The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXVII. Oral Literature

§ 8. Cowboy Songs

The name “American ballads” is now often applied to a body of cowboy, lumbermen, and negro songs, recovered, chiefly by John A. Lomax, in Texas, New Mexico, Montana, and other States. These make when brought together an interesting and picturesque display. They reflect the life, tastes, narrative themes, and metrical modes of the singers. Cowboy life is “communal,” and it is vivid, full of incident, and exciting. The cowboy pieces, despite their prevailing crudity, have a certain force and breeziness.

  • I’m a rowdy cowboy just off the stormy plains,
  • My trade is girting saddles and pulling bridle reins.
  • O I can tip the lasso, it is with graceful ease;
  • I can rope a streak of lightning, and ride it where I please.
  • The mass of cowboy songs, so-called, including probably that just quoted, is not, however, of cowboy creation, the result of group improvisation, but rather of cowboy adoption or adaptation, homogeneous as they seem. The few indigenous pieces, attested as of cowboy origin, are the most negligible and the weakest. They have little or no narrative element, are songs rather than ballads, have won no diffusion, and hold no promise of reaching better form or of assuming real ballad structure. The majority of the songs represent assimilated material, made over until the characters and the events conform to the horizon of the singers. In general, material from all sources, once in the stream of popular tradition, tends to accommodate itself to the modes and the tastes of the community that preserves it. It is instructive to analyse the cowboy pieces, as a group, for the light that is thrown on the songs of a new community and on the processes of folk-song.

    Young Charlotte has been referred to as composed early in the nineteenth century in New England. Rattlesnake—A Ranch-Haying Song is a stuttering farce version of the New England Springfield Mountain. The Cowboy’s Lament, known also as The Dying Cowboy, is a plainsman’s adaptation of An Unfortunate Rake, current in Ireland as early as 1790. Its origin is reflected in the absurd request for a military funeral retained in the chorus:

  • O beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly,
  • Play the Dead March as you carry me along;
  • Take me to the graveyard, there lay the sod o’er me,
  • For I’m a young cowboy and I know I’ve done wrong.
  • Bury Me not on the Lone Prairie is an adaptation of Ocean Burial, by W. H. Saunders. The Little Old Sod Shanty on My Claim is an adaptation of Will S. Hays’s The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane. Bonnie Black Bess, Fair Fannie Moore, Rosin the Bow, The Wars of Germany are from the Old World. The Old Man under the Hill is a Child piece. The Railroad Corral was composed by J. M. Hanson, and originally published in an Eastern periodical. The Ride of Billy Venero is made over from Eben E. Rexford’s Ride of Paul Venarez, first published in The Youth’s Companion, and once a popular declaiming piece. Home on the Range was a popular parlour song, while From Markentura’s Flowery Marge reflects the flowery sentimental day of American poetry. The Boston Burglar and McAffie’s Confession are derivatives of Old World ballads; and Jesse James, Betsy from Pike, The Days of Forty-nine, Fuller and Warren are not of cowboy origin but immigrated from other States. I’m a Good Old Rebel is Unreconstructed, the composition of Innes Randolph, who wrote for The Baltimore American. Even the few rough improvisations which seem to have come from the cowboys themselves are largely built on or reminiscent of some well-known model and are fitted to some well-known melody. They are creations in a qualified sense only. For instance, Whoopee-Ti-Yi-Yo, Git along Little Dogies owes its form to The Cowboy’s Lament, the origin of which has been mentioned, and it is sung to the same melody as its Old World original. The influence of Irish “Come-all-ye’s” and of deathbed confession pieces is pretty strong on the cowboy songs as a whole.

    The term “American ballads” is better applied, not to the small, structureless and nearly characterless group of cowboy songs which may be genuinely of cowboy improvisation, but to ballads of the type exemplified by Springfield Mountain, Young Charlotte, Poor Florella, The Young Man who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn, Jesse James. It is these which form the truer analogues of the oral legendary and romantic song-tales of England and Scotland.