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Cowboy Blues: Early Black Music In The West

by Patrick Joseph O'Connor

Studies In Popular Culture (University of Louisville) April 1994

When I was a cowboy,

Out on the western plains,

I made a half a million,

Pullin' on the bridle reins.1

Alan Lomax writes that this song by folk and blues artist Leadbelly "stands for an important chapter in the history of western song, neglected by historians."2 The black cowboy and his contribution to the genre of cowboy song is generally lacking in the literature. This paper will illustrate composing techniques and stylistic phrasings that the range riders borrowed from the blacks.

The avenue of the blues has been traveled with increased vigor lately. It is time to seek those trails that led to the confluence that became the blues. These trails are in this country as well as Africa, and were trod by cattle and cow ponies.

B. A. Botkin believed the "American folk song provides material for a social and cultural history of the United States."3 While the blues is decidedly a 20th Century phenomenon, it had its origins in the 19th Century, as did the lore and imagery of the cowboy. Many blacks took their part in life on the range, from buffalo soldiers, to scouts, to barbers.4 They were cowboys as well. According to Bailey C. Hanes, "about one cowboy in every six or seven was Mexican; a similar proportion was black."5

Other researchers have found that "The typical trail crew of eight usually included two black cowboys."6

Silber writes that "Many an emancipated Negro decided to try his luck in the west,"7 offering a stanza from a Kentucky ballad, "Goin' From The Cotton Fields":

Away out there in Kansas

So many miles away,

The colored folks are flocking

'Case they are getting better pay.8

Lomax felt that "the big West made folks more tolerant...."9 His work, and that of his father John, has opened the marvels of American folk music to present-day listeners and performers. John Lomax collected "Home On The Range" and "Git Along Little Dogies" from a black retired trail cook in 1908.10 This serves to show the importance of African-American influence as keepers and interpreters of the cowboy legend.

The ballads of the West, sung by black cowboys, took on the melismatic and "blue" coloration of the field holler and moan, precursors of the blues. Alan Lomax notes that "many cowboy songs are reworkings of older folk ballads."11 This is the nature of the folk form, of course.

"The Maid Freed From The Gallows," dating from 1770, was recorded by Leadbelly as "The Gallis Pole." He performs it in allegro tempo, applying sparkling guitar work that inspires dancing. The ballad's theme of hanging likely assured its popularity in the West. The original was:

Oh father, oh father, a little of your gold,

And likewise of your fee!

To keep my body from yonder grave,

And my neck from the gallows tree.12

Leadbelly sang:

Father did you bring me any silver?

Father did you bring me any gold?

What did you bring me, dear father,

To keep me from the Gallis pole?13

Mississippi Fred McDowell, a rural blues practitioner first recorded by Alan Lomax in the 1950s, said that "the blues come from a reel."14 This is to say that blacks took to the ballad form, enlivening it, making it their own, eventually transforming it into the blues that is still popular.

Oliver writes that "The ability of the Negro to adapt his music, to create anew, to improvise words and themes is evident in innumerable reminisces and reports."15

When the cowboys had to soothe the cattle, keep themselves awake through the long night, or capture a particular image of joy or contentment, humor or woe, they relied on song. According to Alan Lomax, the music of the cowboy was comprised of "brooding songs about death...songs of rollicking humor, [and] the sentimental ditties of the professional entertainers [minstrels and others] who toured the western outposts."16

The black cowboys brought to the range their stirring ability to entertain and relate in song. Albert Friedman felt that "musically...Negro folk songs are the most interesting we have."17 This particular black facility had been noted since slave days, and serves to underscore the importance of African-American participation in cowboy songs.

The influence of this musical ability of the black cowboy is destined to be known. While post-dating the actual trail drives, the material of Leadbelly and his contemporaries (where written or recorded) should be brought out and performed. This pre-blues that traveled the American West at the hands of blacks can be sensed in this material.

Eighteen, 19, 20 years ago

Taking my girl to a country store

Taking my girl to a country store

I bought my gal some calico18

This song, "Whoa, Back Buck," was one of Leadbelly's favorites. It was an oxen-driving song. Like most transcriptions of lyrics, its charm cannot fully be comprehended in print. But the historical attitude of the piece gives some indication of the songster's material.

Austin and Alta Fife have made major contributions to the study of the music of the West. Their Ballads of the Great West contains song lyrics and poetry, interchangeable by their reckoning. The Fifes found this content "typically narrative or sentimental.... Sometimes there is a minstrel-like invitation to the listeners to give attention to the narrator's story."19 This latter indicates African-American influence.

