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Ballads of the Cowboy

Ballads of the Cowboy

By Valvera Moore
The Logan County News
August 18, 1927

Romance has ever woven itself around that modern Knight Errant, the Cowboy of the Western Plains. No more gallant rider drew rein or wore the cross in a crusade. Quite fittingly he had his minstrel, who sang of his deeds and with rhythm lightened his task. Hence the cowboy ballad. His moods and his labor find expression in these na´ve songs. Many of the verses were woven into ballad as events moved the poet to expression. Practically all of the poets and composers are unknown to fame, but the galloping lilt of some of the trail songs seems to echo the beat of pony hoofs and the measure of most of them was lifted from some camp meeting spiritual or popular love sonnet of the day in which they were sung-for sung, rather than written, there were. This newspaper is glad to assist in preserving some of these ballads from oblivion.


Coming across the prairies in the good old days any cowboy might be heard humming this favorite refrain:

"Whoopee-ti-yi, git along, little doggies,
It's my misfortune and none of your own-
Whoopee-ti-yi, git along, little doggies;
For you know Wyoming will be your new home."

Ballads of the cowboy were not sharp, harsh, or unrhythmic, put into verse for the purpose of prodding the lagging herds, but were, instead, cattle lullabies improvised by night guards as they rode the rounds of the sleeping herds. These were called "doggie songs," and coming straight from the heart of the cowboy, who loved his animals, the lullaby often kept the cattle quiet when there was danger of a stampede.

One of the better known of the "guard croons" is:

"Then an e-e-e-lee-a-a-a,
And an a-a-ah-lee-oo-
My little bedded doggies,
I am a-a-a-watchin' you.
Drop you down and don't you go stampedin',
Coyote's jes'a-foolin' over there;
Ain't a bit o' danger in his yippin' and his yapin'-
Show the prairie bluff you don't care.
Then an e-e-e-lee-a-a-a,
And an a-a-ah-lee-oo-
My little bedded doggies,
I am a-a-a-wathin' you."

A night herding song, which was written by Harry Stephens and carries with it a crooning swing, is a favorite in many sections of the cattle country:

"Oh slow up, doggies; quit your roving round,
You have wandered and tramped all over the ground.
Oh, graze along doggies, and feed along slow,
And don't be forever on the go.
Oh, move slow doggies; move slow-

Some critic has asked and then answered his own question, of how a herd of cattle can be driven hundreds of miles along the old trails without causing trouble to the drivers. The answer, in a refrain of four lines, became a song in itself:

"What keeps the herd from running,
Stampeding far and wide?
The cowboy's long, low whistle,
And singing by their side."

No song in America, according to many critics, holds more originality and unaffected simplicity than the cowboy ballad. The ballad is a product of the big, unschooled West and contains the spiritual background and pioneer spirit of the early Indian Territory. Its virile atmosphere reflects more of the West than any other song in America.

Love of the Range

One of the most poignant of these songs, and one that is still sung with much of its original zest is "Home on the Range." Which follows:

"Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day."
"Home-home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where seldom is heard the discouraging work,
And the skies are not cloudy all day."

And the range is home to the cowboy! There can never be another! One of the lyrics which shows the dislike of the cowboy for the city and his homesickness for the great open spaces, is the ballad entitled

"A Cowboy in the City":
"-But still I am homesick and weary;
The city somehow hits me wrong.
Its music seems holler and dreary,
For I'd rather hear that old
"Bury me not on the lone prairie-'
'Twould sure give my feelin's a change,
For dog-gone the luck, I always was stuck
On the songs that we sing on the range.
Back home I would talk to my neighbor,
No matter if never before
I'd met him, and surely would labor
To jes' git acquainted and more.
Out West you kin gab free and easy,
And strangers their views may exchange.
Why, dog-gone the luck I always was stuck
On the whole-hearted ways of the range."

Democracy Unreserved

This business of being a cowpuncher was not an easy life. There was not much remuneration in it for the fellow who spent his days herding cattle. The profits belonged to the owner, but on the range owner and herder alike ate, slept and lived by the side of each other during the season of roundups. When winter was over and spring came around, the cattle on the ranch were brought back to the headquarters and branded, and the yearlings were driven to market at Dodge City, Kansas.

