When the American folk vocal group, The Sons of the Pioneers, went into a recording studio in 1937 and belted out “Blue Juniata” they added fresh voice to what is generally credited as being the first ‘Western’ song. As they sang, fiddled, and strummed their guitars, this American folk vocal group also revitalized a specific musical genre, the ‘Western.’
Synonymous with the American West and the cowboy, its evolution is closely linked to the great cattle drives in the second half of the nineteenth century. These epic movements of livestock, in states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, required a lot of manpower. The men that were recruited comprised the multicultural melting pot that is the American tradition: a refuge for those fleeing oppression and hardship and looking for a better life.
Irishman rode alongside Welshman, Scot with German, all immigrants, all with their own cultural heritage. Often these people were the poorest in the society they left behind. Steeped in a folk tradition that broke free of formality, where rules were there to be broken, they created music that reflected the realities of their own everyday working life.
Teacher, musicologist and passionate advocate of the American folk genre, John A. Lomax, recalled on radio in 1940 his memories as a boy in Texas. Of being in bed in his father’s cabin, and hearing the cowboys sing, yodel and whistle to the cattle in their care. These ‘bovine lullabies’ dispensed with the who, where and when; most were spontaneous and made up. In a number of these songs, the respected American cowboy singer Don Edwards observed, he could clearly recognize strains of what later became the blues.
This shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone, but most of us have been raised on a diet of Hollywood Westerns. Until recently these movies tended to give the impression that all cowboys were white and raised from European stock. The reality was quite different, as is testified by countless old photographs and reflected in more recent films such as Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 movie Django Unchained. In any camp fire pose, or group of saddled cowboys, there is quite likely to be at least one African American, particularly following the civil war. These former slaves brought to the cattle drive not only a wealth of experience but a vibrant culture rooted in adversity.
As did the Mexican. When parts of Mexico seceded to the United States in the agreement of 1848, a wave of immigration north occurred. These vaqueros also brought with them not just their skills as a cowboy but their culture.
Soon Texas and the other frontier states were being introduced to the Corrido, a ballad that spoke about ordinary life and issues of the day. The Corrido de Leandro Rivera, for example, recalled a bandit hero in the Republic of Texas in 1841. Cowboys on the ranches rapidly became accustomed to strains of the Rancheros, meaning literally music of the ranches.
Conversations round the camp fire must have been interesting, as former Confederate soldier, ex-slave and Mexican vaquero came together, all on an equal footing. Cross-cultural exchange was inevitable.
Mexican musicians started experimenting, using the German accordion to bring a fresh ‘twist’ to their own music, and to the polka and waltz. Fusions such as the lively Tejano were the result.
In Texas, fiddlers developed a three part style that was quite distinct from their Appalachian cousins. By the close of the twentieth century school bands in Texas and across much of North America were giving enthusiastic, noisy renditions of the Mariachi, a Mexican-American musical fusion using guitar, violin, trumpet and accordion; sometimes the Mexican folk harp could be heard as well.
And it would be a mistake to think that the Western song reflected only life on the range. There is a Western song that speaks for everyone who shaped the American West, from the great mountain men who explored The Rocky Mountains, to those who maintained law and order.
Other songs spoke to every worker toiling in the silver and gold mines of California and Montana. The ballad “Clementine” recalls the California gold rush, whilst “The Dreary Black Hills” does the same for the gold rush in South Dakota.
It is ironic that “Blue Juniata” was neither composed by a cowboy, nor reflected his life. Released in 1844, it was written by Marion Dix Sullivan, a songwriter and composer from New Hampshire, who wrote it as a parlor song for nice middle class homes. In it she wove a tale about a young Indian maid waiting for her brave on the banks of the Juniata river in Pennsylvania.
Today the ‘Western’ song, at one stage on life support after the onslaught of Rock’n’Roll, is enjoying a revival. One man, Michael Martin Murphey, has been relentlessly promoting the Western genre with groups such as Riders in the Sky. An old musical tradition has reinvented itself, featuring as part of the soundtrack for the video game Fallout: New Vegas.