10 Cowboy Songs From the Old West

Updated on March 2, 2020
harrynielsen profile image

New World history is a rich field that is constantly being analyzed for new material. The complexity of these tales never fails to amaze me.

Singin' In the Night

Cowpuncher's Lullaby by Frederick Remington
Cowpuncher's Lullaby by Frederick Remington

The Origin of the Cowboy Song

Cowboy songs originated during the long cattle drives of the late 1800s (1870-1890), when ranch hands were responsible for moving large herds of semi-wild longhorns from Texas to the rail lines in Kansas. During that short 20 year period, it is estimated that around 10 million head of cattle were herded north to the rail stations.

On the average, each trail drive contained maybe 2,000 to 5,000 head of cattle. Stampedes were a constant threat, especially at night, and so to soothe and calm the herd, the cowboys would sing songs for the cattle. It was believed that if the animals could here a familiar voice, then they would be less likely to be spooked over the course of the night.

The Cowboy Yodeling

Many of the original Cowboy songs involved yodeling, a singing style more often associated with the Swiss Alps than the American West. Nonetheless, yodeling survived and even flourished during the long trail drives of the late 1800s. Certainly, some of the songs that were sung at night were meant to soothe the cattle, but also important, was the necessity of breaking the boredom of working a lengthy night shift.

Following is the classic, Cattle Call, as performed by LeeAnn Rimes and Eddy Arnold. This song was actually written in 1934 by a guy named Tex Owens during an era, when singing cowboys were highly romanticized and very popular.

The Cattle Call as performed by Lee Ann Rimes and Eddy Arnold in 1996

The Singing Cowboys

The twenties and especially the thirties produced a series of singing and yodeling cowboys, including Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Of the Big Three, perhaps, Rogers gained the most fame and his extraordinary yodeling skill may have had something to do with that. In 1936, along with the Sons of the Pioneers, Roy recorded a very polished Night Herding song that features lots of classic Hollywood yodeling.

What follows is a different and perhaps more authentic night herding song, which was first recorded by Rambling Jack Elliot, and sung live here by Colter Wall. Nonetheless, the song is not so polished and the yodeling is rather basic.

The Night Herding Song

Tellin' the Truth

This little humorous Sesame Street skit actually gives out some good information about the history behind one of the more popular songs that the Cowboys would use to serenade the cattle. The singer and storyteller is Arlo Guthrie, son of the legendary folksinger and vagabond, Woody Guthrie. And the song is Get Along Little Dogies.

Get Along Little Dogies

Bang the Drum Slowly

The Streets of Laredo, also known as The Cowboy's Lament, is a Western song that has been around for a long time, possibly dating back to the mid-1800s. According to oral history, this sad tune was sung around the campfires and night watches during the trail drives and also performed back home on the ranch.

If you trace this folk song back across the Atlantic, you will find a very similar tune called the Unfortunate Rake and yet still another variation, titled the Bard of Armaugh, which also tells a story of dying and death in the face of adversity. The European history of The Streets of Laredo shouldn't diminish the beauty of this Burl Ives rendition. Instead, it should clarify how some of our American music has traveled across the Atlantic in previous centuries.

The Streets of Laredo

The Modern Cowboy Song

Perhaps, the modern Cowboy song, has its roots in the story swapping and tall tales that got passed around the bunkhouse, where many of the ranch hands lived, when they weren't out on the trail. For many of the old cowhands, the real adventure began after they had delivered their product to market and then received their pay. At this point, the drovers were bound to hit a "Wild West" town, have a good time and still find their way back to the ranch or whatever place they intended on spending the winter.

Cowboy Storytelling

Not all Cowboy singing involved the night guard and night herding, as this Thomas Eakins painting of a bunkhouse strongly suggests.
Not all Cowboy singing involved the night guard and night herding, as this Thomas Eakins painting of a bunkhouse strongly suggests.

The Wild West Revisisted

In modern times, the "Wild West" has been revisited so often that sometimes it seems that it is hardly worth mentioning. Fortunately, a few instances stand out, such as the 1959 release of an album called Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, by a crossover pop singer, better known as Marty Robbins. The album quickly went gold and over the years it has been often considered to be one of the most influential Western alums of the 20th century.

Robbins wrote three of the songs,himself. They are Big Iron, El Paso and The Masters Call, all of which have become very popular, especially El Paso. Before the Gunfighters release, Marty had already established a good reputation as a successful, pop singer. But with this 1959 release, Robbins gained a solid reputation in Western circles that still runs strong.

El Paso

A Cowboy Song from the Early Sixties

Me & My Uncle was written by John Phillips of Mamas and Papas fame in 1963. The murder story is included here because the song contains many elements of a modern Cowboy story, such as a poker game in Santa Fe, accusations of cheating, gunplay, gold, flight to Mexico to avoid the law, and death.

