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Ol' Pals

Liner Notes to Cowboy Ballads

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Notes by J.D. Robb

Here are the original liner notes by J.D. Robb, copyright 1952 by Folkways Records & Service Corp., for the 10" vinyl LP "Cowboy Ballads Sung By Cisco Houston". This was album number FA 2022, and is available in the 21st century by special order from Smithsonian Institute's Folkways Division.

Collectors have unearthed folk music from every continent, and well-nigh every section of every continent. Thousands of folk songs have been collected. They are found in every state -- from the complete and beautiful versions, which sometimes reach the listener at concerts and through recordings, to the fragmentary or incoherent versions which the collector often encounters.

Their profusion is incredible. One 81-year-old New Mexico resident sang for me, from memory, in two afternoons, 96 different folk songs in Spanish, some very long, including a wide range of subject matter and style: political ballads, historical ones, love songs, religious decimas, patriotic songs, animal songs, humorous songs, lyrics about homesickness, etc. If music is a universal language, this is so largely due to the apparently universal distribution of, and appreciation for, folk music.

There are many definitions of "folk music." The best seems to be one of the broadest: simple, usually unwritten music transmitted by ear from person to person, which is accepted by a group as expressing their way of life, and which is meanwhile undergoing the process of change, in which a number of people usually participate. Being ordinarily unwritten, it can rarely be definitively traced back to its original form. Folk music virtually always goes forward into a future of new and changing forms. Furthermore, it is primarily rural in its distribution. It is easily distinguished from "learned music." The latter is written music. It changes little, and as a rebult of the existence of the written manuscript it is constantly being maintained in, or is brought back to, its original form.

Learned music is usually the work of one person whose identity is known. It is, as a rule, more complicated, at least harmonically, than folk music. It consequently has a smaller number of practitioners, and commands a smaller but more sophisticated audience. It is more static than folk music. It is rarely topical in subject matter -- that is to say, it rarely deals with recent or current events.

Popular music is an intermediate type. It is, like learned music, written, though in practice it often is characterized by improvisation. It emanates usually from cities and is ordinarily tracable to a known author. Popular music, like learned music, is subject to correction by reference to the original manuscript.

Any of the above three types may from time to time cross into the territory of one of the others. Thus, a folksong may be incorporated into a symphonic work, or become the theme of a popular song. A popular song may come into circulation in the manner of a folksong, and come to display many of the characteristics of folksong. Or, it may be incorporated into a serious work, such as symphonic jazz. Also, a symphonic theme may be transmuted into a popular song, or a folksong. The works of Chopin and Tschaikowsky and others have been a happy hunting ground for popular song writers, one of whom wrote a song called "Everybody's Making Money But Tschaikowsky."

Cowboy ballads may be popular music OR folksongs. "Don't Fence Me In" is a published popular song by a known composer who was by no means a cowboy, but who attempted to catch the atmosphere of the "cowboy song." Essentially, the thing that makes a folksong what it is eludes definition. It is a quality which somehow is a portrait not of an individual, but of "a people." Let us consider the evolution and development of "folk music": This is music which is closely related to life. As new elements appear in the life of a people, new types of folksong emerge. Most, if not all, important changes in living are reflected in the multitudes of folksongs which are constantly coming into being. Folksongs in general are frequently functional. They serve the practical purpose of accompanying social events, such as dancing or love-making. Some songs are factual, embodying reports of interesting happenings, often with the dates, names and places. Others are introspective, intangible.

While the songs are constantly being created, the style of them does not tend to change, as long as social conditions are relatively stable. When the rate of social change is suddenly accelerated, as when migrations occur and groups find themselves in new environments, the rapidity of new conditions leads to just as sudden a change in the musical type.

The "cowboy ballad" was brought into existence by just such a social change. Cowboy ballads are one of the results of the movement of American civilization westward from the Mississippi River. This movement lasted roughly from the War with Mexico in 1848 and the California Gold Rush in 1849 to about the year 1900. At least three distinct types of Western folksongs emerged from this period.

First come the songs of the frontiersmen, which describe the invasion of the West, and the thoughts and moods of the people engaged in that invasion. Second come the cowboy ballads. The invaders went into the business of raising cattle, first on the unfenced (open) range, and later on the privately acquired ranches which were gradually fenced in -- the cowboy song is the result. Third comes the songs of the settlers, or "nesters." The cowboy represents a continuation of the nomadic tradition, but the nesters represent the agricultural tradition. The nesters produced a type of song on their own, in which they sang of the trials and tribulations of their lives. Typical of this type of song are the well-known "Hurrah for Greer County" and "My Little Old Sod Shanty on My Claim."

The cowboy was usually young and unmarried. The term "rancher" or boss, was reserved for the owner of the land, usually an older, married man. Between the employee and the boss stood the foreman, whose duty it was to see that the cowboys carried out the wishes of the rancher. The cowboy lived in the bunkhouse on the ranch or in a cattle camp, and at times on the ground or in a tent. He was, at least temporarily, homeless. He saw little of women, a fact which invested "home" and womanhood with extra glamour and romance. His life was hard. His possessions had to be few enough to cart along in a bedroll. Working hours were long and irregular. The pay was small and the work dangerous.

Only one who has lived under such conditions can appreciate what it meant to the cowboy to have music, or a trip to a town, or some measure of socializing with other than cowboys. Those things were occasional luxuries. Cowboy songs reflect the emotional states which this sort of life engendered. While the words may deal with factual events, the inspiration for the songs was emotional.

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