The Dreary Life of the Cowboy: Memoir and Myth in Cowboy Ballads

E. Martin Pedersen

Retracing the road back to the first cowboy ballads can reveal how the cowboy legend was born in song and why the cowboy towers over other American heroes. His rapid promotion to mythical status-later to be reinforced by "western" stories, radio shows, and motion pictures-actually began with the exquisite music the cowboy himself created. Though his voice was rough, the cowboy was a sensitive performing artist who left behind a rich legacy of authentic occupational ballads. These songs represent the synthesis of many musical sources, from ancient British ballads to original western poems to turn-of-the-century pop hits.
After his brief but "hard life of trouble," the colorful cattle herder of the plains was redrawn to emerge as a pale prairie superman: a hollow symbol of the American West and, in a sense, of the whole United States. Today, the sad story of the cowboy's misrepresentation and commercialization may serve as an interpretive lens through which to examine the effects on the American character of the grand bewitching fantasy of "western opportunity." Happily, the real ranger retains his dignity and can still be brought back to life through his own cowboy ballads.


Mexican vaqueros first taught American cowboys the difficult skills of taming wild horses, rounding up wild longhorns, breeding, roping, branding, and driving the herds. During the 1870s-80s, some 40,000 cow-punchers-5,000 of whom were African Americans-transported some 10 million cattle to market. This was a dirty, dangerous, and monotonous task. In the saddle from dawn to dusk every day, with two-hour shifts every night, cowboys made the trip from southern Texas across the plains to the Kansas railheads in two to six months.
The constant risk of death or injury from wild stampedes, extreme weather of all sorts, tricky river crossings, and attacks by rustlers made the cowboys tough and forceful men. Although these livestock herders were marginal participants in fighting the Mexicans, exterminating the buffalo, and annihilating American Indians, they must be differentiated from such other western types as lawmen, outlaws, gunfighters, soldiers, and hunters. The cowboys were workers, not killers. As Richard Shenkman informs us:

The popular image of the frontier as a place of violence is only partly due to the fact that the place often was violent. Most of it is due to hype, particularly Hollywood hype. The truth is many more people have died in Hollywood westerns than ever died on the real frontier (Indian wars considered apart). In the real Dodge City, for instance, there were just five killings in 1878, the most homicidal year in the little town's frontier history-scarcely enough to sustain a typical two-hour movie... In the worst year in Tombstone, home of the shoot-out at the OK Corral, only five people were killed. The only reason the OK Corral shoot-out even became famous was that town boosters deliberately overplayed the drama to attract new settlers. "They eventually cashed in on the tourist boom," historian W. Eugene Hollon says, "by inventing a myth about a town too tough to die."2


In lighter moments on the trail, cowboys sang to their cattle. In camp, they enjoyed long ballads around the circle. Once the cattle were delivered, the more uninhibited cowboys went to town to drink, fight, gamble, dance and carouse with prostitutes, wasting all their pay in just a few days. In this practice, they resembled sailors on shore leave.

The cowboy's relationship with women was peculiar and anomalous. Most cowboys were young bachelors, often dreaming of their mothers and sweethearts left behind. In their songs, women become the objects of adoration and sacrifice; in practice, cowboys exercised extreme courtesy towards the few women they met outside the whorehouse or saloon. With the prostitutes, they often established real friendships, the two having much in common, being young, far from home, and outcasts from "respectable" society.

The rowdy, nomadic cowboy occupied the lowest rung on the social ladder in a supposedly classless West, which was in fact controlled by Eastern (or even European) financiers, cattle barons, railroad magnates, politicians, and speculators. Like modern-day truckers, the itinerant cowboys were really cogs in an industrial machine. They moved goods toward their final destination, the Eastern cities, where a new immigrant working class needed beef to fuel their work in the horrific post-Civil War factories and sweatshops. Laurence Seidman comments:

The cowboy epic arose during the Gilded Age and was a part of the titanic achievement of the American people in the construction of an industrial empire. By contrast to the Gilded Age, with its greed and imprisonment of people in slums and factories, the cowboys appeared as free and heroic personalities choosing their own destinies. This image survives today as a myth that veils from American minds the more repulsive features of an age that turned men into machines, exploited them cruelly and destroyed the spirit of democratic equality in a brazenly class-oriented society. The cowboy contributed much to the wealth of the Gilded Age, but he did not himself grow wealthy. In this respect his experience was typical of most ordinary American workers of that time.3


