Western music (North America)
|Stylistic origins||Folk music|
|Cultural origins||Western United States|
|Typical instruments||Guitar, fiddle, mandolin, bass fiddle, steel guitar, banjo, harmonica, piano|
|Derivative forms||Western swing|
Western music is a form of American folk music composed by and about the people who settled and worked throughout the Western United States and Western Canada. Directly related musically to old English, Scottish, and Irish folk ballads, Western music celebrates the life of the cowboy on the open ranges and prairies of Western North America. The Mexican folk music of the American Southwest also influenced the development of this genre. Western music shares similar roots with Appalachian music (also called hillbilly music), which developed in Appalachia separately from, but parallel to, the Western music genre. The music industry of the mid-20th century grouped the two genres together under the banner of country and western music, later amalgamated into the modern name, country music.
Western music was directly influenced by the folk music traditions of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, and many cowboy songs, sung around campfires in the nineteenth century, like "Streets of Laredo", can be traced back to European folk songs.
Reflecting the realities of the open range and ranch houses where the music originated, the early cowboy bands were string bands supplemented occasionally with the harmonica. The harmonica, invented in the early 19th century in central Europe, arrived in North America shortly before the American Civil War, as the United States was just beginning to expand westward; its small size and portability made it a favorite among the American public and the westward pioneers.
Otto Gray, an early cowboy band leader, stated authentic Western music had only three rhythms, all coming from the gaits of the cowpony–walk, trot, and lope. Gray also noted the uniqueness of this spontaneous American song product, and the freedom of expression of the singers.
In 1908, N. Howard "Jack" Thorp published the first book of Western music, titled Songs of the Cowboys. Containing only lyrics and no musical notation, the book was very popular west of the Mississippi. Most of these cowboy songs are of unknown authorship, but among the best known is "Little Joe, the Wrangler," written by Thorp himself.
In 1910, John Lomax, in his book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, first gained national attention for Western music. His book contained many of the same songs as Thorp's book he collected most of them before Thorp's was published). However, Lomax's compilation included many musical scores. Lomax published a second collection in 1919 titled Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp.
With the advent of radio and recording devices, the music found an audience previously ignored by music schools and Tin Pan Alley. Many Westerners preferred familiar music about themselves and their environment.
The first successful cowboy band to tour the East was Otto Gray's Oklahoma Cowboys put together by William McGinty, an Oklahoma pioneer and former Rough Rider. The band appeared on radio and toured the vaudeville circuit from 1924 through 1936. They recorded few songs, however, so are overlooked by many scholars of Western music.
It is a common impression that Western music began with the cowboy, but this is not the case. To cite Doug Green's recent book, Singing in the Saddle, the first "western" song was published back in 1844. Titled "Blue Juniata", the song is about a young Indian maid waiting for her brave along the banks of the Juniata River in Pennsylvania (at that time, anything west of the Appalachian Mountains was considered "out West"). The song was recorded and sung by the Sons of the Pioneers over a hundred years later and is still being sung today. Subsequent "western" songs down through the years have dealt with many aspects of the West, such as the mountain men, the '49ers, the immigrants, the outlaws, the lawmen, the cowboy, and, of course, the beauty and grandeur of the West. Western music is not limited to the American cowboy.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Western music became widely popular through the romanticization of the cowboy and idealized depictions of the west in Hollywood films. Singing cowboys, such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, sang cowboy songs in their films and became popular throughout the United States. Film producers began incorporating fully orchestrated four-part harmonies and sophisticated musical arrangements into their motion pictures. Bing Crosby, the most popular singer of that time, recorded numerous cowboy and Western songs and starred in the Western musical film Rhythm on the Range (1936). During this era, the most popular recordings and musical radio shows included Western music. Western swing also developed during this time.
Decline in popularity
By the 1960s, the popularity of Western music was in decline. Relegated to the country and western genre by marketing agencies, popular Western recording artists sold fewer albums and attracted smaller audiences. Rock and roll dominated music sales and Hollywood recording studios dropped most of their Western artists. In addition, the Nashville sound, based more on pop ballads than on folk music, came to dominate the country and western commercial sales; except for the label, much of the music was indistinguishable from rock and roll or popular classes of music. The resulting backlash from Western music purists led to the development of country music styles much more influenced by Western music, including the Bakersfield sound and outlaw country.
In 1964, the Country & Western Music Academy was formed in an effort to promote Western music, primarily in the Western United States. The Academy was formed in response to the Nashville-oriented Country Music Association that had formed in 1958. The Academy's first awards were largely dominated by Bakersfield-based artists such as Buck Owens. Over time, the Academy evolved into the Academy of Country Music and its mission is no longer distinguished from other country music organizations.
Older music is still available at retail stores in major population centers, through mail-order, or by the Internet. New Western music is constantly written and recorded and performed all across the American West and Western Canada.
The Western Music Association was established in 1989 to preserve and promote Western music, and honors notable musicians by inducting them into the Western Music Association Hall of Fame.
In recent years, Michael Martin Murphey (b. 1945) has almost single-handedly resurrected the cowboy song genre, promoting Western singers and groups and cowboy poets. The singing group Riders in the Sky recorded a mix of Western and Western Swing and have won Grammy Awards for their work with Disney on Toy Story 2 (1999) and Monsters, Inc (2001).
Western music also plays a large role in the video game Fallout: New Vegas. Furthermore, the Red Dead series of games heavily features Western music, since it takes place in an Old West setting.