While the cowboy lasted only until the 1890s, the Fifes put the emergence of the myth from 1870 to 1920.20 The innovation of the blues falls within this time frame.21 The first collector of cowboy songs, Jack Thorpe, began his work in 1889. His initial find was "Dodgin' Joe," sung around a black trail crew's camp fire. This experience, mirrored by John Lomax in his collecting, again marks the importance of the African-American performer in the genre.

Cowboy songs nearly always made use of existing melodies, many of which the Fifes were unable to discover. In addition to borrowing heavily on the musical traditions of blacks in the South (through their ability and style inherent in minstrelsy), the cowboys found the self-advocating style of the field holler--whether braggadocio or complaint--suitable to their own composing. They began singing ballads about themselves, as well as events and features of life on the trail.

Texas Alexander sang in "Levee Camp Moan":

Oh...they accused me of murder,

And I haven't harmed a man.

They accused me of forgery,

And I can't write my name22

"The Old Chisholm Trail," a song recorded by Leadbelly, runs:

Come along boys and listen to my tale,

I'll tell you of my troubles on the old Chisholm Trail23

Thorpe, for all his efforts, found few true cowboy songs, hearing instead "railroad, mountain, river,...granger songs [and] sentimental ballads."24 This illustrates that the music of the cattle drives most often came from outside sources, including the black American.

Leadbelly's "Poor Howard," concerning a black fiddler, is an example of a lively country dance:

Poor Howard's dead and gone

Left me here to sing his song25

Oliver found that by the approach of 1900, ballads sung in America were done so "with an essentially Afro-American quality of singing. To a marked extent this trend in song was paralleled...among cowboys...where the legends of Sam Bass [and] Cole Younger...were told in ballad forms."26

Daniels noted that "Spirituals, shouts, and work songs express the nature and the contours of black culture in the 19th Century, while gospel, blues, and jazz reflect Afro-American values, life, and history in this [20th] century."27 The former types were closer to the primitive life of blacks just out of slavery. Given the period, the spirituals, shouts, and work songs were certain to have a more direct effect on the structure of cowboy songs. Gospel, blues and jazz, naturally, reflect a modern, relatively urban quality that has left the realm of the cowboy. But much of the rural blues still contains elements helpful to an understanding of the West, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Got The Blues":

The blues come to Texas loping like a mule,

You take a high-brown woman,

Man, she's tough to fool.28

Making a compelling argument for the study of the blues, Daniels believed the musicians "communicated their feelings to reach out to others and make life's hardships more bearable."29 Memphis Minnie provides an example:

If I could holler, could holler,

If I could scream and cry;

It hurts me so when I look up at the sky,

'Cause my friends turn their backs

When they're passin' by30

This same fellowship of song was undoubtedly in evidence on the cattle trails and frontier towns. In the Fifes' Ballads of the Great West, they write: "Strangely enough, there is no stereotype for the American Negro; he is not often encountered, but when he is it is in roles that are honorable if humble, and occasionally even heroic."31

The symbolism of blacks on the range evokes a similarity with cowboy song content. "Underdogs are omnipresent in the literature...."32 The giving nature of the American black alleviated the loneliness of the prairie and enlivened the cow towns with folk tales and song. Their ability to pour the tribulations and joy of the trail into the rowdy and sentimental music of the day made the African-Americans an important part of the landscape of the West.

Leadbelly, Huddie (pronounced with a long 'u') Ledbetter, is one of the most accessible musicians who recorded the 19th Century music of trail-riding blacks. He was born in 1888 on the Jeter Plantation near the Caddo Lake, which is on the Louisiana/Texas border. His father was a share-cropper who later managed to buy a small farm. Wolfe and Lornell found the Caddo lake area had a population that was 65% black in 1910.33

The singer grew up absorbing many different styles of American song, and when he began performing in the first decade of the 20th century, his repertory consisted of cowboy songs, ballads, children's songs, work songs, and blues. He played the 12-string guitar primarily, though he had some ability on the piano and concertina.

The East Texas area contained a goodly number of African American cowboys. Leadbelly said "There was right smart of 'em; they was just country cowboys."34 The singer himself worked at herding cattle, and for his 16th birthday was given a horse and saddle. He was also the recipient of a Protection Special Colt revolver, a gift from his father.

