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Ol' Pals

Liner Notes to Cowboy Ballads

Page 2

Notes by J.D. Robb continued....

Perhaps the most frequent theme of cowboy songs is the virtue of courage. Other songs were born out of the agony and loneliness of the life. Some songs were intended to make light of the typical sins of cowboys who could not resist the temptations of town: drink, gambling and women. There are songs of love, home, loneliness, impending death, love for a faithful horse, or for his little dogies, or a brave and true pal. There are religious allegories, lyrics about dudes, about new inventions such as the bicycle. There are songs dealing with the supernatural. There seem to be no real "work songs", an omission surprising at first, for they are found in so many places elsewhere. Perhaps, "cowboy work songs" may still be discovered and collected. On the other hand, in cowboy life there was less group labor than in other occupations. The cowboy sang OF his work, but not true "work songs."

Most cowboy songs are in the traditional major keys and scales. Occasionally, one is found in the minor mode. Rarely, one encounters a modal melody. Cowboy songs are usually regular in meter -- that is, one can beat time in groups of two or three beats throughout the entire piece, with the first beat of each group being accented.

There are other types of folksong, for instance the Spanish folksongs of the Southwest, characterized by metric irregularity, syncopation and other rhythmic complexities not often found in the American cowboy songs. The basic pattern of the cowboy song is the stanza, consisting of four verses of four measures each, or occasionally, two verses. Virtually all cowboy songs are based on this pattern. However, this regular, formal pattern does not usually appear in this bald form. Sometimes it is varied by inserting an extra measure, or two or three, for the guitar between stanzas, or at a pause during the stanza. Sometimes it is varied by means of a retard, or slowing up of the tempo, at the end or elsewhere. In other instances, the basic pattern is radically changed by altering the length of the verses themselves. This is brought about by holding certain notes for up to as much as several measures. The form varies from verse to verse, and becomes asymmetrical.

Old cowhands have told me that musical instruments were rare on the range. The songs were usually sung without accompaniment, although occasionally a guitar or harmonica was available. Nevertheless, the cowboy song seems to have been conceived in harmonic terms, for it has neither the degree of rhythmic or formal irregularity which is found in so much of the music which is traditionally sung without accompaniment. It is only when two or more singers, or a singer with one or more instruments supplying the harmonies, sing and play together that the need for metric and formal regularity becomes urgent -- for the simple reason that otherwise, it is difficult for the musicians to keep together.

Many cowboy tunes can be traced back to the East, or to even more remote sources, whereas the words, of course, are new. Sometimes an old tune has several successive sets of new words provided for it. The old Gospel hymn "Beulah Land" has served as a setting for different words in "Maryland, My Maryland" and in the frontier ballad "Dakota Land." It has even bobbed up in a fourth version, a satiric song called "New Mexico" with the following words:

There is a land of dusty roads
And weeds and snakes and horned toads.
It never rains, it never snows.
The dusty wind, it always blows
And how we live, God only knows,
New Mexico, New Mexico.

This freedom of treatment expresses itself likewise in variations of the tunes or the words as they travel from singer to singer. As the Western movement pushed into a new country, folksongs naturally began to incorporate regional geographic names such as Santa Fe, Wyoming, Chisholm Trail, Rio Grande and Dodge City. Spanish settlers in the Southwest had developed both agrarian and agricultural livelihoods. Many of their sons became cowboys. This led to incorporating speech and songs derived from the Spanish language into cowboy culture: lariat, rodeo, corral, chaps, remuda, arroyo, hombre, coyote, chili, gringo, etc.

Cattle-raising gave rise to chuck-box, round-up, dogies, range, dally welters, and various brand names such as Lazy A, Flying U, Four X and Cross B. Dialectical mannerisms crept into the songs: had me (for had); hoss; gitar or geetar; feller; git; cuss; mail (short for mail train); riding herd; settin' (instead of sitting); come (for came); head (for head off); rustler (for thief), and pack (instead of carry.)

Adding their part to the mosaic were characteristic English language usages such as shot (for a drink of liquor); brand; dude; dough (to mean money); argue (for talk), and outfit (for cowboy standard dress.) Also, characteristic song refrains developed: Whoopee Ti Yi ; Cow Cow; Yicki, Yicki Yay, and Come a Ti, Yi, Yippee, Yippee Yay. These many factors arising from the movement of a whole people into a new environment led to a type of song that was not the product of one person, but of a people, a time, and a place.

While the open, unfenced range is a rarity here in 1952, there are still some vast ranches in the West, comprising hundreds of thousands of acres. A "pasture" might ordinarily include 50,000 acres. On these ranches, cowboy life still approximates that of the old days. The round-up still needs a chuck wagon, requires sleeping on the ground and many miles of horseback travel per day. A high degree of the old skills are still needed: separating out the dry cows and bulls; roping the calves to be branded; flanking or throwing the powerful young animals and branding them.

The life of a cowboy today revolves around the care of cattle. He must ride the fences, find gaps and repair them. On summer ranges, used under permit in unfenced national forests, he must ride 30 or 40 miles daily keeping track of the cattle. Rustlers are still a threat. The duties require hard and dangerous riding after refractory animals who delight in charging into dense oak brush. The chapereras he wears, and his big hat, are functional. They guard legs and eyes from the tearing branches or barbed wire. There are horses to break, and rodeos, and roping calves. There are the rare visits to town. There is chuck time, and night on the prairie. A song is welcome then, and the morale of an outfit is much better if there is a good singer or guitar player among them. So the cowboy ballad is still very much alive.

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