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Cowboy Ballads & Dance Songs


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Cowboy Ballads & Dance Songs

Released 2004

Soon you will be able to listen to previews and purchase Cowboy Ballads & Dance Songs individual mp3s.

1. Old Chisholm Trail
This song is from the earliest years of the Texas-to-Kansas cattle drives. Only one cowboy singer has learned all 145 verses, and he was shot before he finished singing them. Wylie learned the words from his dad and added the "Wild West" dance beat that his band is known for. Anonymous/Public Domain/3:11

2. Ten Thousand Cattle
Owen Wister wrote this as "10,000 Cattle Straying" for a 1904 Broadway play based upon his famous Western novel, The Virginian. That book served as a template for all the Western novels that followed. Wister was a Philadelphia lawyer who came West for his health in 1885. Like his Harvard classmate and lifelong friend Theodore Roosevelt, Wister spent most of his time in the East but was an ardent advocate of Western life. Josh Kohn found this fine version of his song for Wylie. Owen Wister/Public Domain/3:25

3. Sierry Peaks
Originally entitled Sierry Petes, this grand tale about two inebriated cowboys tying up the devil and branding, dehorning, and tying knots in his tail, was composed by Arizona cowboy Gail Gardner. Gail wrote it on the Santa Fe Limited while on his way East to join the Army for World War I. Spread across the West by cowboy singers, it became a favorite. By the 1930s, song-stealing entertainment cowboys and folklorists were arguing about its origins. Gail suggested to one eminent song-collecting folklorist that he didn’t “…know which end of a horse the hay went in, or which end of a cow got up first.” Gail became postmaster at Prescott, Arizona, and a beloved citizen of that place. The melody used here is appropriately from "The Wreck of The Old Ninety-Seven," still another song with origins much disputed by song stealers, lawyers, and folklorists. A more common melody is "Polly Wolly Doodle," the tune Gail’s friend Billy Simon applied to his poem. Wylie’s dad, Rib Gustafson, recalls an ancient wind-up gramophone that had been left in a bunkhouse when he was in his teens, working as a wrangler. On that disc was Gail’s great song, and it was the first song that Wylie learned from Rib. Gail I. Gardner/Public Domain/4:49

4. Cattle Call
This is another one from Dad. Tex Owens composed it in 1934 and was the first to record it. The melody combines portions of at least three older waltzes, "The Morning Star Waltz," "The Sparrow Waltz," and "The Reaves Waltz." This song was recorded live. We caught Wylie rehearsing with just his guitar, and it sounded so good that the gang insisted that he do without help or any secret recording weapons. Tex Owens/©1943, ©Renewed Forster Music Publisher Inc. (ASCAP/2:58

5. Desert Blues
Wylie got this Blue Yodeler gem from Rodgers' pal Cliff Carlisle, who recorded it in 1930. Rodgers was fascinated by some of the habits and exploits of Chief Buffalo Nickel, but you’ll have to wait for the book. Wylie has not yet started to write to learn about those. Jimmie Rodgers/Peer International Corp. (BMI)/3:11

6. My Home’s In Montana
In his fine book about cowboy songs, The Hell-Bond Train (University of Illinois Press), cowboy singer and scholar, Glenn Ohrlin tells that the first verse of this song is from Margaret Larkin’s 1931 book, The Singing Cowboy. It was re-written and expanded by Boston-based educational publishers, Ginn and Company to create a kids' song once printed in Montana schoolbooks. The melody is much the same as "The Cowboy’s Lament," an earlier version of "The Streets of Laredo." Ray Doyle is singing harmony with Wylie. Public Domain/2:52

7. Cannonball Yodel
Among the greatest of yodelers was Elton Britt (1912-1972). He composed this fine song, basing the melody upon the "Cannonball Blues/Cannonball Rag" cycle of tunes performed by the Muhlenberg County (Kentucky) thumb-picking guitarists (most notably Merle Travis), and the turn-of-the-century murder ballad, Mister McKinley. Elton Britt/ Billy Bell/ Lou Shelly/Mickey Stoner/R.F.D. Music Publishing Co. Inc. (ASCAP)/3:22

