I have a statistics counter. So I know why people come to this blog. The vast majority of you who stumble upon it unawares are coming from variations of the following Google searches: “cowboy songs”, “old timey Western music”, and “what do cowboys mean when they say ki yi yippee”. Obviously, you’ve come to the right place. While, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I am not a REAL cowboy, I have listened to enough Marty Robbins and Sons of the Pioneers that I do qualify for an Associate Professorship of Cowboyology. And I have put up posts such as: The Top Ten Cowboy Songs of All Time, The Top Ten Cowgirl Songs of All Time and even a selection of Cowboy Christmas music. Yes, I may not be the definitive expert. But judging by the dearth of real web authorities on Cowboy Music, I may be the best you are going to get. Furthermore, my statistics show me that the vast majority of you who come here seeking Cowboy Music are from other countries. I have spent many years explaining American customs to a British husband, so I can claim that expertise as well.
Therefore, my Cowboy seeking foreign friends, allow me to offer this humble primer on Cowboy Music.
1. Country Music is NOT Cowboy Music
True Cowboy — also known as Western — is more related to folk music than it is to Country, especially the Pop-infused-with-a-Twang that passes for Country today. Real Cowboy Music has its roots in old English, Irish and Scottish folk songs. Sometime in the 1800s, dozens of old English melodies were retooled with sagebrush, cattle and horses into the classic Cowboy Ballad. Then Mexican influences, such as Ranchera, Tejano and Corridos, worked their way in to the mix. Alas, Rock and Roll and the more heavily produced Nashville Sound started to predominate in the late 1960s and the great tradition of Western music declined or was repackaged as Country Western. Don’t be misled. I don’t care how many songs Toby Keith, Garth Brooks or Kenny Chesney record about cows or horses, they aren’t Cowboy. (We won’t even talk about the likes of Taylor Swift. She isn’t even Country.) If you want to know the difference, get any CD by The Sons of the Pioneers. Or, for the gold standard of the genre, pick up Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. For more recent music, Michael Martin Murphey almost single-handedly revived the genre. Any of his CDs should be your next purchase. One listen and you will never again be duped by Country masquerading as Cowboy.
2. Any Song is a Cowboy Song if Willie Nelson Sings It.
There is always the exception to the rule. Willie Nelson is Cowboy through and through even when he isn’t singing in the classic Cowboy genre. When Willie tackles Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies, suddenly it’s not a cautiously optimistic Depression era theme, but the song of an old cowboy who’s seen one too many long, hard cattle drives, but still believes in an easier trail. I could name a dozen other examples. But, instead, I urge you to download as many Willie Nelson CDs as possible and discover for yourself.
3. It’s Dogie, not Doggie!
You will find a lot of cowboy songs talking about dogies, most famously “Git Along Little Dogies”. It has come to my attention that many English people (who are taught this song in school as an example of a quaint American folk song) are under the misapprehension that cowboys routinely rounded up terriers. No, no, no. A dogie is a motherless or stray calf. Therefore it would be one that was running wild and particularly hard to round up. Let’s review:
4. A Cowboy Song Doesn’t Necessarily Have to Have Cows in It.
Cowboy is an attitude. As long as it builds on the folk roots of Cowboy, takes place in the general vicinity of the West, talks about wide open space, hard work and loneliness, it counts. I’d like to expand the category to include train and railroad building songs. (Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill is a favorite around here.) Add to that list trucker songs. Long haul truckers are cowboys in their own right. Little Feat’s Willin’ about a gypsy trucker is as dust-covered and hard-ridin’ as any cowboy ballad. Also check out Truck Drivin’ Man. Try to find the Buck Owens version. If you can’t, Red Steagall’s will do.
5. I Ride An Old Paint should be the United States’ National Anthem.
Very seldom do national anthems truly reflect the unique spirit of a nation. I mean when was the last time the French were running around demanding that the blood of their enemies “soak the furrows of their fields”? Yet, they cling to the bloodthirsty Marseillaise. They should have a song about foie gras and fine Bordeaux. Unfortunately, we Americans made a similar mistake when we chose for our anthem a song about an incident in our most obscure and misunderstood war. History can’t even decide who won that war. We say we did. The Canadians claim they did. The British say it wasn’t even a war, but a sideshow. If we remember the War of 1812 at all, we remember The Battle of New Orleans which happened about a month after a treaty had already been signed and the war was over. Besides, the tune for the Star Spangled Banner is an old English drinking song! Outrage.
By contrast, I Ride an Old Paint, has everything that our national anthem should have — horses, cattle, wide open spaces, cowboying, plus that unique American pairing of violence and an optimistic spirit. And that’s just in one verse:
Old Bill Jones
Had a daughter and a son
One went to Denver
And the other went wrong.
His wife she died
In a bloody knife fight
But still he keeps singin’
From morning ’til night
Ride around little dogies
Ride around them slow
For the firey and the snuffy
Are rarin’ to go.
Check out the versions by Riders in the Sky or Linda Ronstadt. I rest my case.
Now go forth, my friends, and download. Let’s revive the popularity of the great Cowboy Music tradition. Let’s hear high lonesome songs about cattle, outlaws and dusty trails blaring from iPods from Albania to Australia. We can do this. Yippee Kai Yay!
Let’s not forget the true urban cowboy Johnny Cash. He used to try to outdraw James Arness every time the beginning of Gunsmoke came on. Although not a real cowboy, he brought that genre of music to a more modern lonesome twang. Besides, anyone who sat on the tracks trying to make his harmonica sound like the train that just went by should get an honorable mention in your cowboy category.
Thanks for a great post. I guess I would add: “Cowboy” means acoustic to me. And while he’s not strictly Cowboy, how ’bout a shoutout to the incomparable Doc Watson, who died last week at age 89. His music comes from the same Scots-Irish roots, it’s just his folks took to the hills instead of ridin’ the range. I guess the common ground would be trains. What Doc could do with a few cowboy chords was pure magic. A musician of impeccable taste, style and generosity, a kind and gentle man beloved by all, no one can fill his boots. A genuine American treasure.
Both great suggestions and definitely “cowboy”.
Fine piece. Thanks for separating Country (pop) from Cowboy (folk). One entertained, the other worked.
You’re singing my songs.
Love me some cowboy music….
I grew up on a farm/ranch in the Texas Panhandle. My dad’s nickname for me was “Dogie” or “Dogie Boy”. I use the word in my email address and have prety much given up on correcting people, unless I think they should know better!
For years I was the public library in Dumas TX (North of Amarillo). The annual celebration was called “Dogie Days”, No one seemed to know why, but most people THOUGHT it had something to do with “dog days” and pronounced it “doggie” days
I have recently been hired by the San Angelo Symphony to take programs to schools and nursing homes, teaching and singing American folk music. One of my goals is to eliminate the dogie/doggie confusion. I was Googling and ran across your pic. I hope you don’t mind if I use it!
Thanks for fighting the good fight