A cowboy’s life on the trail was hard work with little pay at the end of it – typically in the order of a dollar a day. By the time they got to sitting around the campfire of an evening, they were physically exhausted and looking for some entertainment to help them relax. What better than a song around the campfire and what to sing about other than their own experiences?

A dark sense of humour figured in many cowboy songs - irony was always in vogue
A dark sense of humour figured in many cowboy songs – irony was always in vogue

As a result, songs became the main form of amusement and the lyrics a way of creating a permanent record of the events they had witnessed. Typical subjects might be  the rounding up of errant steers and coping with a particularly ornery one, recalling the more outrageous exploits of a character they’d known, telling about the tragic death of a friend, warning of attacks on the herd by Indians or just talking about coping with the highly demanding cowboying work.

Songs were also used as a tool of the cowboy’s trade and it would be nothing to find a cowboy crooning a lullaby to a particularly restless steed during their night-time patrol of the stock. These songs were called ‘dogie songs’. At the other end of the spectrum, cowboys would sometimes sing songs during the day that had high-pitched yips inserted into the chorus. These were used to ‘encourage’ lagging cattle to get a move on.

Songs also served to encourage cowboys to get to the end of the trail where they could indulge in the various pleasures of the flesh such as drinking, dancing, gambling and, of course, ‘paying their respects to the ladies’. With a pocket full of dollars, there was plenty to spend their money on and thus songs were created as minds contemplated the hedonistic delights that they would soon be enjoying.

Not surprising, therefore, that there was a final group of songs which warned of the consequences of playing fast and loose with the wrong sort. Professional gamblers and card sharps, men returned from the Civil War with twitchy nerves and an even twitchier gun hand, and a ratio of men to women of something like twenty to one all awaited the cowboy who ended months of abstinence with an excess of strong liquor and an absence of self-control; a powerful and destructive combination.

Live music is still popular
Live music is still popular

Song lyrics were probably decided by committee because, for any new song to succeed, it had to be approved by most of the team. If not, it’d not be sung. What might be surprising is just how literate some of these songs are. Clearly a lot of thought went into them and they celebrate a brief but remarkable period of history. The trails may be long gone but the lyrics remain.

There are two free ebooks listing many of the cowboys’ trail songs and they can be downloaded or read online at Project Gutenberg.

Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp by John Avery Lomax and William Lyon Phelps

Cowboy songs and other frontier ballads

Here are just two of the more popular songs:

WHOOPEE TI YI YO, GIT ALONG LITTLE DOGIES

As I walked out one morning for pleasure,
I spied a cow-puncher all riding alone;
His hat was throwed back and his spurs was a jingling,
As he approached me a-singin’ this song,

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.

Early in the spring we round up the dogies,
Mark and brand and bob off their tails;
Round up our horses, load up the chuck-wagon,
Then throw the dogies upon the trail.

It’s whooping and yelling and driving the dogies;
Oh how I wish you would go on;
It’s whooping and punching and go on little dogies,
For you know Wyoming will be your new home.

Some boys goes up the trail for pleasure,
But that’s where you get it most awfully wrong;
For you haven’t any idea the trouble they give us
While we go driving them all along.

When the night comes on and we hold them on the bedground,
These little dogies that roll on so slow;
Roll up the herd and cut out the strays,
And roll the little dogies that never rolled before.

Your mother she was raised way down in Texas,
Where the jimson weed and sand-burrs grow;
Now we’ll fill you up on prickly pear and cholla
Till you are ready for the trail to Idaho.

Oh, you’ll be soup for Uncle Sam’s Injuns;
“It’s beef, heap beef,” I hear them cry.
Git along, git along, git along little dogies
You’re going to be beef steers by and by.

THE KANSAS LINE

Come all you jolly cowmen, don’t you want to go
Way up on the Kansas line?
Where you whoop up the cattle from morning till night
All out in the midnight rain.

The cowboy’s life is a dreadful life,
He’s driven through heat and cold;
I’m almost froze with the water on my clothes,
A-ridin’ through heat and cold.

I’ve been where the lightnin’, the lightnin’ tangled in my eyes,
The cattle I could scarcely hold;
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.”

Speaking of your farms and your shanty charms,
Speaking of your silver and gold,—
Take a cowman’s advice, go and marry you a true and lovely little wife,
Never to roam, always stay at home;
That’s a cowman’s, a cowman’s advice,
Way up on the Kansas line.

Think I heard the noisy cook say,
“Wake up, boys, it’s near the break of day,”—
Way up on the Kansas line,
And slowly we will rise with the sleepy feeling eyes,
Way up on the Kansas line.

The cowboy’s life is a dreary, dreary life,
All out in the midnight rain;
I’m almost froze with the water on my clothes,
Way up on the Kansas line.

2 thoughts on “Trail songs

    1. “A miner said, “Betsy, will you dance with me?”
      “I will that, old hoss, if you don’t make too free;
      But don’t dance me hard. Do you want to know why?
      Dog on ye, I’m chock full of strong alkali.”

      Good one, Allen

      Like

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