wind from the western prairies!
Ho, voice from a far domain!
I feel in your breath what I’ll feel till death,
The call of the plains again! (Lomax, Songs 173)
Similar to cowboys’ inability to ignore the lure of nature, cowboys also seemed to be unable to ignore the call of song. They wrote hundreds of songs, the majority of which fit into one of six categories—work, love, amusement, heroes, death, or religion. By studying their songs, we gain personal insight into their lives. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer cowboy folksongs are passed down to younger generations; only the culturally popular survive, such as “Home on the Range” and “Red River Valley.” I knew very few of the songs that I read in John Lomax’s various collections, which surprised me since I heard many old folksongs throughout my childhood. Cowboy songs represent an important period of American history—the time of cowboys, cattle, and the settling of the West. Cowboys helped with the expansion of the United States, staking claim on the land, and they were also responsible for feeding the entire country and risked their lives to do so. It is imperative for us to remember and learn from our history, and folksongs serve as an important means of passing history on to future generations. It would be a shame to see cowboys’ songs vanish into faint memories just as most cowboys vanished into the realms of urbanism.
Cadlo, Joseph J. “Cowboy Life as Reflected in Cowboy Songs.” Western Folklore 6.4 (1947): 335-340. JSTOR. Web. 19 Nov. 2010.
Davidson, Levette Jay. “’Home on the Range’ Again.” California Folklore Quarterly 3.3 (1944): 208-211. JSTOR. Web. 19 Nov. 2010.
Forbis, William H. The Old West: The Cowboys. New York: Time-Life Books, 1973 Print.
Lomax, John A. Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp. New York: Macmillan Company, 1939. Print.
Lomax, John A., and Alan Lomax. American Ballads and Folk Songs. New York: Macmillan Company, 1934. Print
Lomax, John A., and Alan Lomax. The 111 Best American Ballads: Folk Song U.S.A. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1947. Print.
Slatta, Richard W. Cowboy: The Illustrated History. New York: Sterling, 2006. Print.
“When the Work’s All Done This Fall.” Max Hunter Folk Song Collection. Ed. Michael F. Murray. Missouri State University. 2005. Web. 21 Nov. 2010.