"Going up trail" was an experience to be looked forward to during the long winter months. And with the great herds went the boss, the straw-boss, the cowboy proper, the wrangler and the cook. At night, when the cattle were settled in small groups where the grass was plentiful, all the boys would gather about the camp fire, tell their prize stories and sing. There was nothing else for them to do and most of their evenings were spent in this manner.

One of the best known of the "old trail songs" came with the opening of the Chisholm Trail, named for John Chisholm, a trail driver:

"Come along boys, and listen to my tale
I'll tell you of my troubles on the old Chisholm Trail."

The song goes on at length, telling of the trials of a tenderfoot in the cow country, concluding with these stanzas:

"With my knees in the saddle and my seat in the sky.
I'll quit punching cows in the sweet by and by.
Come ti yi, youpy, youpy, youpy, youpy, ya,
Come ti yi youpy, youpy, youpy, youpy, ya."

Chisholm, who was living for a time in the Indian Territory, contracted to supply beef for Fort Scott, Kansas. The trail across the states was poor and as the years passed and greater herds were driven over the trail each year, the passage-way to market was made easier. In the years 1866 and 1867 the Chisholm Trail saved Indian Territory from disaster for the ranges were over stocked and there was no market. Had the trail, the trodden stretch of prairies seven hundred miles long, which ran from San Antonio, Texas to Dodge City, Kansas, not been opened up there would have been no impetus for commercial development.

Solemn Thoughts

The reckless, fearless and chivalrous youth, who lived hard, fought hard, and died hard, had his moments of weakness, his moments of sorrow and his moments of joy. The more serious moments, when some member of the gang "had gone West," were fittingly expressed in a song that went to the depths of every cowboy's heart, and now finds reverberation in the hearts of younger generations:

"O bury me not on the long prairie,
In a narrow grave, just six- by-three-
Where the wild coyotes will howl over me,
O bury me no on the lone prairie."

And the old-timer can never forget the sentiment expressed by his pal when they stood side by side and buried one of their "gang." To them the song was a solemn promise that would never be broken. The sympathy of the singers was expressed in the last two verses of "The Cowboy's Grave":

"When my soul hunts range and rest:
Beyond the last divide,
Just plant me on some strip of West,
That's sunny, lone, and wide.
Let the cattle rub my headstone round,
And coyotes wail their kin,
Let horses come and paw the mound-
BUT-don't you fence me in."

This was the heart-song of the carefree, lovable cowboy, who felt that the broad, boundless prairie was his home, and that with the coming of barbed wire fences his cowboy days would end.

Hatred of Cowardice

In the early days, when travel across country was made on horseback, visitors who came to the Indian Territory for adventure on excursions of business found a song that was popular in every cow camp and around every campfire. This was back in the early '70's and the song was entitled "Jesse James."

"Jesse James was a lad that killed many a man-
He robbed the Danville train.
But that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard,
Has laid poor Jesse in his grave.

Poor Jesse has a wife to mourn for his life,
Three children, they were brave,
But that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard,
Has laid poor Jesse in his grave."


Oscar J. Fox, famous cowboy balladist, who has done much toward the perpetuation of the songs of the range, says the Indian Territory cowboy planed a greater part in the founding of his State than any one group of pioneers, and that the cowboy who blazed the trails across the plains over which civilization came later. Mr. Fox, who finds that the ballads are overflowing with the virile atmosphere, which is characteristic of the Oklahoma plainsman, has attempted to write into the song many of the lost melodies.

Despite the fact that the origin of the ballads is unknown, they exist and since they exist, and are still being sung by those who have seen the passing of the cowboy, they are to e perpetuated because the bespeak the heart of a fine race of men, whose songs deserve to be preserved along with the older sagas of the Nordic race, as the expression of real manhood.

The carefree, unforgettable cowboy, with his knotted kerchief, his wooly chaps, and the hoof beats of his fiery mustang, may disappear from the cattle trails of Oklahoma and Texas and the other Western States, but lingering long after him and his day will be the song"

"Home-home on the range.
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where seldom is heard the discoursing word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day."

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