In a lawless territory, cowboys developed a strict "code of the West" consisting of: hospitality and assistance to others, faithfulness to the paternalistic employer (with some exceptions), care and affection for horses, a dislike for bragging or complaining, praise for bravery, and pride in skill with horse, rope and gun. Like other male subcultures-modern-day professional athletes, teen gang members, or air force test pilots, for example-cowboys adopted an attitude of in-group elitism and virile self-glorification. As Austin and Alta Fife explain, "Much of the uniqueness of the cowboy image derives from a willful primitivistic pose: an actual overplaying of the role that myth thrusts upon him."4 So the cowboys "sang themselves," singing the events of their everyday lives, singing the conflict between the wilderness ideal and the cult of progress, and singing the contrast between their work ethic and the easy success of the thief or gambler.


In my research for this article, I studied the origins of some 250 narrative cowboy ballads grouped into three loose, overlapping categories: folksong, original, and parody. By a folksong, I mean a cowboy ballad of unknown origin, these making up roughly 60 percent. If the author of the text is known, I call it original (30 percent). For a parody, I mean a ballad closely patterned after another well-known song (10 percent). Cowboy songs of all types6 are most often reworkings of older materials, with names and places changed, tunes substituted, and cowboy expressions (including obscenities) added to give the ballads a western essence.
The motley assortment of ex-lumberjacks, soldiers and sailors, miners, farmers, black freedmen, and others who became cowboys brought together numerous musical traditions. Their various singing styles, melodies, plots, and themes fused with other music of the time-spirituals, blues, work songs, and classical and pop songs-to form a unique body of eclectic folksong with roots in southern, eastern, African American, Mexican, Scandinavian, Irish, and British traditions. Therefore, to consider cowboy balladry a continuation of the Anglo-American tradition only is clearly reductive. As Alan Lomax and Joshua Berrett have shown, "The West was the meeting ground of cultures." 7

Toward the end of the cowboy era, western poets created a distinctive genre of powerful, sentimental verse based on nostalgic remembrance of the cowpunching days of their youth. They are some of America's most interesting lesser-known poets: Gail Gardner (who wrote "Tying a Knot in the Devil's Taiquot;), Jack Thorp ("Little Joe, the Wrangler"), Curley Fletcher ("Strawberry Roan"), Badger Clark ("Spanish is the Loving Tongue"), and many more. Often, ballads that were first collected as folksongs were later discovered to be the work of western poets that had circulated both orally and in poetry books, western newspapers and magazines, and cowboy song folios. Print and then electronic media enriched the oral tradition and extended its life long into this century.


The legend of the cowboy was built upon a foundation of musical art and popular literature. In 1902, Owen Wister wrote his classic cowboy novel, The Virginian, defining the "strong, silent type." The following year brought Andy Adam's realistic account of a cattle drive, Log of a Cowboy. Then came the first western songbook, Songs of the Cowboys, compiled by N. Howard (Jack) Thorp in 1908. Folklorist Richard Dorson suggests that "Together the Log and the Songs established the cultural myth of the cowboy, which would be expanded and reiterated in scads of cattle-country autobiographies and songbooks in the next half-century." 8
It is significant that the first two American folksong studies were cowboy songbooks. Following Thorp's lead, John A. Lomax published Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads in 1910. Lomax had convinced Harvard professors Barrett Wendell and George Lyman Kittredge of the beauty and importance of cowboy ballads, thereby earning a grant for their collection in 1906. "The previously scorned cowboy songs now had the approval of the major scholars at America's most prestigious university."9 Much serious and commercial collecting and publishing of cowboy music went on during the 1920s-30s, led by Louise Pound, Margaret Larkin, J. Frank Dobie, Kenneth S. Clark, and others. As the Fifes point out, however, "Nearly all (songbooks) were made when it was not yet evident that the cowboy culture had passed, and hence they suffer from subjectivity and limited historical perspective."10

Before and after the turn of the century, the cowboy experience was spectacularized in wild west shows, western plays, rodeos, and dude ranch vacationing. Then, in the 1920's, the singing cowboy burst onto the radio. Carl Sprague was the first well-known singer, followed by Jules Verne Allen, Harry Stephens, John I. White, and others. Otto Gray organized the first cowboy string band, "The Oklahoma Cowboys," a professional show-business group that played on the radio and the northeastern vaudeville circuit.

