When I Was A Cowboy

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by Bob Bovee:

Various ArtistsWhen I Was A Cowboy Vols. 1 & 2 (Yazoo 2022)

The cowboy has long been our national hero, from the days of the dime novel, through the early film depictions by Bronco Billy Anderson, William S. Hart, and Tom Mix, to the singing cowboys of the ’30s and the TV cowboys of the ’50s and ’60s. Our argonaut, our knight errant, the mythic worldwide representative of our national character, he’s everyman, based in reality and exaggerated to epic proportions. His music, and I’m referring to the genuine article as opposed to the pale imitation fed us by the likes of Hollywood punchers like Autry and the Sons of the Pioneers, provides a revealing and exciting view of this “hired man on horseback,” as cowboy and author Gene Rhodes described him.

Where do I find this music, you might ask? And well you should, because it’s been hard come by lately. A few fine LPs of the old 78 recordings, notably RCA Victor’s Vintage Series Authentic Cowboys and Their Western Folksongs and Morning Star’s When I Was a Cowboy have been out of print for years. Marimac released a tape called Make Me a Cowboy Again for A Day, which is also no longer available. But now Yazoo rides to our rescue! They have given us two volumes on CD called When I Was a Cowboy (just as the above-mentioned LP was titled), described on the covers as “Early American Songs of the West, Classic Recordings From the 1920s and ’30s.”

You might decide two CDs, 46 songs in all, is a larger dose of cowboy music than you need. Cough up the dinero, pardner, for these are dynamite. Any collection of old-time music should include some genuine, and preferably vintage, cowboy recordings and these are not just the best currently available but, I believe, the best collection ever released. At least get one if you feel you can’t afford both, but don’t expect me to tell you which of the two to buy. They’re both too good to miss.

Yazoo’s first volume in the set uses the same cover graphic as the old Morning Star When I Was a Cowboy and on the two CDs they include all but two of the selections from the LP. Why they deleted the Delmore Brothers “Bury Me Out on the Prairie” and Uncle Pete and Louise’s “Out on the Western Range” is a mystery to me. They are both outstanding cuts. And while I’m at it, how could a cowboy collection skip Powder River Jack’s “Powder River, Let ‘Er Buck,” Jules Verne Allen’s “Zebra Dun,” Carl Sprague’s “Following the Cow Trail,” and any versions of either “The Old Chisolm Trail” or “The Last Great Roundup.” The latter song is also called “The Cowboy’s Dream,” but is not the “Cowboy’s Dream” on Vol. 2, which is a fiddle tune.

Even more I miss Billie Maxwell’s “Cowboy’s Wife” which gives such a poignant glimpse into the life of a woman on the range. And what about. . . I guess what I’m saying is that Vol. 3 is called for and, if we all go out and purchase these first two, it may be forthcoming. Even though there are other choices I would question, it’s never because of the musical quality. “Wild Hog in the Woods” by the Kentucky string band Lonesome Luke and His Farm Hands is included because it features square dance calls that refer to cowboys. I find that a borderline reason for the choice. The Crockett Family’s “Buffalo Gals Medley” is also a selection that seems strange to me. Perhaps these were to provide more variety since so many of the recordings are simply vocal with guitar, the way we often think of cowboy singing.

However, unlike many anthologies of cowboy music, there is a lot of instrumental variety here: the Cartwright Brothers fiddle and guitar, as well as their beautifully archaic “Texas Rangers” with only vocal and fiddle; Martin and Roberts mandolin/guitar duet; harmonica on Powder Jack’s and Rowdy Wright’s recordings; lovely banjo on Taylor’s Kentucky Boys’ “The Dixie Cowboy” (a version of the popular “When the Work’s All Done This Fall”), Buell Kazee’s “The Cowboy Trail,” and Watts and Wilson’s “The Sporting Cowboy”; Hawaiian guitars on numerous cuts, fiddle bands, and even a couple of tremendous unaccompanied numbers. Someone once told me traditional cowboy music all sounded the same (like fiddle tunes to the uninitiated?) and was boring, but this collection offers plenty of proof to the contrary.

The songs themselves are mostly the real McCoy, stories of the west that have been passed in the traditional manner. These are tales of the hardship of cowboy life, outlaw ballads, humorous sand joyous songs of western life, and a few dance tunes. The singing throughout is terrific, gritty and salty, the kind that makes you close your eyes and imagine yourself sitting around the campfire with a tin cup full of muddy coffee and a bunch of dusty comrades nodding at each singer’s offering. Only a few of the selections have a little more modern sound, particularly Rowdy Wright’s “I’m a Wandering Bronco Rider” and “I’m a Jolly Cowboy” and the Crowder Brothers’ “Wild West Rambler,” but they’re good and decidedly more real than anything Hollywood every produced. The liner notes are beautiful with photos and other appropriate graphics, but I’m surprised they are so sparse. There are partial lyrics to songs, yet no historical or discographical information on the cuts. I do find this an unfortunate omission.

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