Old cowboy songs enliven History Center
“Out where the handclasp's a little stronger/ Out where the smile dwells a little longer/ That's where the West begins.”
- from “Where the West begins,” Arthur Chapman, 1917
Playing old-time banjos and crooning a memory lane of Western tunes, Mark Gardner treated roughly 100 people at the Old Colorado City History Center to a lecture/concert on cowboy songs and poetry July 18.
One of his anecdotes was about a young cowboy who showed up at an Army recruiting station during World War II.
Noticing the youth's hat, chaps and other Western apparel, a sergeant asked him where he was from. The answer came back, “Powder River - let 'er buck!”
This phrase, which is also found in a song from that era, got picked up by American soldiers during the war. “I always wonder what the Germans thought when they heard, “Powder River - let 'er buck!” mused Gardner, a well-known writer and musician from this area.
Much of his talk focused on the efforts of early Western song compilers. The earliest of these was Jack Thorp, who listened to cowboys sing around campfires or on the trail, and wrote his first “Songs of the Cowboys” book in 1908. Using a tiny piccolo banjo similar in age and style to what Thorp probably used, Gardner played one of Thorp's own melodies: “Singin Ti Ri Youdy.”
Others who published significant compilations from the early 20th century were S. Omar Barker (“Buckaroo Ballads,” 1928) and Margaret Larkin (“Singing Cowboy: A Book of Western Songs,” 1931). Songs Gardner played from these included “When Billy the Kid Rides Again” and “Old Paint.”
Gardner pointed out, however, that not all great cowboy songs have been written by cowboys. “Ghost Riders,” released in 1948, was a “Tin Pan Alley” composition, but “it was a great song, so you'll see it performed by cowboys,” he explained after playing it.
Another little-known fact is that - contrary to Roy Rogers and Gene Autry movies - the guitar was rarely the instrument of choice for old-time cowboys. When instruments were available at all, the most popular were fiddles, followed by banjos and “a few mandolins,” Gardner explained. “There weren't a whole lot of guitars.”
In addition to the piccolo banjo, the banjos Gardner played were from the 1880s, the 1890s (one of the earlier ones with a sound-altering tone ring), and from the late teens/early '20s (with steel strings and capo).
In a nod to the Zebulon Pike Bicentennial, Gardner said Pike himself might have heard the song, “Spanish Fandango,” which was popular in Spain and Mexico at the time he was captured.
One well-known Western song Gardner did not play was “Home on the Range.” Asked about this song by an audience member, he said what helped make “Range” such a big hit was then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announcing it was his favorite song.
“Where the West Begins,” one of two poems Gardner read in their entirety, was penned by Chapman in response to an early-20th century controversy about the point at which a westbound traveler actually enters “the West,” Gardner explained.
The final lines of the poem are: “Where there's more of singing and less of sighing,/ Where there's more of giving and less of buying/ And a man makes friends without half trying/ That's where the West begins.”
Westside Pioneer article