The so-called "father of country music," Jimmie Rodgers, had a primary role in the mixing of southern hillbilly music and western cowboy music, which bred modern "country and western" music.

Rodgers took great pride in the Texas heritage, especially its romantic cowboy past. He must be given much of the credit for starting the trend toward the "singing cowboy," and the association of country music with the romantic "western" image. In the lyrics of his Texas songs Rodgers revealed a conception of the West typical of that held by many Easterners; that is, the depiction of the cowboy as a self-reliant, selfless individual, free from the shackles and restraints of society, who whiled away the lonely hours with song. 11
"The songs of the cowboys of our western plains," affirms Silber, "are, perhaps, more typical of America than any other aspect of our folk-song heritage."12 (my italics) In cowboy songs, the warp of the British ballad met the weft of multi-colored strands, but the original beautiful cloth was then ineptly copied using synthetic fibers. Country music took the trappings of the cowboy song culture without the substance. As expert Bill Malone argues:

The growing use of the word "western" as a designation for country music was completely inaccurate if viewed in the light of a cowboy-produced music. With the exception of a few cowboy songs recorded by country entertainers, and the employment of cowboy titles and dude cowboy clothing, the cowboy has had no appreciable influence on American popular or country music. No particular vocal or instrumental style, or musical form or rhythm, was contributed by the cowboy. The "western music" that became fashionable during the thirties was not produced by the cowboy.13
With the advent of talking pictures in the 1930s, the singing cowboy rode onto the movie screen.

The western attraction was very strong, and even young hillbilly singers from the deep South or from the southeastern mountains, whose only associations with cowboys were through story and song, became involved in the western image and imagined themselves "Out on the Texas Plains."... One of the most important of these individuals, and the one who completed the "romantic westernizing" process begun by Rodgers, was Gene Autry. Autry owed most of his initial success to the fact that he could perform the Rodgers' repertory in the Rodgers' yodeling style. 14
Encouraged by humorist Will Rogers, Autry went to New York in 1929 and found a job making records for Victor. He later achieved great success on the radio in Chicago because his voice and image were, as Douglas Green describes, "warm and comforting, unassuming and unpretentious, open and honest and caring."15 Notes Malone, "In the following decades, he (Autry) made over one hundred feature movies for Republic and Monogram. Not only did he become quite wealthy, but he created the stereotype of the heroic cowboy who was equally adept with a gun and guitar."16 The two other best-known singing cowboys were Tex Ritter and Roy Rogers. Before becoming a film and then television star, Rogers had sung with the most successful western group, The Sons of the Pioneers.

In the economic strife of the Great Depression, any singer with a true or fictitious tie to the West was certain to exaggerate it in order to fit the fashion and earn a living. Singers and actors desperately needed work, but listeners and moviegoers, just as desperately, needed the romance of a preindustrial rural fantasy. In these confused times, common American worker heroes like the cowboy were blown out of proportion, and fake folk heroes like Pecos Bill were invented by writers trying to cash in on people's need for escapist fiction, stabilizing values, and national identity.

If so-called "western" music is, for the most part, not a product of the cowboy ballad tradition, the ever-popular "western" literature (of Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour, for example) is similar in rarely dealing with cattle drives and the other real work of cowboys. With few exceptions, "western" films and TV shows-including the recent Silverado, The Unforgiven, Tombstone and Bad Girls-are also not about cowboys. So, did the real cowboy ride off into the sunset? Worse.

The original exploited working man became the most commercially exploited figure in American history.

