A Short History Of Western Music

Bar -G Wranglers

                       A short history of the

                      Music Of The West 



Western music originated as a form of American folk music. Originally composed by and about the people who settled and worked throughout the Western United States and Western Canada. Directly related musically to old English, Scottish, and Irish folk ballads, Western music celebrates the life of the cowboy on the open ranges and prairies of Western North America. The Mexican music of the American Southwest also influenced the development of this genre. Western music was associated with country music only because of Billboard chart classification. For the artists that wrote and performed Western music, this association as a sub-genre of country music is erroneous. Western music shows no historical origination with the music that came from the southeastern parts of the United States [Wikipedia]


Who's That under the Stetson?

(Kate Taylor-Warren former President of WY. Western Music Assoc.)

Managing herds of domestic animals is a job as old as Adam and as widespread as the four corners of the earth. But nowhere, and at no time in history, is there a herdsman so iconic that even his shadow is recognized as the American Cowboy.

His skills were forged by the Spanish vaqueros of Mexico, and even his clothing and gear developed from theirs. His range started in Texas in the mid-1860s after the War Between the States as he returned from battle to find the feral cattle roaming the plains,offspring of the untended herds he'd left behind. His traditions began with the round up,the branding, the long slow months of pushing great herds of longhorns across empty land to the railroad in Kansas or Missouri. He sang to quiet the cattle on the long dark nights and he sang at the campfire about his adventures.

The face under under the wide-brimmed hat might have been the fair skin and blue eyes of a son of Ireland or the dark skin and eyes of a former slave. He may have come north from Mexico, west from the farms and cities of the eastern states, or out of the Indian Nations. He may have been a seasoned veteran of the plains but was more likely not much more than a boy. As long as he did his job and "rode for the brand" he was considered a "good hand", a worthy and respected worker.

His fame was spread to the East and to Europe in Wild West shows by men like Buffalo Bill in the late 1800s. His image became recognized in the silent movies under the ten-gallon hats of stars like Tom Mix. He found a voice in men like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, a voice that sang and yodeled in memory of the simple songs crooned to the cattle on star spangled prairie nights. The simple melodies of the prairie became lavish productions on screen in the 1930s and 40s, rich in harmony and brimming with images of the American West and the freedom of life in the saddle. This icon of American history became America's hero as those singing movie cowboys promoted the code of honor, decency and fair play that inspired a generation of children. The American Cowboy continued to dominate in theaters in big sweeping epic motion pictures with stars like John Wayne, and when television came along, the Cowboy rode high in numerous weekly series well into the late 1960s and early 70s. Bonanza, Rawhide, Big Valley, Laramie.

It seems now days the American Cowboy has at last ridden off into the sunset. We may see him on television in reruns. He appears occasionally on the big screen. Musical celebrities wearing cowboy hats aren't singing about the West and the life of a cowboy.They are performing popular country music about other subjects entirely. In the Eastern United States, a reckless driver is called a "cowboy." In England a "cowboy" is a tradesman who has shoddy skills and cheats his clients. This is not the classic American Cowboy.

The American Cowboy has not ridden off into the sunset. You can see him ropingsteers at a rodeo in Texas. You can listen to him at a gathering in Nevada recite a poem he wrote about a round up on his ranch. You may or may not see him a-horseback with his dog checking fence-line and hunting strays on the range in Wyoming, but he's out there. You can find him crooning melodies of the West on stages at festivals, in concerts, and at dinner shows across the West in settings of exquisite natural beauty like the red rock spired depths of Bryce Canyon. You can see his spirit when a tourist from Massachusetts or Milan or Munich or Misawa puts a wide-brimmed cowboy hat on his head and catches a glimpse of his shadow in the sunset light. The shoulders square. The back is straighter. And though it is a setting sun, it casts a taller shadow, for as long as there are sunsets, there will be Cowboys.

 By: S. A. Weil

    Coming west with the flow of characters that settled, explored, and worked, the region now know as The Great American West; was a form of music that grew out of roots dug deep within the hearts of each of these individuals. Thus it is that all these characters shared in the making of the sound of the West, Western Music.

This music formed and grew to be referred to as Western Music, later to be know as Cowboy music. As mentioned before this music grew from the individuals that settled the west, so reader please bare in mind the fact that these persons were from a vast and divergent background, including most European nations of the time. However as one will listen to this music they will find that this form was out of all influences, affected the greatest by the large population of English ballads and melodies sung, cultured and played by the American people and the heritage that thus connects her people to that of the Land that gave her birth, the British Isles. This said, the British isles at this time consisted of both the English, Scottish and Welsh island as well as the island of Ireland.

So this in itself is quit diverse, but we must not hang here to long. As early as 1804 with the coming of the Corp of Discovery ( the Lewis and Clark expedition) came the airs sung by the military and public house crowds of the day. The Celtic influence in these tunes as well as, the rich vocals of the Welsh, and  the shanties of the sea faring man is clearly evident.Moving forward we begin to see music on the horizon of the prairies and valleys of the west as these captivating men make their way along the Missouri river ways out to the northern prairies of the Dakotas and Montana, then enters an interesting turn… Charbonneau and Sacajawea… the influences of the French born fur trappers and Hudson Bay British/French Canadians come onto the scene. This brings the melodies of the French Arcadians with its recorders, drones, and chanters. A marked difference from the Cajun and Creole music bursting out of the South. Adding these forms of music begins to bring to fruition a form of Folk Music that combines the airs of the British with that of the more classic chorded music of the "Continent" (Europe) together to form a very solid rhythmic yet lilting sound.

The frontier borders of the west now have been penetrated and now comes the opening of the west.