When the young Leadbelly attended country dances around the Caddo district, "he carried [the] Colt revolver...along with his guitar."35 While the carrying of firearms is not alien to blues performers, that particular weapon had a pleasant notoriety associated with the West, enhancing Leadbelly's black cowboy image. This was a rough, rural district that hadn't completely let go of the 19th Century. Leadbelly landed in prison for murder in 1918.

While in his late teens, Leadbelly eventually left the farm for Shreveport, playing his music on the notorious Fannin Street. Wolfe and Lornell write "the blues songs...were more popular on Fannin Street than the older country songs, work songs and ballads."36 This was in 1904, after the days of the cattle drives, and it showed the beginning of change that was sweeping across America's musical tastes. Leadbelly's inability to alter his material to appeal to urban blacks was a factor throughout his career. In later years Leadbelly, for the most part, had a greater audience in white America. He was first recorded by John and Alan Lomax at Angola State Prison in 1933 for the Archive of American Folk Song. Leadbelly's long incarceration had allowed him to maintain his dated style, increasing his folkloric appeal.

Herzhaft gives the conventional view that "Leadbelly was not a bluesman but rather a songster whose immense repertoire stretched from lullabies to cowboy songs to blues."37 While this might be the case, it is not fair to criticize or, worse, dismiss Leadbelly simply because he took his material from a variety of influences, a position held by many blues aficionados.38

Leadbelly also employed the field holler. This may well be a condition of his era, but also of his locale. In addition to being work songs, hollers were used as a means of communication in the black rural areas.

Just as the performers in the Old South were influenced by the wealth of minstrel tunes and vaudeville numbers, New Orleans jazz and other trappings of the established culture, those musicians in the states west of the Mississippi had their inspirations drawn from the immediate surroundings. Black cowboys were an integral part of the East Texas experience and their music had a hand in shaping cowboy music, both in structure--traditional three chord ballads--and content--personalized stories and poignant impressions of life. This cowboy music later influenced the blues, a co-equal process often noted in developing genres. Soldier Boy Houston's "Western Rider Blues," recorded in Dallas in 1950, is rife with braggadocio that borrows from Western imagery:

Said I don't wear no ten-gallon hat,

I don't wear no spurs on my heels,

But when I get in the saddle and ride,

All the women says I ride with a thrill39

Several blues performers lived in the western region of Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, and their style is markedly different from the Chicago, Mississippi Delta, and the Piedmont styles. Herzhaft names Leadbelly, Rambling Thomas, Texas Alexander, Lonnie Johnson, and Blind Lemon Jefferson as "the great creators of the Texas blues."40

Paul Oliver cites "Fast Western" pianists from "the lumber-camps and levee-camps of Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas...who sang as they played...rolling eight-to-the-bar rhythms in the bass..."41 He explains this style later influenced boogie-woogie.

Of the ballads recorded by the Fifes, "The Poor Lonesome Cowboy" comes closest to a blues format (repetition of the first verse and offering a succinct lament):

I ain't got no father, I ain't got no father,

I ain't got no father, to buy the clothes I wear.42

John Lomax quotes a square dance call that makes an appearance in a slightly altered form in Leadbelly's "Take A Whiff On Me."

You take Sal and I'll take Sue,

Mighty little difference between them two.43

The cowboy song "Rye Whisky," collected by John Lomax and published in 1910, contains the verse:

If the ocean was whisky and I was a duck

I'd dive to the bottom and get a sweet suck.44

A variation of this verse is sung in Mississippi Fred McDowell's "Diving Duck Blues," recorded in the 1960s. Despite the late recording date, this verse was likely used prior to this in other blues.

The ineffable feeling contained in music--as opposed to the interchangeability of lyrics and verse propounded by the Fifes--will give the attentive listener to the black songsters an intriguing semblance of old song and style of the range.

The American public, white and black, have been largely oblivious to the fact of the African-American contribution to the West. There are some excellent texts on the subject and certainly more in the works. The black folk music, and more, their musical treatment of the popular 19th Century music and cowboy ballads, is an area that calls for exploration. In addition to Leadbelly (whose wealth of material and twelve-string capture the 19th Century mood), the four musicians mentioned by Herzhaft make an excellent starting place. Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi John Hurt, and Gus Cannon also recorded in the genre.

