In a scene from the classic film The Blues Brothers, Elwood Blues saddles up to the bar at Bob’s Country Bunker and warily asks “What kind of music do you play here?” The bouffant-sporting bartender cheerily replies “We got both kinds. We got country and western!”
When we think of the roots of the country genre, it’s often the marriage of the blues and mountain music that comes to mind. But like two sides of a family tree, country music has been equally influenced by the western culture and the cowboys and ramblers who became poets of the prairie.
Poem on the Range
In the early 1900s, musicologist and folklorist John Lomax traveled the states in search of cowboy folk songs for his anthology “Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.” Many of those songs are now part of the cultural lexicon, such as “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” and “Git Along Little Doggies,” and gained popularity through their inclusion in Lomax’s work. “Home on the Range,” considered an anthem of the American west, was taught to Lomax by a black saloonkeeper. First published in 1910, the song went virtually unheard until two decades later, when it found its way to Bing Crosby.
Long before it became Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite song, the lyrics to “Home on the Range” were penned in 1847 by Dr. Brewster M. Higley as a poem titled “My Western Home.”
Much like the Appalachian songs Lomax and his son Alan sought out in their iconic field recordings, the lyrics to many of these cowboy folk songs have been passed down through generations. The exact origins of the tunes have either been lost to history or are subject to debate. But the cowboy song chronicles lead to a wave of scholarly interest in folk music throughout all regions.
Revered folk singer and John Lomax contributor and assistant Huddie Leadbetter, better known as Lead Belly, made his own contribution to the western folk cannon with “Out on the Western Plains.”
Lomax was careful to point out the many cultural influences in cowboy folk songs. Tunes such as “Goodbye Old Paint,” derived from African-American cowboys and the blues, shaped the cowboy ballad as much as any traditional European folk ballad.
Traditional cowboy singer Don Edwards credits the multicultural environment of south Texas with creating the sound of the American cowboy ballad.
“If you go down to deep south Texas where this music was really born, on that coastal bend down there, you had white cowboys, black cowboys and Mexican vaqueros — who were very musical people,” Edwards told NPR in a 2010 interview. “And so the white guys learned a lot of that stuff, and that’s why a lot of that stuff sounded like the blues.”
The Saddlebag Storytellers
The first National Cowboy Poetry Gathering was held in 1985 in Elko, Nev. In three decades, the gathering has grown from a few dedicated western folklorists to a destination event for artists, writers and makers from around the world.
In the video below, Cowboy Celtic and Don Edwards perform an old Scottish song, “Annie Laurie,” while noted cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell recites the cowboy poem “Bad Half Hour.”
The 2017 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering promises performances from Luke Bell, Doug Moreland and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
Cosmic Cowboy Poetry
Thankfully, the singing cowboy didn’t end with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. The 1970s rise of redneck rock birthed a new breed of cowboy with rougher edges and longer hair. Artists such as Michael Martin Murphey ushered in the era of the cosmic cowboys, songwriters with the heart of a cowboy and the soul of a poet.
Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen credits the late Steve Fromholz with creating what may be the “first specimen of cosmic-cowboy country music ever.” Fromholz was named the Poet Laureate of Texas in 2007 and after listening to his Texas Trilogy, a long and winding love letter to the folks of Bosque County, Texas, it’s easy to see why. Fromholz’s “I’d Have to be Crazy” has been covered by Willie Nelson and Sturgill Simpson.
Corb Lund proudly follows in the tradition of the great Canadian cowboy singer-songwriter Ian Tyson, singing about the beauty and agony of ranch life in his native Alberta, Canada. Lund’s “S Lazy H,” featured on his 2015 release Things That Can’t Be Undone, is a cowboy’s lament for the loss of his family ranch to urbanization. Lund’s songs are proof that the cowboy storyteller is still alive and well in country music.
Tickets for the next National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, held in Elko, Nevada from Jan. 30 to Feb. 4, are on sale here.