Friday, November 4, 2016

Legendary Western American Music By Cheri Kay Clifton

After writing my last blog on two of our most legendary singing cowboys, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, I thought I would research more in depth the origin of cowboy music, as well as the history of other classic western music. Like a lot of western writers, I love today's country music. Many of the songs reflect the sound and romance of songs and ballads, many written and sung over 150 years ago.

The birth of the American cowboy as we know him emerged with the advent of long-distance drives to move cattle to northern markets after the Civil War. These itinerant livestock herders included men from all walks of life and nationalities. For entertainment, they sang the songs from their native cultures and homelands, and these songs were often reshaped to fit the new landscape. “The Ocean Burial”—originally written in 1839 by Bostonian Edwin Chapin—and its lyric “O! bury me not in the deep, deep sea,” eventually became “The Dying Cowboy” with “Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie.” Other music was influenced by Celtic, slave, and parlor songs.
Between 1870 and 1890, probably 10 million longhorn cattle traveled from Texas to Kansas and other northern markets. A group of cowboys rode with each herd of from 2,000 to 5,000 cattle to push them up the trail by day and herd them after dark. Any unusual noise after the cattle were asleep might send them into a wild and destructive stampede. To drown those disturbing noises, the cowboys crooned or yodeled to the cattle. From these cattle calls grew some of the trail songs descriptive of cowboy life. So long as the cattle could hear a familiar voice singing some lullaby, they had no fear of the howl of a wolf, the scream of a panther, or any of the other sudden noises of the night. What the men sometimes called "dogie" songs soothed the cattle to sleep.
Like the song, "Git Along Little Dogies."

 Whoopee ti yi yo, git along little dogies
It's your misfortune and none of my own
Whoopie ti yi yo, git along little dogies
You know that Wyoming will be your new home.

Cowboys sang because they were lonely and because singing helped them in their work. They sang around the campfire and in the saloons to amuse themselves. They made up new songs and adapted old ones that told about themselves and their work in their own lingo.

"Home on the Range" is a classic western folk song, sometimes called the "unofficial anthem" of the American West. The lyrics were originally written by Dr. Brewster Higley of Kansas in a poem entitled, "My Western Home" in the early 1870's. In 1947, it became the state song of the U.S. state of Kansas. The song was eventually adopted by ranchers, cowboys, and other western settlers and spread across the U.S. in various forms. Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the top 10 Western songs of all time.

"Red River Valley" is another folk song and cowboy music standard, although of controversial origins that has gone by different names, depending on where it has been sung. It also is listed one of the top 10 Western songs by the members of the Western Writers of America. Do any of you remember the lyrics?

From this valley they say you are going.
We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile,
For they say you are taking the sunshine
That has brightened our pathway a while.
So come sit by my side if you love me.
Do not hasten to bid me adieu.
Just remember the Red River Valley,
And the cowboy that has loved you so true.

The first and greatest collector of western songs was John A. Lomax. His songbook published in 1910, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, introduced the country to music of the American West and helped propel the cowboy to iconic status.

Even though the songwriter, Stephen Collins Foster (July 4, 1826 - January 13, 1864) was primarily known for his parlor and minstrel music, many of his songs were chosen among the top 100 Western songs by the members of the Western Writers of America. Named "the father of American music", he wrote over 200 songs, among his best-known are "Oh! Susanna", a minstrel song first published in 1848, "Camptown Races"," Old Folks at Home", "My Old Kentucky Home", an anti-slavery ballad composed and published in 1853, "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair", "Old Black Joe", and "Beautiful Dreamer".

Many of his compositions remain popular more than 150 years after he wrote them. His compositions are thought to be autobiographical. He has been identified as "the most famous songwriter of the nineteenth century", and may be the most recognizable American composer in other countries.

Foster was such a talent, sadly his life ended way too soon. In 1857, economic difficulties led him to sell all rights to his future songs for just under $2,000. Near the end of his brief life, he lived alone in New York City and suffered from alcoholism. In 1864, at age 37, he died in Bellevue Hospital. He had been taken to the hospital after suffering from a protracted fever which left him so weak that he collapsed and hit his head on a washbasin.

Delving into the history of such memorable music and songs, I found it fascinating to read about them and surprised that I actually remembered some of their lyrics. I hope you enjoyed reading about a few of these classics. Of course, there are hundreds more, so many written and published during both the good times and hard times of our nation's history.

You can check out more Top Western Songs listed with the Western Writers of America at their web site: 

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  1. Interesting! Thanks for posting, Cheri. I often use old song in my books and one of the first things I learned was many songs I thought were 19th Century, were actually written in early 20th Century, so Stephen Foster is my go-to.

    1. Hi Jacquie, thanks for stopping by. So true, and also the opposite sometimes. What I thought was a 20th Century song was written long before that. In my book, Trail To Destiny, I had my wagon train folks dancing to My Old Kentucky Home.

  2. Foster wrote such beautiful and sometimes funny songs. I can play some of them on my harmonica. My favorite is "Slumber My Darling". I liked your lovely blog, Cheri. Sorry I'm late getting here.
    All the best to you.

  3. Sarah, I'm impressed and also envious to hear you play the harmonica! I've always loved to hear harmonica music and some of Foster's songs sound especially nice with that instrument. The very best to you too!


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