The Great Western Road the "Oregon Trail" brings an all new aspect. With the decrease of the wanting economy of the eastern portions of North America, the tales of the Haven in the West the "Oregon Country"  America gets a restless fever that stirs and moves most folks, but in their soul only. However those brave souls that dared to make the trek west began to form in droves along the open prairies of the central plains. We pause here to examine the traveler west at this time. Missionaries going west to help mankind, churched families with their beloved hymns, fiddlers with there merry tunes, and the Ohio Valley homesteader/farmer. We must also put to remembrance that this is also the time of the Potato Famine or The Great Famine of Ireland 1845-1852 and the Scottish Highlands 1846-1857.This incident brings many from the celtic region of the world to America. These people are also drawn west to the promises of wealth in the Pacific Northwest. Here then is when this music form of the Great American West now combines more greatly the haunting melodies and jigs of the Galics to its ranks with the singable tunes of the New England hymnist . As the Trail becomes more and more popular so do the songs written about it and the grandeur the west has to offer. At times these tales become more and more grand, too grand for reality but not for the mind.

This sets the stage for the 49’ers and the gold rush of Calironía. Here enters enters the brawling raucous sounds of the dancehalls and "less desirable" facets of the time.

Then along comes the American Civil War. Through the 1860’s the country is turned to a military beat and marches are the thing. The War over… here comes the GREAT AMERICAN COWBOY! Ex soldiers with their marches, southerners with their faith and ballads, Germanic tunes brought by men who came to fight in Lincolns army, from Bavaria, the Black Forest, Alps, and the Low Countries are here to fight but now there is no war but rather a West that needs won and conquere! Out they come young and old just in time for the large ranches, that have been cut out of the Texas plains and north to the central plains of the Midwest, who are in great need of "Cowhands" pushing cattle to markets and railheads to the north. Here we are then ready to add yet another facet into our ever growing, fascinating music form. The rhythm and flare of the Spaniard is about to hit the scene and truly an underlying current of this addition has for sometime, already been waiting in the west. Up out of the Spanish conquered lands of Latin America comes a rhythmic, fast paced “Fandango Mariachi” music. It is at this boiling point that Western Music is truly born and can now be rightly called Cowboy Music. For it is now, and only now, after all these influences, someone with the title of Cowboy is signing the song of the sage, of the range, of the romance, of the work, of the beauty, of the land where he lives, and works.

The sound and song of the West is now here! Yet this is not where it ends, many years go by and William Cody invents the Cowboy Show, others the Rodeo, The Wild West is no longer wild, however it is still wild on the stage. The romance of the west begins to circulate in the form of dime novels, with bits and pieces of songs written by "Cowboys". Rodeos are being advertised and the curios of what the arts and events of the west are, now griping the adventurer of the East. Excursions are made west by what would become a new season of the west “The Tourist Season”.  If you were unable to make it west, shows are brought back east. The Famous Buffalo Bill Wild West Show with the lovely Miss Annie Oakley among others like the Pawnee Bill Show and others are all the rage. This in itself with the later vaudeville shows of the 1920’s pave the way for the SILVERSCREEN! And now Western/Cowboy music really gets a help. With the invention of the talkie films brings a whole new audience to the sound and scene of the West. Here comes the redoubtable icon of America the "Singing Cowboy". All that is good in mankind is embodied in this character. Role models, those to fight wrong, those to help were idolized, by the youth and adults alike the world over. With the likes of Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, ROY ROGERS and THE SONS OF THE PIONERS, Cowgirls like Dale Evans, and Patsy Montana added their touch to the music as well Even John Wayne as a young star was shoved into this act. However Wayne’s persona as an all around masculine guy is what won in the end and there went his extremely short career as a Singing Cowboy. Yet The image of this great icon of the west lived strong for many years. A power to be reckoned with, moral and true, one that lived the Code of The West was this image the Silverscreen Cowboy.

Yet along with this Cowboy Music coming out of this era is a new twist. The Big Band sound is now starting to take over the east. And what a great sound it was…well why not incorporate some of this as well in the west…presto we now have Western Swing to add to our mix. Now remember the Spanish influence coming up from Mexico,Texas,and California, these are really taking effect… well these sounds are just the right ingredient for this new Cowboy Swing.

Yet it moves on further. Hawaii is admitted to the Union and the pedal steel is such a great addition to this sound as well. The entire Country can not get enough of this sound. It is all over the radio waves, on the screen, and Roy and Dale are the idol of all American youth adding in the great sound of Western Ballads with guitar, fiddle, and steel. What a great time decent and clean is the way…and it went far…until we come to another time.

It is now after the Great War. America is settling down and becoming what she thinks is stale. Well a new form of music must replace right? Well not exactly but this is the thought. On come the Rock and Roll era in the East and spreads as fast as anything. Catchy tunes and fun lyrics replace that of the Big Bands and in the South there is a music forming out of folk, bluegrass, and rockabilly. This would go on to be tagged Country music. Here also is a remnant, or should we say in look only to that of the Cowboy Music hayday. Cowboy hats are donned, and chord patterns and shuffle beats follow that of the Western Music days. So lets combine the two... and Country and Western catches the phrase world and off it goes…unfortunately quickly leaving the western world all behind. More aptly it was referred to as the Nashville sound by the North East musicians and this holds the name better. So quickly the western was dropped and Country remained, as it was the music of the rural South East, and Eastern seaboard. Now Where does this leave Western Music. In a heap on the side of the trail, why no… just a little lonely found here and there in Chuckwagon Supper Shows around the West, and it can still be heard played in any western tourist venue and festival, but most important of all it is still in the hearts of all true western fans. Not for its lyrical content only, but because of that sound that it has been so richly influenced from around the entire globe! So no matter where you are from you can feel a kin to this music form called “COWBOY MUSIC” For Your a ancestors somewhere were a part of its creatio! Enjoy it Y’all!