List of Western songs
- "Along the Navaho Trail"
- "Along the Santa Fe Trail"
- "Back in the Saddle Again"
- "Ballad of the Alamo"
- "Buenas Tardes Amigo"
- "Big Iron"
- "Billy the Kid"
- "Blue Shadows on the Trail"
- "Blue Prairie"
- "Buffalo Gals (Won't You Come Out Tonight?)"
- "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie"
- "Call of the Canyon"
- "Carry Me Back to the Lone Prairie"
- "Cattle Call"
- "Cimarron (Roll On)"
- "Cocaine Blues"
- "Cool Water"
- "The Cowboy's Life"
- "Oh My Darling, Clementine"
- "Deep in the Heart of Texas"
- "Don't Fence Me In"
- "Don't Take Your Guns to Town"
- "El Paso"
- "El Paso City"
- "Folsom Prison Blues"
- "Ghee on My Hands"
- "Git Along, Little Dogies"
- "Halfway to Montana"
- "Happy Trails"
- "Hold on Little Dogies"
- "Hold On"
- "Home on the Range"
- "I'm an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande)"
- "I Ride an Old Paint"
- "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart"
- "Jim", a lament about a cowboy whose friend has died at an early age
- "Jingle Jangle Jingle (I Got Spurs)"
- "Little Joe the Wrangler"
- "The Last Roundup"
- "The Lone Star Trail"
- "Man Walks Among Us"
- "The Masters Call"
- "Night Rider's Lament"
- "Oh! Susanna"
- "The Old Chisholm Trail"
- "Pistol Packin' Mama"
- "Red River Valley"
- "Red Wing"
- "Running Gun"
- "Ghost Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend)"
- "Rocky Mountain Express"
- "Rogue River Valley"
- "San Antonio Rose"
- "Sioux City Sue"
- "Song of the Sierras"
- "The Soughrty Peaks"
- "The Strawberry Roan"
- "Streets Of Laredo"
- "Sweet Betsy from Pike"
- "Texas Plains"
- "Texas Rangers", about an ill-fated unit of Texas Rangers, headed to the Rio Grande, whose "time had come to die"
- "Tumbling Tumbleweeds"
- "Utah Carol"
- "Way out There"
- "The Wayward Wind"
- "When the Cactus Is in Bloom"
- "The Yellow Rose of Texas"
- "Young Wesley"
- "Zebra Dun"
List of Western singers
- Lomax, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, Collector's Note: "Out in the wild, far-away places of the big and still unpeopled west—in the caňons along the Rocky Mountains, among the mining camps of Nevada and Montana, and on the remote cattle ranches of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona—yet survives the Anglo-Saxon ballad spirit that was active in secluded districts in England and Scotland even after the coming of Tennyson and Browning. ... In some such way have been made and preserved the cowboy songs and other frontier ballads contained in this volume."
- Spell, L. M. (1936). Music in Texas: A survey of one aspect of cultural progress. Austin, Texas, p. 131.
- Shirley, Glenn. "Daddy of the Cowboy Bands" in Oklahoma Today, Fall 1959, Vol. 9, No. 4, p. 29.: "'There were only three rhythms to the real songs of the range—not the distorted versions you hear today,' Otto pointed out. 'They came from the gaits of the cowboy's horse—the walk, the trot and the lope.' "
- Thorp, N. (1921) Songs of the Cowboys, p. 96.: "'Little Joe, The Wrangler', by N. Howard Thorp. Written by me on the trail of herd of O Cattle from Chimney Lake, New Mexico, to Higgins, Texas, 1898. ... It was copyrighted and appeared in my first edition of Songs of the Cowboys, published in 1908.
- Thorpe, N. Howard "Jack" (1921). Songs of the Cowboys. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
- Quay, Westward Expansion, p. 179, "Finally, the popularity of radio stations like 5XT, KFRU, and KVOO, all out of Oklahoma, which featured western bands like Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, brought the sound of western music to a greater number of Americans."
- Early Cowboy Band: "While Gray has long been acknowledged as an important figure, genuine respect for his achievements and acknowledgement of just how influential the Oklahoma Cowboys were has been grudging. This is partly due to the understandable tendency among country music historians to focus chiefly on recordings as a measure of an artist's importance."
- Green, pp. 1–2.
- Greg Ryder, "Blue Shadows", Frontier Records of Durango, Colorado, 1994
- Cannon, Hal. Old Time Cowboy Songs. Gibbs Smith. ISBN 0-87905-308-9
- Green, Douglas B. Singing in the Saddle: The History of the Singing Cowboy. Vanderbilt University Press, August 2002. ISBN 0-8265-1412-X
- Hull, Myra. "Cowboy Ballads".
- Johnson, Thomas S. "That Ain't Country: The Distinctiveness of Commercial Western Music." JEMF Quarterly. Vol 17, No. 62, Summer, 1981. pp 75–84.
- Lomax, John A., M.A. Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. The MacMillan Company, 1918. Online edition (pdf)
- O'Neal, Bill; Goodwin, Fred. The Sons of the Pioneers. Eakin Press, 2001. ISBN 1-57168-644-4
- Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys. Early Cowboy Band. British Archive of Country Music, 2006. CD D 139
- Quay, Sara E. Westward Expansion. Greenwod Press, 2000. ISBN 0-313-31235-4
- Shirley, Glenn "Daddy of the Cowboy Bands. Oklahoma Today (Fall 1959), 9:4 6-7, 29.
- Thorp, N. Howard "Jack". Songs of the Cowboys. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1908, 1921.
- White, John I. Git Along Little Dogies: Songs and Songmakers of the American West. (Music in American Life) series, University of Illinois Press, 1989 reprint. ISBN 0-252-06070-9