“I like cowboy songs,” she stated matter-of-factly. Okay, that’s a surprise. I never would have guessed that this prim, slender woman in creased slacks and an embroidered, pastel sweater would favor that genre. She was always in my audience when I played the piano at her senior apartment building. I usually organized my selection of popular old tunes around a theme. After three years, I’d covered patriotic songs, Irish songs, novelty songs, songs by women, Broadway songs, World War II–era songs, even songs about the weather. I was running out of ideas, so I welcomed the input and jotted down her comment. But I had my doubts that the subject matter would work.
It wasn’t hard to think of a few folksongs that crossed into cowboy song territory. “Red River Valley,” for example, and “Home on the Range,” the state song of Kansas and a paean to the American West. I also remembered that my brother sang “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” for the family, if coaxed, when he was a little boy.
A bit of research lead me to the Sons of the Pioneers, an early western singing trio formed in 1933 by Bob Nolan, Tim Spencer, and Leonard Slye (you know him as singing cowboy Roy Rogers). Nolan composed hundreds of songs for the group, including their theme, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” I came across “Back in the Saddle Again,” the signature song of another famous singing cowboy, Gene Autry. My set list began to take shape.
Next I discovered “I’m an Old Cow Hand,” written by Johnny Mercer and sung by Bing Crosby in the 1936 film Rhythm on the Range. Mercer said he got the idea for the song after driving through Texas and seeing a mechanical bull. Here’s a sample of the comic lyrics:
I’m a ridin’ fool who is up to date
I know every trail in the Lone Star State
‘Cause I ride the range in a Ford V8.
I know all the songs that the cowboys know
‘Bout the big corral where the dogies go
‘Cause I learned them all on the rad-ee-o.
Billy Hill, a classically trained violinist, was an unlikely composer of cowboy songs. But a tour of the West inspired him to write a handful of western ballads in the 1930s, including “The Last Round-Up” and “Wagon Wheels.” Those, too, went into the pile of sheet music I was accumulating.
As I pulled together my program, I began to appreciate the loping left-hand bass line of cowboy music, meant to mimic the rhythm of a horse. I learned new vocabulary: hoolihan, coulee, cayuse. The songs evoke images of wide, open spaces and nights around the campfire.
I ended up finding more than enough pieces for my hour-long performance, which I called “Old Songs with a Western Flavor.” It was well-received, and gave me a chance to expand my repertoire and appreciate a category of music I’d never considered playing. Now I try not to fence my audiences in by making assumptions about the music they might like to hear. If Cole Porter can write a cowboy song, anything’s possible in the realm of musical taste.
Copyright © 2013 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.