The Roots of Western Music

One of the most interesting aspects of traditional American music is its lineage.  Traditional songs morph over time, perhaps getting their start in foreign countries and adapting themselves to fit the American experience.  As that experience changes and travels to new places, so does the music.

Such was the case with cowboy music, also called Western music to encompass the songs of the Indian, the mountain man, the prospector, and the settler.  Immigrants to America brought with them traditional folk songs from their native lands and embedded them in the culture of their new homes.  As their descendants pioneered the West, they carried that culture with them and adapted it to their new circumstances.

So what were some of the influences on the music of the pioneer and the cowboy?

The British Isles

Given the fact that the cattle-driving culture was born in Scotland and that many of the pioneers were of Scotch-Irish descent, it’s little wonder that much of Western music hails from the British Isles.  Many a Scottish, Irish, or English folk song was introduced to America through immigrants.  These songs persisted in the Eastern states, particularly the Upper South, adapting to new conditions and becoming part of the culture.  When Easterners moved West, the songs moved, too.  For example, the ballad format used in many old songs came to America from the British Isles, while the immortal “Garry Owen” of the Indian Wars was an Irish jig.

The East

Although they may have been influenced by Scotch-Irish music, some of the folk songs that moved West were original American compositions.  But they did not keep the same forms as they traveled westward.  Thus:

  • “Oh! Susannah, don’t you cry for me,” became, “Oh! California, that’s the land for me.”
  • “Their ears will be met with the warning, to bury old Rosin the Bow,” became, “A place to live easy and happy, that Eden is on Puget Sound.”
  • “Bury me not in the deep, deep sea,” became, “Bury me not on the lone prairie.”

The Native Americans

The Roots of Western Music

Indians were an important part of Western music, although not always directly.  There are far more familiar songs about Native Americans than by Native Americans in this genre.

It is interesting to note that not all traditional Western songs deal with Plains or Pueblo tribes.  Some mention the Indians of the East.  For example, Shenandoah, immortalized in song by Canadian fur trappers, was a chief of the Iroquois.

As for traditional Native American music, it was handed down from generation to generation within the same tribe, perhaps shared with a genuinely interested white audience, but rarely adopted intact outside of its original ethnicity.  The musical style of the Plains tribes is probably the most familiar to white Americans today through its replication in countless films.

The Mexican Border

Contact with Mexican culture in the Desert Southwest added its own influence to Western music.  Mexican vaqueros and prospectors sang melodies of their own native country as they worked, while the Americans in communication with them picked up Spanish phrases, subjects, and stylistic additions and absorbed them into their broader body of work.  For example, “Yellow Rose of Texas” dates back to the revolution of Texas from Mexico.

The Plantations

One influence that is less familiar to many Western history buffs is that of the freed slave.  Emancipated slaves frequently left the South to start new lives.  Some of them went to Northern states, synonymous with freedom in their minds.  Others, however, went west.  On the frontier, race was far less of a limiting factor than in the recently war-torn East.

Some of the African-Americans of the West became homesteaders, some became cowboys, and some joined the military in fighting the Indians.  Historians suggest that yodeling might have been introduced to cowboy songs by black cowhands as an adaptation of the old “field holler,” originally sung for motivation while working on plantations.  Also, many black folk songs and spirituals were added to the larger body of American folk songs and traveled west that way.