A line of 3,000 cattle spreads out over nearly a mile. A small group of cowboys leading them along, spread so thin that only their lanterns are visible, little dots lighting the trail along with the moonlight. And a song began somewhere in the long march, “and as it surged up and down the line, every voice, good, bad, and indifferent, joined in,” Andy Adams wrote in his 1903 book, “The Log of a Cowboy: A Narrative of the Old Trail Days.”
When cattle outnumber men 140 to 1, keeping them from stampeding is usually is a top priority, and the cowboys of days past believed that singing is one of the best ways of doing this.
Adams writes that even when all the cattle are sleeping, “The guards usually sing or whistle continuously, so that the sleeping herd may know that a friend and not an enemy is keeping vigil over their dreams.”
The songs they sang carried a deeper history than even the cowboys may have realized. Most of the old cowboy songs are based on melodies from Irish and Scottish folk songs. Immigrants brought them over on ships, and as they moved West, the songs went with them. The lyrics changed as time went by, and the songs became saturated in the stories they told and the histories they recorded.
Many of these songs would have been lost to time were it not for the work of Jack Thorpe and John Lomax, who collected and documented many cowboy songs in the late 1800s. Today, their work would have likely been forgotten were it not for Don Edwards and some of the last cowboy troubadours.
Edwards is a cowboy balladeer, and also a Grammy-nominated songster and historian on cowboy music. He is one of the leading authorities on the genre. Two of his collections, “Guitars & Saddle Songs” and “Songs of the Cowboy,” are included in the Folklore Archives of the Library of Congress.
“What happened was that actual musicians saved the songs—because the cowboys couldn’t have cared less,” Edwards said in a phone interview. “They just did what they did and it was just part of their everyday life, and they never thought of it as being a genre of music or an art form.”
Edwards took it upon himself to follow this same path. He regards himself as more of a historian than a songwriter. He writes a new song every now and then, but most of what he plays are traditional songs that have been passed down.
Born in 1939, Edwards watched as the music industry changed the culture of American music. The beauty of the old music, he said, is that the songs are true to life. “It’s not like having a bunch of musicians into a studio and saying 1-2-3-go. That was the magic. That’s what gave it the spontaneity. The music was just so real to me, and I still love that music. It drove my entire life.”
“But you don’t see that today … what I’m saying is the music isn’t as good because it’s not coming from the heart,” he said. “It’s coming from the wallet.”
Because it grew out of people’s real lives, folk music in America captured the values that people had. Edwards said that with American songs—cowboy songs, in particular—“There’s not much self pity in these old songs. There really isn’t.” He said it was a culture defined by independence and honesty. “If they told you something, you could take it to the bank.”
Taking the reins and guiding the preservation of traditional culture is not easy task. The songs and stories have kept going because people pass them down. “But if that chain stops, then it’s all done. I feel like a few of the guys who are still with us, who are my age or better, we just say well, when we’re gone we guess it’s all gone,” Edwards said. “We don’t know. Hopefully not.”
Edwards still has his hopes high. He feels that one of the main forces keeping this culture alive these days is cowboy poetry. Edwards often performs alongside his good friend, cowboy poet and author, Waddie Mitchell.
The two of them had their round in Nashville, but quickly found the lifestyle of mainstream music wasn’t for them. They now tour as “The Bard and the Balladeer.” Edwards sings ballads, and Mitchell does spoken word.
Mitchell helped start the first Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1985, and the annual gatherings have only grown in popularity. He recalls putting out chairs and wondering if the 100 chairs they had were too many. When they opened the doors, more than 2,000 people showed up.
“We had to open more rooms and scatter things out, and we had no idea that people were ready for this,” Mitchell said, in a phone interview.
Mitchell grew up on a ranch and spent 26 years working as a cowboy. He said the cowboys he worked with rarely played music, but they’d often share poetry around the campfire. As for him, he just writes poetry, and it happens to be cowboy poetry since it’s about his own experiences.
“It is still cowboy poetry, I suppose, because I wrote it, and there’s that different point of view—something I don’t understand,” he said. “But what I do understand is that cowboy poetry isn’t just about cows and horses.”
“There’s just something about the musical aspect of the word,” Mitchell said. “So it just became a tradition, much like it became the tradition of the sailors during the wind-driven ship days, and much like the logger camps that would recite poetry.”
Mitchell said one of his favorite things is when someone comes to a show without much interest in poetry, and leaves with a love for the art. “That’s all that I can hope for, and I think that’s what Don is hoping for,” he said.
Edwards and Mitchell both hold a deep respect for the art and music, and have dedicated their lives to preserving it and passing it on.
“I just feel we owe it to the people who came before us—that we keep their legacy alive,” Edwards said. “The people who wrote this stuff were people who spent all their time collecting it and writing it down, telling stories. I feel I just owe it to them, like it’s an obligation.”
“The poetry and the music are very traditional things. It doesn’t need to be any kind of cowboy music—it can be any kind. And I think the people who do it will say the same thing,” he said. “They’re trying to keep the history alive.”
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