Monday, February 9, 2009

Cowboy Songs

Scouring the dusty lower level of my local library in a quest to read (and try to understand) more poetry, I found a book with COWBOY SONGS hand-lettered on the black spine in white ink. While I love cowboys, perhaps more than your average person, what made the book irresistible to me was the author’s name on the bottom of the spine, LOMAX.

Immediately I was reminded of the recordings at the Library of Congress I found last spring searching for Songs of the Underground Railroad. Indeed, the book was first published in 1910 and last revised (the edition I borrowed) in 1938 is by the same Lomax family: John Avery Lomax, and Alan Lomax wrote the book, while John Avery and Ruby Terrill Lomax fielded the 1939 Southern States Recording Trip collected at the Library of Congress.

I find old recordings very interesting to listen to, but the book, whose subtitle is "and other Frontier Ballads", is a much more concentrated effort at preserving an American literary art form – the cowboy ballad. The cowboys sang to entertain themselves, to work by, and to keep the cattle from stampeding at night. The last of these are known as “dogie songs”.

There is something in the simple story-telling of the cowboy ballad that appeals to me. But John Lomax who lived to collect these songs explains it better:

There is, however, a Homeric quality about the cowboy’s profanity and vulgarity that pleases rather than repulses. The broad sky under which he slept, the limitless plains over which he rode, the big, open, free life he lived near to Nature’s breast, taught him simplicity, calm, directness. He spoke out plainly the impulses of his heart. But as yet so-called polite society is not quite willing to hear.

Enjoy this version of Zebra Dun performed by Frank Goodwyn in 1939, as he sings a song about a little bit of cowboy wisdom: not every educated man is a greenhorn.

It's not exactly what I had in mind when I entered the library, but the Herrick and Chaucer will keep (at least until I find a Chaucer poem I can actually understand).


Christina said...

How cool is that! Thanks for sharing your own "Music Monday," LB!

Lynne said...

Ooh! And I have a Poetry Friday (and Thursday) coming up, too!

I want to b(log) just like you!

Okay, I'm never going to be as musical as you, but I am going to try to keep Poetry Friday going.