The rural blues that was a direct descendant of this balladry and buck dance has been all but washed away in the current of urban blues. Today there is some effort to recreate the folk blues, both in reissue of 1920s and '30s records and in acoustic instrumental performance. But the folk songs that beget the blues, the poignant "blue" treatment of the cowboy myth, offers an arcane repository of American music that is not prone to the inevitable deterioration inherent in stylistic subtleties of the restrictive 12-bar blues. 


1 Huddie Ledbetter, "When I Was A Cowboy," Ludlow Music, 1959.

2 Alan Lomax, The Folk Songs Of North America (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1960) 360. According to Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell in The Life And Legend Of Leadbelly (230), famed western star Tex Ritter was largely responsible for Leadbelly recording the tune for Capitol Records in 1944.

3 B. A. Botkin, A Treasury Of American Folklore (Kingsport, Tennessee: Kingsport Press, 1944) 820.

4 Colonel Bailey C. Hanes, Bill Pickett, Bulldogger (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977) 31.

5 Hanes 5.

6 William Loren Katz, The Black West (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1971) 146.

7 Irwin Silber, Songs Of The Great American West (New York: MacMillan, 1967) 159.

8 Silber 159.

9 Alan Lomax 300.

10 Wolfe and Lornell, The Life and Legend of Leadbelly (New York: HarperCollins, 1992) 109.

11Alan Lomax 359.

12Albert B. Friedman, ed., The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World (New York: Viking Press, 1956) 132.

13Huddie Ledbetter, "The Gallis Pole," Leadbelly, Everest Records FS-202.

14Mississippi Fred McDowell, "Diving Duck Blues" Capitol ST 409.

15Paul Oliver, The Story Of The Blues, (Philadelphia: Chilton Book Company, 1969) 13.

16Alan Lomax 299.

17Friedman, xxxii.

18Huddie Ledbetter, "Whoa, Back Buck," arrangement of traditional, The Folk Box, Vol. I, Everest, 102, Coll 5183, Stin 19.

19 Austin & Alta Fife, Ballads of the Great West (Palo Alto, California: American West Publishing, 1970), 26.

20Austin E. and Alta S. Fife, Introduction, Songs of the Cowboys by N. Howard ("Jack") Thorpe, Variants, Commentary, Notes and Lexicon by Austin E. and Alta S. Fife (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1966) 5.

21W.C. Handy first heard the blues in St. Louis in 1892.

22Texas Alexander, "Levee Camp Moan," RBF Records Album No. 9.

23Botkin 852.

24N. Howard ("Jack") Thorpe, Songs of the Cowboys, 18.

25Huddie Ledbetter, "Poor Howard," Leadbelly, Everest Records FS-202.

26Paul Oliver, The Story Of The Blues, 23.

27Douglas Henry Daniels, "The Significance Of Blues For American History," The Journal Of Negro History LXX. 1-2 (1985): 14.

28Blind Lemon Jefferson, "Got The Blues," Document Records DOCD-5017-5020.

29Daniels 18.

30Memphis Minnie, "I Am Sailin'," Epic EG 37318.

31Austin & Alta Fife, Ballads of the Great West, 16.

32Austin & Alta Fife, Ballads of the Great West, 17.

33Wolfe and Lornell 6.

34Wolfe and Lornell 11.

35Paul Oliver, The Story Of The Blues, 36.

36Wolfe and Lornell 35.

37Gerard Herzhaft, Encyclopedia Of The Blues, trans. Brigitte Debord. (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 1992) 193.

38Including John Douglas, a reviewer for Blues Access, who writes in the Volume One, Number Four issue: "To present [Leadbelly] as a blues singer is generally wrong since even his bluesier material...was in an out-dated style...." (28).

39Soldier Boy Houston, "Western Rider Blues," AH971, Dallas, Texas, 1950.

40Herzhaft 342.

41Oliver, Blues Fell This Morning, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990) 6.

42Austin & Alta Fife, Ballads of the Great West, 147.

43John A. Lomax, Cow Camps & Cattle Herds, 33.

44Botkin 856.

(Copyright © 1993, P.J. O'Connor; used with permission.)

Also by Patrick J. O'Connor:
Discovering Differences in the Blues: The Rural and Urban Genres
The Black Experience and the Blues in 1950s Wichita
Minstrel and Medicine Shows -- Creating a Market for the Blues
The Weasels: Underground Success of A Kansas Rock Group
With Music the Ammunition --Battles of the Bands in Wichita in the 1960s
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