The distortion of the cowboy character began as far back as the cowboy era. John Baumann, in the 1880s, wrote:

The cowboy has at the present time become a personage; nay, more, he is rapidly becoming a mythical one. Distance is doing for him what the lapse of time did for the heroes of antiquity. His admirers are investing him with all manner of romantic qualities.
Meanwhile the true character of the cowboy has been obscured, his genuine qualities are lost in fantastic tales of impossible daring and skill... Every member of his class is pictured as a kind of Buffalo Bill, as a long-haired ruffian who, decked out in gaudy colors and tawdry ornaments, booted like a cavalier, chivalrous as a Paladin, his belt stuck full of knives and pistols, makes the world to resound with bluster and braggadoccio.18
Over the past century, the cowboy has run the gauntlet, and-as if he'd passed through an automatic carwash-come out a whitewashed phoney demigod. This transmogrified cowboy is a symbol of courage and independence, perhaps; but the symbol is also embued with American racism, paternalism, and materialism. The cowboy's identity has been carefully remodeled to make his image more marketable. One use of this cardboard caricature in recent years has been to convince people around the world to consume cancer-causing cigarettes; the grim reaper these days wears a ten-gallon hat.

Nevertheless, the American cowboy-the last "frontiersman"-represents a unique period of social transition that witnessed: a reuniting of North and South after the Civil War; a geographical movement from East to West: a population shift from rural to urban: a declaration of cultural independence from Europe; the emergence of the nation on the world stage; and a lifestyle change from the rigors of frontier existence to a more sedentary life of second-hand adventures.

From the popular heroes of the past-the frontiersman (Davey Crockett), the mountainman (Jim Bridger), the explorer (Kit Carson)-to such fictional heroes of the present as Batman, Indiana Jones, and Captain Kirk, none equals the stature of the cowboy. His bizarre work clothes have become almost a national folk costume; his curious jargon has entered the national lexicon; his "code of the West" has updated the Puritan ethic. And, his greatest legacy-his wealth of ballads-continues to tell his story to posterity.


1. Abbreviated folksong texts are from the personal collection of the author.
2. Richard Shenkman, Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History. (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 109.
3. Lawrence I. Seidman, Once in the Saddles, the Cowboy's Frontier 1866-1896 (New York: Facts on File, 1991), 124.
4. Austin E. and Alta S. Fife, Cowboy and Western Songs, A Comprehensive Anthology (New York: Bramwell House, 1982), 4.
5. Irwin Silber, compiler and editor, with Earl Robinson, music editor and arranger, Songs of the Great American West (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 173.
6. I have excluded from this study: gold rush songs (e.g., "Sacramento," "Sweet Betsy from Pike," "The Lousy Miner," "The Days of Forty-Nine," "The Dreary Black Hills"); pioneer songs (e.g., "The State of Arkansas," "Ox-Driving Song," "Acres of Clams," "Starving to Death on My Government Claim," "The Farmer is the Man, " "Root Hog or Die"); songs sung by cowboys not specific to the cowboy experience (e.g., "Brennan on the Moor," "The Jam on Gerry's Rock," "Shenandoah," "Old Rosin the Beau," "Green Grow the Lilacs," "Santy Anno"); cowboy lyric songs (e.g., "Goodbye, Old Paint," "I Ride an Old Paint," "Poor Lonesome Cowboy," "Rye Whiskey"); Spanish-language cowboy songs (e.g., "Corrido de Kansas," "El Tecolote," "El Toro Moro," "El Abandonado," "Cuatro Palomitas Blancas," "Tragedia de Heraclio Bernaquot;); songs of the singing cowboys of radio and movies (e.g., "Ragtime Cowboy," "Don't Fence Me In," "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," "Ghost Riders in the Sky," and "Back in the Saddle Again.")
7.John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads, with new introduction by Alan Lomax and Joshua Berrett (New York: Macmillan, 1986), xx.
8. Richard M. Dorson, America in Legend, Folklore from the Colonial Period to the Present (New York: Pantheon, 1973), 131.
9.John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, xviii.
10.Austin E. and Alta S. Fife, x.
11.Bill C. Malone, Country Music U.S.A. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1968), 99.
12.Silber, 160.
13.Malone, 160.
14.Ibid., 151-152.
15.Douglas B. Green, Gene Autry, liner notes. Columbia Records, FC37465, 1982.
16.Malone, 153-154.
17.Silber, 200.
18.Seidman, xi.

E. Martin Pedersen teaches at the Institute of Foreign Languages and Literature, University of Messina, Italy. This article was first presented in a workshop on "Comparing English and American Myths" at the 1995 Conference of the Italian Association for English Studies.