A common theme in cowboy songs is the hope of heaven. This particular song is sung to a Scottish air virtually everyone is familiar with: My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean. A very early (1935) and abbreviated recording of the song by The Sons of the Pioneers features Roy Rogers on vocals and yodel. It can be heard here.
The Cowboy’s Dream
Last night as I lay on the prairie,
And gazed at the stars in the sky,
I wondered if ever a cowboy
Would drift to that sweet by and by.
CHORUS: Roll on, roll on;
Roll on, little dogies, roll on, roll on,
Roll on, roll on;
Roll on, little dogies, roll on.
The road to that bright, happy region
Is a dim, narrow trail, so they say;
But the broad one that leads to perdition
Is posted and blazed all the way.
They say there will be a great round-up,
And cowboys, like dogies, will stand,
To be marked by the Riders of Judgment
Who are posted and know every brand.
I know there’s many a stray cowboy
Who’ll be lost at the great, final sale,
When he might have gone in the green pastures
Had he known of the dim, narrow trail.
I wonder if ever a cowboy
Stood ready for that Judgment Day,
And could say to the Boss of the Riders,
“I’m ready, come drive me away.”
For they, like the cows that are locoed,
Stampede at the sight of a hand,
Are dragged with a rope to the round-up,
Or get marked with some crooked man’s brand.
And I’m scared that I’ll be a stray yearling,
A maverick, unbranded on high,
And get cut in the bunch with the “rusties”
When the Boss of the Riders goes by.
They tell of another big owner
Whose ne’er overstocked, so they say,
But who always makes room for the sinner
Who drifts from the straight, narrow way.
They say he will never forget you,
That he knows every action and look;
So, for safety, you’d better get branded,
Have your name in the great Tally Book.
Note: if you’re interested in seeing more traditional cowboy songs, John A. Lomax anthologized many of the lyrics in Cowboy Songs & Other Frontier Ballads, published in the Journal of American Folklore in 1938. It’s available for download from the University of Nebraska.
Thanks to the movies and mid-20th century TV, when we think of men’s underwear in the Old West, we usually picture the union suit, a garment that looked like a cross between a onesie and today’s longjohns, with buttons up the front and a flap in the back to accommodate nature’s needs. But union suits weren’t always a single piece — it was possible to buy shirts and pants separately. They also came in an above-the-knee length (for the especially hardy).
Less well-known were garments called “linens”, from the material they were made out of. Linens could be long, though they were usually knee-length or shorter. They had buttons or grommets with laces, and some had wide waistbands. Even more obscure was a cotton garment with buttons and ribbed legs that’s quite similar to the recently-popularized “boxer-briefs”. From my research, I believe these were among the first to be considered “drawers”.
In most of the Old West, the ranchers managed two yearly round-ups. A spring round-up was done to identify and brand the new calves in a herd, and castrate any male calves that were not needed for reproduction (these cattle were called “steers” and often outnumbered the females).
It was a big job to get cattle from the open range to the railhead or directly to market. Round-ups for this purpose were usually done in the fall and could take several weeks. The cowboys might live out on the range for that entire time, accompanied by a ramrod (boss), a chuck wagon and possibly a cook. In addition to food stores, the chuck wagon carried their water and emergency medical supplies.
However long it took, a cowboy would draw his wages at the drive’s destination. Many would then find themselves unemployed until the following spring. Since the work load was so light in the winter, particularly in the northern territories, only a few favored cowboys were actually employed year-round. It’s no wonder that most cowboys were young, unmarried, and tended to drift from one town to another.
Cowboys seldom referred to their ropes as lassos. They usually just called them ropes, and the act of catching a steer was called roping. In the Southwest, the rope was also referred to as a lariat or riata, both from the Spanish “la reata”, again meaning rope.
At the end of the riata was a small reinforced loop, through which the other end of the rope would be passed to create a noose. This reinforced loop was called a honda.
Billy the Kid (born William Henry McCarty, alias Henry Antrim, Kid Antrim, & William H. Bonney) has often been referred to as The Left-Handed Gun. In 1958, a movie with that title was made and starred the inimitable Paul Newman. The myth began with the publication of this ferrotype:
It seems to show that Billy is left-handed, but if you look closely, the buttons on his vest are on the wrong side, and the buckle on his belt is also reversed. This is a mirror image, and Billy the Kid was in fact right-handed.
Today’s trivia is a little nugget about the FAST GUN.
In spite of what we’ve seen in TV or movie Westerns, gunslingers in the Old West were few and far between. And even fewer of them were cowboys.
Most cowboys did carry a pistol or two, as well as a rifle. But a cowboy’s main job was to protect the herd, and his weapons were used primarily against four-legged predators; wolves, coyotes, cougars and snakes were the most common recipients of a cowboy‘s bullets.
The weapons of the nineteenth century weren’t nearly as precise as those of today, and a cowboy had to count on his accuracy rather than his swiftness to make a good kill. There were some cowboys whose natural talents made them both swift and sure, but the majority of gunslingers were criminals like John Wesley Hardin, lawmen like Wild Bill Hickok, or criminals turned lawmen like Wyatt Earp.
Who was the fastest gun of all? By all contemporary accounts it was John Wesley Hardin who, they claim, could draw his pistols, shoot and kill a man who already had a gun in his hand.