8. The Strawberry Roan
Surely the funniest and among the most beloved of cowboy composers was Californian Curly Fletcher, who wrote this great tale in 1915. Wylie, of course, got it from his father. Curly Fletcher/Public Domain/4:04

9. Good-Bye Old Paint
Texan Jess Morris was a cowboy on the famed XIT Ranch. He learned this song from black cowboy and ex-slave Charley Willis, who worked for his father after the Civil War. Charley went up the trail to Wyoming , probably in 1871, and on that drive learned "Old Paint." Jess was age 7 when he learned the song from Willis. Later Jess learned to play the fiddle, and John A. Lomax recorded him for the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in 1942, singing "Old Paint" and played a droning cross-keyed accompaniment on his fiddle. It was Jess who launched the modern tune and its many variations. His recording is still available on a Library of Congress CD. The Folklife Center also has a fine correspondence file between Jess Morris and his then-congressman, Lyndon B. Johnson. It is fitting that a Texas gal from a Texas cowboy family is singing with Wylie. That's Cheryl White, a member of The Whites, and her great-great-grandma was one of the founders of the Cowboy’s Christmas Ball. Charley Willis/Jess Morris/Public Domain/4:04

10. The High-Toned Dance
Like many other cowboy songs, this one was first a poem. It was written by Denver newspaperman James Barton Adams, and published in his 1889 book, Breezy Western Verse. Somewhere down the trail it acquired a melody, and John A. Lomax included it as "The Cowboy’s Dance Song," in his 1919 book, Songs of The Cattle Trail and Cow Camp. Great cowboy singer Glenn Ohrlin probably helped give it its current form by recording it twice. Wylie heard it first from his dad, but knows other versions. Wylie and the boys felt that a song about a dance needed a strong dance rhythm and found one for this classic. James Barton Adams/Public Domain/3.44

11. The Streets of Laredo
This song has origins in the misty past as a British broadside ballad. (Meaning that the words were once sold on a single printed sheet, perhaps on Grub Street in London, for a penny or half penny.) The title then was "The Unfortunate Rake," about a young soldier dying of syphilis. That song was later reworked into another broadside ballad, "The Bad Girl’s Lament," about a young lady who made a poor career choice. Captain Grose thought it “old” in 1785, so it could date to as early as the first European VD pandemic in the 16th century. Yes, we realize the melody is almost the same as "My Home’s in Montana." But it is a truly great melody, and Wylie thought it would be good to honor the memory of those who have been shot or made poor career choices. Anonymous/Public Domain/3:40

12. The Musket Came Down From the Door
Wylie got this up-tempo song from Sourdough Slim, who learned it from a recording by the Hoosier Hotshots, a music, comedy, and touring band based at Chicago’s National Barn Dance in the 1940s. Written by two of the Hotshots, it celebrates revenge, long a topic of interest to a portion of the citizenry. Bickley (Bix) Reichner/Moe Jaffe/©1944 Renewed ©Malvern Music Co./Universal-MCA Music Pub. (a division of Universal Studios Inc.) (ASCAP)/2:37

13. Goodnight, Irene
African-American composer Gussie L. Davis (1862-1889) wrote this song for Haverly’s Minstrels in 1886. Davis wrote other songs that entered the folk and traditional song repertoire: "The Maple on the Hill," "In the Baggage Coach ahead," and "Footprints in the Snow," among others. Haverly, or some other minstrel troupe, apparently carried his song to the Texas-Louisiana countryside where it began circulating in oral tradition. It was improved by this process and came to the person who made it famous, Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), via his uncle, Terrell Ledbetter. Leadbelly had a bodacious career in crime in Texas, Louisiana, and New York, and was in prison in 1933 when first recorded by John A. and Alan Lomax. But he followed them to New York shortly afterwards, and became a favorite singer on the budding New York folksong circuit. He added verses and made improvements in this, his most successful song, throughout his public career. That’s Ray and Cheryl in the trio with Wylie. And, of course, Wylie got the song from his dad. Huddie Ledbetter/John A. Lomax/TRO-Ludlow Music, Inc. (BMI)/2:50

−Joe Wilson

(With thanks to my song wonk friends Charlie Seemann, Captain Francis Grose, Glenn Ohrlin, Josh Kohn, Kelcey Kalumbula, Gus Meade, Dick Spottswood, and Jake D. James)

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