Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Singing for the Dogies

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Singing for the Dogies

Article excerpt

WHILE on a scholarship at Harvard University in 1906, John Lomax received encouragement from the distinguished professor George L. Kittredge to collect Western ballads. Having grown up near Meridian, Texas, on a branch of the Chisholm cattle trail, Lomax had already begun to gather cowboy songs.

The first of several editions of Lomax's work, "Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads," was published in 1910. Before the collection of the songs was finished, Lomax had traveled over 200,000 miles in 47 of the states. Barrett Wendell, another Harvard professor who encouraged Lomax, wrote in the introduction of the 1910 edition that old ballads are "expression straight from the heart of humanity."

Origins of frontier ballads are found in the distant past. The spirit of Anglo-Saxon ballads current in England and Scotland during the 16th and 17th centuries were carried to the New World by emigrants. Variations of old songs served as emotional drama that softened the hard edge of isolated life.

Cowboy songs, once recorded on numerous phonograph records, were made popular by radio singers. The songs are rarely heard on today's television. Cowboy music has been replaced by country music.

Cowboy songs are important in American history because they shed light on conditions of pioneer life. They also express a true conception of the American cowboy. Magazine stories and movies have generally been romantic and wildly imaginative in portraying this lasting figure of a vanished era.

Only a few classic novels like "The Log of a Cowboy" by Andy Adams have not blurred the Old West in a hazy mythology.

The cowboy's fascinating period begins in south Texas before the Civil War, when Mexican cattlemen abandoned ranches and left cattle behind. The Republic of Texas declared the unbranded cows to be public property. Then cowboys gathered wild herds and drove them north to market.

In this hard life, drovers could be on the trail for three months in all kinds of weather, pushing four or five thousand head of cattle over hundreds of miles. Though usually seen as a romantic figure, the cowboy was a skilled workman engaged in a tiresome and dangerous task. Mounted on his horse, with lariat, chaps, revolver, and sombrero, he could stop a stampede or sing to the cattle. Like others often alone at work, the cowboy sang, and singing became a part of his occupation.

Songs had such practical uses as stirring up lagging cattle and quieting them. The singer might produce more yells than melody, putting life in the animals. To quiet the cattle during the nocturnal screams of wolf or lion, the cowboy would croon a lullaby, his voice already familiar. It is said that "dogie songs" might have been created to prevent cattle stampedes. The rhythmic chorus of one roundup song is familiar: Whoopee ti yi yo, git along little dogies, It's your misfortune and none of my own; Whoopee ti yi yo, git along little dogies, For you know Wyoming will be your new home. …

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