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LP Notes to Traditional Songs of the Old West

STINSON SLP #37----"Traditional Songs of the Old West" sung by Bill Bender and Cisco Houston. Notes by Kenneth S. Goldstein.

The ballads in this album are only a small part of the wonderfully vigorous and dramatic singing tradition which was part of our western American heritage, and which is rapidly fading into history. Few albums of this type of recorded music will so clearly and honestly present the lives of the western folk as does this one.


Pike County, Missouri is a place which would have little claim to fame if it weren't for two of its children. These two notorious citizens were the subjects of songs which spread the name of Pike County to every part of this country. The two songs, "Sweet Betsy from Pike" and "Joe Bowers" are probably the best known relics of the Gold Rush days of '49.

The authorship of "Joe Bowers" has been the subject of much discussion, a great deal of research, disputed claims, and the establishment of little in the way of factual data. There is little doubt, however, as to the song being an excellent example of American humor applied to the ageless and world-wide theme of "the girl I left behind me." Bill Bender's version is just about as complete as any to be found, and still makes as good a tale as it did in California in the fifties.


One of the favorite themes of the cowboys' bunk-house songs that relating to bronco-bustin'. In one or another form, the story of the ranch-hand, or the out-of-work cowboy, or the city dude who either takes it on himself, or is fooled into mounting an outlaw or unbroken horse, is an example of the cowboys' good-natured kidding.

"Outlaw Horse", probably better-known as "Strawberry Roan" is the story of an out-of-work ranch-hand who more than meets his match when he tries busting "Old Strawberry". Cisco Houston's singing of this spirited ballad will have you "grabbing air" when this outlaw horse leaves him "sitting on nothing way up in the sky."


The cowboy balladeer had within easy reach numerous subjects worthy of telling and singing about. The James Boys, Cole Younger, Mustang Gray, Quantrell and Sam Bass, just to name a few, were men about whom folk poetry of epic and near-epic magnitude could be written. Not to be excluded from this category was Billy the Kid, the boy bandit of New Mexico.

Bill Bender's variant of this ballad has Billy killing his first man at the age of 12, and though that age is the one most frequently referred to in the existing ballad versions, he probably committed his first murder at a later age. (In Cowboy Songs, Stinson SLP #32, Woody Guthrie sings a variant with 16 stated as the age of his first murder.) Today the Kid is only a memory in the minds and hearts of both the Spanish and English-speaking peoples of New Mexico and the Southwest, though it is probably still possible to find people who'll swear they knew Billy personally.


On his day off, or after a long trip on the trail, the cowboy would venture into town and make his rounds. And in the process of "oiling up his insides" he occasionally over-imbibed. The result could well be the incidents Cisco Houston sings about in this wonderfully humorous and obviously fictional cowboy ballad.

The cowboy's sense of humor resulted in his creating wonderful slang words and impressions. "Cowbiography" rates with the best slang expressions created in any segment of American life which has its own colorful folk-speech. For those unfamiliar with these expressions, Cowbiography refers to working with cattle, and a "Cigo" or "Throw rope" is cowboy talk for a lariat or lasso.


This ballad concerning some inebriated cowboys has been included in this collection of "Traditional Songs of the Old West", its apparently recent vintage notwithstanding. It is obviously the creation of one of the many mechanized cowboys to be found on the huge ranches of the American Southwest in recent years. It ranks with the best of the many parodies created by cowboys to the songs they liked, and is an excellent example of the use of traditional melodies and ballad techniques in new creations. The melody is readily recognizable as that of the familiar "Roving Gambler" ballad. Bill Bender gives this song the same ring of traditional authenticity that you'll hear in any of the songs he sings in this album or in "Frontier Ballads", Stinson SLP #18.


This song would probably be just as much at home in an album of southern mountain recordings as in one of cowboy songs. It undoubtedly traveled west with adventuresome southern mountaineers who liked its music and story and brought it with them. The melody and its opening lines have been "lifted" almost intact from an old English traditional ballad ("Our Goodman" Child #274) which emigrated to this country many years ago. The story of the rat who gets drunk is probably as popular today as is the much older ballad which can still be heard in various parts of this country. Its lively humor rivals anything the cowboy himself created, and I'm sure the cowboy won't mind sharing it with his southeastern cousins. Cisco Houston's rendition of this ballad leaves little to be desired. His voice suggests the establishment of an understanding comeraderie between himself and the intoxicated rat.


The cowboy was as proud of his abilities as is any man who works hard at learning his trade from beginning to end. It is not surprising to find many ballads concerning the plying of his trade, whether it be catching and tying steers, bronc busting, or plain trail driving.

"Windy Bill" is one of these ballads. It's the story of a proud and boastful cowpuncher who learns the hard way that maybe the Texas way of doing things isn't always the best way. The song is invaluable as an argument favoring those who believe the catch rope should be kept free in the cowboy's hand, instead of being tied hard and fast to his saddle horn. The definitions of those expressions in the song which may "throw" you are" Maguey (pronounced magee) --- Spanish term for lariat or catch rope; Sam Stack tree --- a saddle; dally weltas cord --- reference to free-hand roping (California style or law) as opposed to hard and fast roping.


The cowboy too, had his share of songs concerning untrue love. When the cowboy went on a long trip he kissed his sweetheart goodbye, and promised to return to her. She, in turn, promised to wait for him. Most frequently the cowboy returned, but occasionally his sweetheart didn't keep her end of the deal. Bill Bender sings the story of one cowboy who returned to find his girl had married "a richer life." The cowboy's answer is "to travel west where the bullets fly, and stay on the trail 'till the day I die."

The noted collector John H. Cox pointed out that the "Trail to Mexico" was a cleverly reworked adaptation of the British ballad "Early in the Spring." The change in setting is startling. The British ballad refers to a young man impressed into the Navy, who upon learning of his lover's inconstancy swears "I'll go back where the bullets fly, and sail the sea 'till the day I die."

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