Jimmie Rodgers, considered to be the "Father of American Country Music"
(photo courtesy of the official Jimmie Rodgers site, http://www.jimmierodgers.com/)

Cowboys & Indians, Part Deux, The Cowboys

The origins of American Folk Music.

In last month's issue you saw that the music of Tin Pan Alley during the early 20th century produced a number of songs that were represented as "Cowboy" or "western" songs. Of course, we saw from the examples that the music was not at all similar to what we know today as Country or Western music. There is good reason for that. Though American folk songs existed practically since the day settlers came to these shores, the phenomenon known as Country and Western music did not emerge in this country until very late in our history. Most of the songs we featured last month were written before 1920. American country and western music, the style we know today, did not emerge until around 1930, at best, the late twenties.

      That may surprise many people because the images associated with that style of music is often the cowboy image. And, of course, the cowboys flourished in the 1870s to the 90s. We have these movie images of the cowpokes sitting around the campfire singing "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" yet that song was not written until the 1930s. So what gives? How can it be that the music we all thought was a long part of our musical heritage is barely older than Rock and Roll?

      Country music as a popular style has its roots in folk music of rural southern America. That music had its origins in folk music brought here by British and Scottish settlers. Then their music began to evolve through a merge of Cajun, Afro-American and Latin American influences. The earliest country music (originally called "Hillbilly Music")... but, I'm getting a little ahead of myself. The question of whether or not American "folk" music is a unique style or one that is nothing more than a hybrid of continental and immigrant styles has been hotly debated over the years. As early as 1893, R. Wallaschek wrote in his Primitive Music that "Negro songs are much overrated. As a rule, they are mere imitations of European compositions the Negroes have picked up and served up again with slight variations". In 1914, H.E. Krehbiel refuted that position in his "Afro American Folk Songs", by stating that African American songs were unique and superior to American songs and that; "they were created in America under American influences by people who are Americans". Later someone else ( Erich von Hornbostel) said that the reason American folk songs sounded like African songs is because they were being sung by African Americans who added their own interpretation. Oww, now my head hurts. Time for a song:

The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine looks like a "cowboy" song, but is it? The fact is, American popular song as well as American folk music by necessity must be a hybrid of all of the traditions brought to us. At the same time, because of the way our society has developed its own identifiable culture, our music too has a unique and identifiable sound. The fact that all of us here (except for Native Americans) are transplants and so too were those who began to develop our early music styles seems to require that our music was a new style that was developed from the old styles brought here.

      Now, back to "hillbilly music". The country and western music we know today developed after approximately 1920. Until that time country music was largely performed in the home, in church or at social functions outside the mainstream of American popular musical culture. Rural entertainers though were not completely isolated from the draw of fame and fortune and a few did attain a semblance of professionalism through traveling medicine shows and in a few rare cases, vaudeville. At first, American country music was primarily instrumented for violin, banjo and/or guitar. Later country groups began to add drums, pianos, electric instruments and at one point, the Hawaiian steel guitar played a prominent part in the ensemble..

      In the early twenties, the gramophone industry began to cultivate country music and through that, country musicians found a new medium to display their talents. The entire country music world changed forever when in 1927, a former railway worker, Jimmie Rodgers and a family trio from Virginia, the Carters made their first recordings.

(Jimmie Rodgers; top of the page. Below; The carters, ca 1930)

      With the publication of this music, Americans finally got to hear "real" American country music and they were enthralled by it. Listen to this short au snip of the Carters singing Keep on The Sunny Side of Life and you can hear the unique original sound of country music in America. Though both performers recorded about the same time, it is Rodgers who has emerged as "the father of country music". Listen to this clip of one of his earliest songs, T for Texas.

      After the Carters and Rodgers got things started, country music became a phenomenon and there were a large number of performers whose music was widely heard. Folks like Fiddlin' John Carson, Vernon Dalhart and others became stars. Around the same period, radio shows emerged that featured country music, among them the famous WSM Barn Dance which later became the Grand Ole Opry. By the 1930's the movies had begun to pick up on country music and from that emerged the great singing cowboys of the 30's and 40's.

(Below, Gene Autry, "The Singing Cowboy")

Of course the most prominent of the singing cowboys was none other than Gene Autry (1907 - 1998). Many people today don't know Autry other than as a baseball team owner, but those of us who grew up in the 30's and 40's remember him ONLY as a cowboy.

      Later, Roy Rogers and the Sons of The Pioneers brought more wonderful cowboy music to all of us. Finally we get as we enter the era the movie cowboy and that wonderful song "Tumbling Tumbleweeds". (sequenced by Chuck Duklis, cduklis@negia.net, used with permission ) - (The great Roy Rogers and Trigger, ca 1940)

My own boyhood was one that included a large dose of Roy, Dale, Gene and Gabby Hayes. Lets not forget Trigger and Bullet too. The singing cowboy's position as national heroes gave country music a glamorous national forum.

      After the 30's, country music, like most things American, began to evolve even further. The music began to move away from its Southern rural identification to become an industry and a genre with a broader appeal. Over time though sometimes you can still hear the same stylistic elements as in the Carter or Rodgers songs, country music has become a phenomenon of huge proportions with mega stars and generating billions in revenue. Of course, sometimes it is very difficult to see certain performers and songs as "country" music in its true form. As with other forms of music, we continue to see change influenced by marketing and sales concerns rather than genuineness of form. Much of what we hear today from some performers is not at all country music but a new form that seems to combine rock and country as well as other influences.

      Musically, what is it about "true" country music that makes it so unique? For one thing, genuine country music has always been defined thematically. Songs about tears in the beer are perhaps a joke, but it is somewhat true. Themes such as mother and home, rambling, prison, hard work, religion and disappointed love abound. Sometimes I have personally wondered why so much sadness. Is it because life was so hard for people in the rural south?

      Ballads in American folk music tend to be four line stanzas, with simple, two-phrase melodies. The New Grove implies that musically, country and folk songs mimic pattern of speech through accenting and use of melismas* and fermatas**. Pauses at the end of lines receive a similar extension. American songs tend to be less jagged and with fewer runs than much European popular or classical song. To quote New Grove, they have "a general reduction of components". Sometimes, the harmonic progressions are difficult to follow and often they do not follow traditional, "classic" orthodoxy. All of the above is meant to describe true American folk or country music. Certainly, those limitations do not apply to what we hear today as far as commercial country and western music.


old meets new
(Above..an old singing cowboy meets a new one)

      Well, that's about enough rambling for now pardners. Bob and I both wish you Happy Trails till we meet again....

Rick Reublin, Bob Maine - May, 2000

*Melisma, a group of notes sung to a single syllable.
**Fermata, a pause prolonging a note or rest beyond its normal value


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