Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle
Reviewed by Bill Adams
I picked up a copy of "Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle" by Katie Lee because of my interest in Cisco Houston. In the excellent booklet which comes with the Smithsonian CD "Cisco Houston -- The Folkways Years, 1944-1961" Katie is said to have taught the song "The Killer" to Cisco when they were dating in California during the early 1950's. The lyrics, also known as "Dobie Bill" were in the public domain, but the tune played for Cisco belonged to Katie herself. According to the usually reliable Guy Logsdon, author of the booklet, Cisco got angry, apparently because Katie either wanted credit and royalties for the recording of her tune, or because she didn't want to let him have her melody at all. Cisco then modified the tune just enough to call it his own and issue it on his Folkways LP "Cisco Houston Sings" in 1958.
I decided to check out Ms. Lee's fuller version of the story by reading her book, which is subtitled "A History of the American Cowboy in Song, Story and Verse." This was originally published in 1976, and reissued in 2001 by the University of New Mexico Press in softcover. Well, there is no fuller version in the book. In fact, there is less. Katie's brief reference to Cisco does not admit "dating" nor does it say Cisco was angry. It just says, on page 196, that Cisco "made another tune." So for those interested in Cisco's personal and professional life, this book is a bust.
However, if you are interested in cowboy songs in general, as to origins, and thefts and alterations and false v. real copyrights, you might find that reading the whole book is worthwhile. I really didn't like her writing style much: for my taste, she quotes aged cowboys she knew personally at too great a length, with too much dialect and bad grammar, and she jumps back and forth from her personal tale to taking a stab at being a bit more scholarly. Katie Lee had a long folksinging career, although not a lucrative one, and has championed the preservation of wilderness in Arizona and Colorado (she even has a website...look her up). She is still active, although I'd guess she's near 80 now.
The book hinges on her love for a particular song, "The Town of Old Dolores". She searches for the song's origins, and the site of the former cattle and mining town, south of Santa Fe, long vanished. Along the way she takes the reader on a few adventures and many digressions. While several famous cowboy songs are described and attributed in her book, most of them are lesser-known. Her love for the songs and the culture they represent is evident on every page, but does not always get presented in a compelling manner.
She has less-than-kind words for some of my folk music heroes, such as Peter LaFarge, Moses Asch, and Alan Lomax, mostly regarding disputed authorships, poor research, and denial of royalties. These references, however, are brief. The bulk of the book introduces the reader to real cowboys, who either wrote, sang or rewrote songs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Frankly, I'd be more interested in Ms. Lee's adventures in the '40's, 50's and 60's as a folk performer in the big cities, a recording artist with several LP's issued, and her acquaintance with Cisco, and Woody, and Burl Ives, and others whose careers have, for whatever reason, become better known than her own. This book may be valuable historically in preserving stories of the probable origins of dozens of true western ballads, but it shortchanges us on the story of the opinionated (but likely correct) Katie Lee, who was a folk music professional even before the famous "revival" of the late '50's.