The singing cowboy is by no means a Hollywood invention. History records the fact that cowboys always sang, starting back when cattle trails began.
At first, there were no true “cowboy songs.” Most cowboys just sang the good old folk songs that they had grown up with, ranging from mountain fiddle tunes like “Old Dan Tucker” to hymns and spirituals that are still familiar today. Over time, creative cowpokes composed their own folk music.
So why did cowboys sing? There were two main reasons:
- To keep the cattle quiet. Cowboys who kept journals frequently commented on the wildness and spookiness of the feral longhorns that they were dealing with. They also noted that talking, humming, or singing to the herd was the best way to keep it calm and under control.
- To stay in touch with a partner. If two cowboys were watching the herd at night, each would take a turn singing a verse of a song. As the song went back and forth, both cowboys would be reassured that everything was in good order.
Doubtless there were other advantages of singing while at work. It would help to pass the long hours of the night, and it would have been soothing to man as well as beast. It was also an entertaining way to preserve cowboy legends and tall tales, or just to express thoughts and feelings on the trail and life in general.