I’ve found another great resource books—COWBOY CULTURE: A Saga of Five Centuries by David Dary. I’ve only glanced through it, read a few pages and found this bit on why the cowboy’s sang. I thought I’d share.
Driving cattle to market was a long and arduous job. It often took six to eight months to move herds from Texas to Kansas. It was not uncommon to lose both cattle and men along the way….from wranglers, shootings, drowning, disease.
One of the greatest dangers was a stampede. The slightest disturbance could set one off, but lightning and thunder was the most common cause. It was important to keep the cattle calm. Once bedded down, usually two cowboys would circle the herd in opposite directions. On a clear night, one cowboy would sing one verse of a song, while the other would sing the next. However, this did not always keep the cattle calm. One spooked animal could easily set off the others.
One unidentified cowboy wrote in “Report on Cattle, Sheep and Swine”:
“The first symptom of alarm is snorting. Then if the guards are numerous and alert, so that the cattle cannot easily break away, they will begin ‘milling’, i.e. crowding together with their heads toward a common center, their horns clashing, and the whole body in confused rotary motion, which increases, and unless controlled, ends in a concentrated outbreak and stampede. The most effectual way of quieting the cattle is by the cowboys circling around and around the terrified herd, signing loudly and steadily, while too, the guards strive to disorder the ‘milling’ by breaking up the common movement, separating a bunch here and there from the mass and turning them off, so that the sympathy of panic shall be dispersed and their attention distracted, as it is in part, no doubt, by the singing.”
The songs the cowboys sang were not songs immortalized in old Hollywood movies. Instead they were simple songs about a cowboy’s likes, dislikes and work. The songs reflected their experiences and dreams. They told of stampedes they may have turned or another cowboy’s death.
Andy Adams, who wrote LOG OF A COWBOY, described real cowboy music as a “hybrid between weirdness of an Indian cry and the croon of the darky mammy. It expresses the open, the prairie, the immutable desert.” John Lomax, as a young boy, listened to cowboys as they sang to the cattle, which were often bedded down a few hundred yard’s from his father’s house. Years later, he collected the songs from the very cowboys who sang them.
“On rainy nights,” he said, “I listened to the cowboys softly singing and calling to the cattle to keep them quiet. Long afterwards I wrote of these calls as yodels.” Lomax was told by a cattleman that he was wrong, “no cowboy I ever heard yodeled.” Lomax protested that he had heard the cowboys yodel and demonstrated what he’d heard. “Oh, that’s what we called humming,” the old cowboy replied.
Websites to visit:
Cowboy Songs: http://mcneilmusic.com/cowboy.html