According to John, the cowboy ballad was put together in a few hours of the wee morning after a late night drinking session with the likes of Judy Collins, Stephen Stills and Neil Young. But the strangest thing about this song is that John did not remember writing it. However, the rest of the gang made a recording on a cassette player and then in 1964, Judy included Me & My Uncle on an album of live material, titled Judy Collins Live.

The album sold well and as a result John Philips started receiving royalty checks from Judy Collins, even though he had no recollection of having ever written the song. Since that time, Me & My Uncle has been recorded by the likes of John Denver, Joni Mitchell, John Philips, the Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic and Dino Valente. Following is the Jony Mitchell version.

Me and My Uncle as sung by Joni Mitchell

The Colorful Life of Don Edwards

Originally from rural New Jersey, Don Edwards left the East in 1955 at age 16 to experience the New West firsthand. After working in the oil fields and ranches of West Texas and New Mexico, Don took to performing songs and ballads of the West. His repertoire includes old standards as well as songs that he has written himself. Today, Don is also considered to be one of the better contemporary Cowboy yodelers.

Coyotes by Don Edwards

An Old Photo That Inspired a Song

This 1905 vintage photograph of Geronimo dressed up in a suit and top hat, while riding a Cadillac inspired a great Western song.
This 1905 vintage photograph of Geronimo dressed up in a suit and top hat, while riding a Cadillac inspired a great Western song.

A Cowboy Poet Composes an American Indian Classic

Back in 1972, Michael Martin Murphy wrote this epic song about the sedentary life of Geronimo after the famous, renegade warrior had been captured by the U.S. Army. Inspired by a 1905 photograph, the song, Geronimo's Cadillac, received much underground FM airplay and helped enhance Murphy's reputation, as an "Outlaw Country" performer, who could play alongside the likes of Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker. Geronimo's Cadillac also became the official anthem of the American Indian Movement. Very impressive for a Dallas, Texas folksinger, whose first paid gig was playing cowboy songs around a campfire.

Geronimo's Cadillac

Townes van Zandt

Townes van Zandt was a Texas songwriter and singer that has defied description. Despite a host of personal problems that included alcoholism, drug addiction, poverty and bipolar disorder, Townes in his fifty years on this planet, created an extraordinary slew of folk songs. Perhaps his most famous was Pancho and Lefty, a rich ballad that was made famous by the legendary C & W musical talents of Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.

During the course of his life, van Zandt scorned comfortable living and instead survived in old rundown shacks, cheap motel rooms, missions, friends' apartments and even the side of the road. Some of that roundabout living comes through in this tale of two Mexican desperados.

Pancho and Lefty

Four C&W Greats Cut an Album

Last, but not least, we have Kris Kristoffersson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson performing a song, written by Ed Bruce and Ron Peterson, called The Last Cowboy Song. This popular tune explores the modern reality of Cowboys, as most of Western culture today is centered on fancy dress and over-sized pickup trucks.

The Last Cowboy Song

The Black Cowboys

By best estimate, one in four of the western cowboys were black, but yet today, this reality often remains forgotten. Back in 1942, Abbott and Costello filmed a saloon scene featuring black cowboys and cowgirls, for their movie, "Ride "Em Cowboy". Unfortunately, the scene was not included in the final cut, but it did find a live of its own as a popular short.

The film clip, called a Soundie, features Dorothy Dandridge as the singing cowgirl and a jazzed cowboy song that was popular in the 40s, called Cow Cow Boogie.

Cow, Cow Boogie

Bonus Track: I Ride an Old Paint

This cut by Carl Sandburg dates back to the 30s and personifies Western Cowboy Poetry at its best. Sandburg,a college dropout and national poet, spent part of the depression years, looking for old folk songs and western yarns. In a New Mexico bunkhouse, he found this beauty, which has since become a Western classic.

Somewhere out there, there is film of Mr. Sandburg performing this gem of a song. But in the meantime, you will have to make do with this 1938 audio version. I think it sounds better this way and perhaps you will, too.

Ridin' an Old Paint

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Harry Nielsen


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    • harrynielsen profile imageAUTHOR

      Harry Nielsen 

      4 months ago from Durango, Colorado

      So good to hear you are inspired by these songs. Many but not all were written in the 20th centuy by contemporary artists.

    • profile image


      4 months ago

      So great. inspire a song I am writing

    • CaribTales profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      2 years ago from The Caribbean

      Everything becomes more interesting when we learn the origin. Thanks for these facts and the selection of songs. You help to increase my appreciation for cowboys.

    • harrynielsen profile imageAUTHOR

      Harry Nielsen 

      2 years ago from Durango, Colorado

      Thanks for the nice comment. Looking back from the 21st century added a few twists and turns in the story that I did not expect.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      2 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Great Hub, Harry. For whatever reasons, the cowboy has become the American favorite folklore figure.I like your selection of songs and singers, as well.


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