Cowboy Songs

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What keeps the herd from running,
And stampede far and wide?
The cowboy's long, low whistle
And singing by their side.

Between 1870 and 1890, probably 10 million semiwild longhorn cattle traveled from Texas to Kansas and other northern markets. A group of cowboys rode with each herd of from 2,000 to 5,000 cattle to push them up the trail by day and to night-herd them after dark. Any un-usual noise after the cattle were asleep might send them into a wild and destructive stampede. To drown those disturbing noises, the cowboys came to croon or yodel to the cattle. From these cattle calls grew some of the trail songs descriptive of cowboy life. So long as the cattle could hear a familiar voice crooning some cattle lullaby, they had no fear of the howl of a wolf, the scream of a panther, or any of the other sudden noises of the night. Thus what the men sometimes called "dogie" songs soothed the cattle to sleep quietly. The singing of these lonely young buckaroos as they rode around the sleeping longhorns was good economics, and the conditions were ideal for creating ballads: the night, the shimmering stars, the unending prairies, and brave young hearts adventuring. Cowboys sang because they were lonely and because singing helped them in their work. They Sang around the campfire and in the cow town saloons to amuse themselves. They Sang the old ballads along with the sentimental songs of Tin Pan Alley, and they made up new songs and adapted old ones that told about themselves and their work in their own lingo.

Whoopee-ti-yi-yo, git along little dogies,
It's your misfortune and none of my own;
Whoopee-ti-yi-yo, git along little dogies,
For you know Wyoming will be your new home.

A sudden rainstorm at night found all the cowboys riding round and round the milling circle of frightened cattle. Sometimes the lightning would play among the crowded animals so that myriad balls of fire would jump from tip of horn to tip of horn.

I've been where the lightning, the lightning, tangled in my eyes;
The cattle I could scarcely hold.
I think I heard my boss man say,
"I want all brave-hearted men who ain't afraid to die
To whoop up the cattle from morning till night
'Way up on the Kansas line."

Such stirring descriptive passages paint a revealing picture of the open-range days.

More than 200 cowboy songs have survived. Many of the tunes are borrowed. Enough of them seem genuine to claim a place for cowboy songs as a unique ballad product of the American southwest.

Jack Thorpe of New Mexico published locally a small pamphlet collection of cowboy songs without music in 1907. John A. Lomax's Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, published in 1911, was the first printing of cowboy music. The radio and the motion picture both gave cowboy songs a tremendous vogue. "Home on the Range" has been a favorite since 1933, and its authorship provoked a suit for half a million dollars, which the court dismissed.


Carlson, Paul H., ed. The Cowboy Way: An Exploration of History and Culture. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2000.

Clayton, Lawrence, Jim Hoy, and Jerald Underwood. Vaqueros, Cowboys, and Buckaroos. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Lee, Katie. Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle: A History of the American Cowboy in Song, Story, and Verse. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 2001.

Slatta, Richard W. Cowboys of the Americas. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.

John A.Lomax/a. e.

See alsoCattle ; Cattle Drives ; Country and Western Music ; Stampedes ; Trail Drivers .