What is Western Music and Cowboy Poetry?
The Western Way
Although some might find it surprising to discover Cowboy and Poetry in the same
sentence, this art form has enjoyed a healthy existence for centuries. It can be traced
to the cattle drive culture in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland as far back as the
sixteenth century. Cowboy Poetry has its roots in the rural way of life and working with
livestock. During the huge cattle drives from Texas north prior to the nineteenth
century, drovers riding night guard found it both essential and entertaining to talk to
the cattle as they rode the perimeter of a resting herd. This reduced the element of
surprise as the dark hours passed, keeping the bovines quiet and contented waiting the
morning light. Some wranglers could whistle, some yodel and some sang as they rode but
most would simply tell stories to their cud chewing audience. Good stories bare
repeating at the campfire and rhyme is a good way to remember, hence the birth of Cowboy
Poetry. To quote famed poet Bruce Kiskaddon, "they are the simple tales of the roundups
and trails, when he worked on the range with the cattle; Not the wild woolly nights nor
of gambling hall fights, But the days and the nights in the saddle."
The western way is more a state of mind. This is apparent at authentic cowboy festivals
and gatherings where folks with a genuine affection for ranching, farming, cattle, horses
and horse trails congregate to share and enjoy the stories, poems and music of the real
west. There is an array of material from horse wrecks to rainbows, from an assortment
of performers aged nine to ninety. Performances range from historical to hysterical,
but are always suitable for all ages. Disrespectful, vulgar or degrading material is
never tolerated in keeping with western tradition. Often the poetry and music capture
the rhythm of the motion of a horse and paint pictures of rural landscapes. The
characters who perform are often just that, true icons of the past. Retired Ranchers,
Bronc Busters, Mule Skinners and Mounties share the stage with working cowboys and farming
folk. Their attire is that of the working west, wide brimmed hats, neckerchiefs or wild
rags and high topped riding boots are in abundance. The messages are simple but powerful
which is why audiences are prompted to return again and again.
by BJ Smith, ACPA
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.
by Perry Jacobson