Sunday, October 14, 2012

Cowboys on The Trail: The Singing Cowboy

by Anna Kathryn Lanier

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:

Anna Kathryn Lanier
Never let your memories be greater than your dreams. ~Doug Ivester


  1. I love this, Anna! Most of my heroes are trail drivers and they know all about lullabyes and walking soft. I know I'd sure hate to be caught in a stampede! Good post and good links! xo

  2. Anna Kathryn, your articles are always wonderful. This one enlightened me. I always thought the cowboys sang traditional songs of the time. Now that I've read your article, I realize it's only common sense they'd have to make up songs, and that their songs would encompass their lives and not necessarily sound musical to us.

  3. Anna Kathryn--don't you wish you could hear some of those real "songs" they sang.That was funny about the yodeling--"oh, that's what we called humming." All we know are the songs from old western movies. And didn't you know in your heart those weren't the real songs they sang?
    I knew some of this information, but with more added to my little store of fact, this became almost a science. The cowboys had a definite plan on how to quiet a herd.

  4. Hi, Tanya, Caroline and Celia. Thanks for stopping by. I'm really looking forward to digging into COWBOY CULTURE. I just touched on a few of the book's pages. I found them very interesting though!


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