Early October 2021
John Avery Lomax: Preserving the Past The Cowboy’s Meditation
The history of the Wild West can oftentimes be told more vividly in song than in text, historic or otherwise. The music of the cowboy comes to life through tunes that initially were sung to calm the cattle on the long drives to market. Typically, the beeves were driven from places in the prairie, the land east of the Rockies, to the railroad lines in Kansas. Dodge City got its famous name and infamous reputation from the saddle tramps who’d grown tired of singing to four-legged beasts; they wanted entertainment from the two-legged variety, aka saloon girls.
John Avery Lomax (1867-1948) was an ardent and dedicated teacher, folklorist and pioneering historian of American cowboy songs. His role is immeasurable in preserving the music of the Old West: cowboy songs, folk songs, and frontier ballads. Born in Goodman Mississippi, Lomax grew up on a family farm located on the Texas frontier, a tough land that often took more than it gave.
The boundless sky of rural Bosque County, Texas broadened the wandering spirit in the adult Lomax. He tried teaching school for a few years, but he soon quit that formalized profession, and then, in 1865, headed toward his own formalized schooling, namely the University of Texas. He chose English literature as his focus of study; and thereupon experienced what must have been a bruising encounter with an English professor. Lomax showed to this academician a roll of cowboy songs that he’d written during childhood. The literary pedagogue dismissed those creative compositions as “cheap and unworthy.” Student John took this haughty prof to heart, and burned his bundle of cowpoke poetry. He thereafter pursued more conventional but nonetheless ambitious academic pursuits. Administrative posts at the University of Texas were followed, in 1903, by teaching English at Texas A&M University, and then he married a gal named Bess.
Lomax tried the pastoral life in Texas, but his restless soul couldn’t hack it. In 1907, he scurried to grad-student status at Harvard University. There, he submerged himself in the study of chronicling cowboy songs under the tutelage of Barrett Wendell and George Lyman Kittredge; those two illustrious litterateurs applauded this forty-year old for his avid interest in the theretofore undone, or at least, unsung, compilation of cowboy songs. They would continue their advisory and inspirational roles in the life of this very unique American with a very unique mission to preserve this frontier past, an epoch that Lomax believed was imperiled by the advance of modern life — in the early 20th century! John Avery Lomax was a visionary! He was a study in non-study, applying a highly academic approach to conserving a musical genre that had never seen the inside of a classroom — and, hopefully, never would.
With immense determination, Lomax followed his heart’s desire to research, collect, and catalogue the music of the cowherds in the American West. Further academic positions and research grants aided this man to progress in his remarkably specialized field. In 1910, Lomax received publication of the anthology, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. The book was popular among the buying public and highly acclaimed by the academic world. The Texas Folklore Society was then established, by Lomax and Kittredge, as a branch of the American Folklore Society. This organization grew in number, and in scope, further expanding and solidifying the archival work of Lomax. His goal was to preserve the lyrical past — by publishing his gatherings of folklore and lyrics — before this innovative body of ballads, ditties, lullabies, melodies and verse vanished with the passage of time. Future scholars, film artists, and singers, would consequently possess actual documented lyrics and sheet music. With the advent of the Victor Talking Machine Company, recorded sounds would offer not only the sensibility of a by-gone era, but grant to the listener the chance to hear those oral traditions.
Thus was born the auditory history of the Old West through the frontier songs of cowboys, intoning the folklore of how the West was confronted, worked, and settled. The single-minded aspiration by one man became this prolific tremendous achievement: the collection of more than ten thousand recordings for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. The true, unvarnished and unrepentant history of the West comes to us today through the unceasing efforts by one amateur songwriter of cowpoke tunes who became an esteemed musicologist, the music historian of the American cowboy. The authentic and historical accounting, circumstances, framework, atmosphere, and experiences of any culture are best told not in scholarly text or through a squishy faux-history doomed to endure even more endless revisionist frenzy. Such a living history, of traditions, backdrop. actions, attainments, and aura, is meticulously passed on down the ages, for the ages, because of melodic poetry that comes from the heart of one human being to another — or from the heart of a cowherd to his cattle.
The introduction to Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads is: What keeps the herd from running, Stampeding far and wide? The cowboy’s long, low whistle, And singing by their side.
One of those frontier ballads is named “The Cowboy’s Meditation.” The spoken lyrics are as follows:
AT midnight when the cattle are sleeping On my saddle I pillow my head, And up at the heavens lie peeping From out of my cold, grassy bed, — Often and often I wondered At night when lying alone If every bright star up yonder Is a big peopled world like our own. Are they worlds with their ranges and ranches? Do they ring with rough rider refrains? Do the cowboys scrap there with Comanches And other Red Men of the plains? Are the hills covered over with cattle In those mystic worlds far, far away? Do the ranch-houses ring with the prattle Of sweet little children at play?
At night in the bright stars up yonder Do the cowboys lie down to their rest? Do they gaze at this old world and wonder If rough riders dash over its breast? Do they list to the wolves in the canyons? Do they watch the night owl in its flight? With their horse their only companion While guarding the herd through the night? Sometimes when a bright star is twinkling Like a diamond set in the sky, I find myself lying and thinking, It may be God’s heaven is nigh. I wonder if there I shall meet her, My mother whom God took away; If in the star-heavens I’ll greet her
At the round-up that’s on the last day.
In the east the great daylight is breaking And into my saddle I spring; The cattle from sleep are awakening, The heaven-thoughts from me take wing, The eyes of my bronco are flashing, Impatient he pulls at the reins, And off round the herd I go dashing, A reckless cowboy of the plains.