by ACPA Member, Perry Jacobson
Cowboy music sometimes referred to as Western music has an interesting history with the development of Western North American folk music.
Many of the early cowboy songs are directly related to old English, Scottish and Irish folk ballads; then over time the music was adopted and adapted by the early settlers in the American and Canadian West. The lyrics of a good western song tell a story in the ballad tradition, influenced by the colorful environment and culture in which it was conceived.
One common thread in most of the lyrics is the quest for freedom and independence and the willingness to pay the price to live that lifestyle. The silver screen cowboys of the thirties and forties romanticized the life of the cowboy but the original versions of the songs depicted the harsh life of the working cowboy; in fact many of the songs were down right sad.
The rhythm, or the pattern of sound of cowboy songs, characterizes a language or dialect that suggests movement or pace. Listen carefully to a cowboy song and in many instances you will hear the gait of a horse walking trotting or galloping. In fact the rhythm of a cowboy song is really the rhythm of the cowboy’s natural and working environment.
There is many people who feel that Western and Country music are synonymous but in fact they are quite different, especially the country music of today which targets a specific demographic group interested in urban hype rather than rural content.
Most historians suggest that Counrty music originated in the Eastern United States while Western music evolved from the life experiences of the western people.
Today the challenge in writing and performing cowboy music is to capture the spirit and style of a ballad that tells a story of the west in the past and in the present.
There is also another tradition that is alive and well today and that is the adapting of poetry to song. Many good cowboy poets write in the rhythm and cadence that is easily set to music. No doubt most of the old cowboy songs originated from the same source.
Had it not been for early researchers such as Jack Thorpe and John Lomax, the original versions of the cowboy songs may have faded into history and been lost forever.
The music of the cowboy is an important aspect of our western heritage and culture; it is also important that we as entertainers strive to preserve and present the tradition of this oral art form.