Chroniclers of Cowboy Songs

Spectacular evening of song: Annual Lomax Gathering features Gillette, Harris, Sandoz, Gore honoring the Ballad Hunter’s legacy in the spirit of the West at Bosque Museum’s fundraiser

MERIDIAN – “Here again, too, we may see the cowboy at work and at play,” the legendary John A. Lomax said in the introduction to his book “Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp” in 1919. “Hear the jingle of the spurs, the swish of his rope, the creaking of the saddle, the thud of thousands of hooves on the long, long winding trail from Texas to Montana. And you know something of the life that attracted from the East some of its best young blood to a work that was necessary in the winning of the West. The trails are becoming dust-covered or grass-grown or lost underneath the farmers’ furrow. But in the selection of this volume, many of them poems by courtesy, men of today and those that are to follow may sense at least in some small measure the service, the glamour, the romance of that knight -errant of the planes – the American cowboy.”

Inspired by the Chisholm Trail cowboy songs heard in his youth, Lomax spent the rest of his life collecting and recording folk songs of the American Deep South. On a pleasantly warm evening, guests to the Bosque Museum Second Annual Lomax Gathering Sept. 17 were treated to the exceptional musical and storytelling talents of award-winning Pipp Gillette, duo Kristyn Harris and Hailey Sandoz – all three played at the 2021 Lomax Gathering also – and Jeff Gore.

“We want to carry on the history of music and storytelling here in Bosque County,” Bosque Museum Director Erin Shields said in her welcome. And what better place to honor the ballad hunter John A. Lomax than in the amphitheater in Meridian that bears his name.

“It was fascinating, because kids that didn’t typically talk in class were chatting,” Shields said sharing a recent Clifton Independent School District seventh grade field trip to the museum. The group surprised her, showing their excitement to see, touch and hold the museum’s archeological artifacts.

“There were so many small, side discussions going on about the history we were teaching them. So when people ask me ‘why does history education matter?’ – that’s why. Because we had seventh graders engaged and talking about history education at school. With seventh graders, nothing you do is cool, and they thought we were pretty cool that day. That is why what we do at the Bosque Museum really matters, and that it really matters that we keep this work going and that we continue to share our history.”

The spectacular evening of song, as much as it was a fundraiser for the museum, was also a true tribute to Lomax and the cowboy and frontier songs. The songs the evening’s masterful musicians chose – whether they were old cowboy songs, or more recently written – were all in the vein of those traditional Western songs documented and preserved by Lomax, in the spirit of the West, capturing the life of the trail or the humble pleasures of farming and ranching life.

When Lomax started collecting the folk songs of the South, it was a period that if people wanted to hear music, they had to make their own. And that’s what people did. They sang when they worked and they sang when they played, and they sang for a variety of reasons, like being on a work crew and they had to work together in time – like on a railroad crew, or sailors hoisting sails. The cowboy night guard also sang to the cattle; so not to startle them as he rode up and to reassure them all was safe.

“The cowboys, who, in their isolation and loneliness, have found solace in narrative or descriptive verse devoted to cattle scenes,” Lomax also said in his introduction. “Herein, again, through these quondam songs we may come to appreciate something of the spirit of the big West – its largeness, its freedom, its wholehearted hospitality, its genuine friendship.”

A versatile musician, Gillette plays guitar, banjo, bones and harmonica, told background stories on his chosen songs, and a joke or two. Starting off his set, he shared some quotes regarding the importance of Lomax’ extensive oeuvre:

“In collecting, arranging, editing and preserving Cowboy songs and frontier ballads, my friend John Lomax has performed a real service to American literature and America,” Yale University’s William Lyon Phelps (1865-1943) said. “No verse is closer to the soil than this; none more realistic in the best sense of that much-abused word; none more truly interprets and expresses a part of our national life.

“It was a wise policy of the faculty of Harvard University to grant Mr. Lomax a travelling fellowship that he might have the necessary leisure to discover and to collect these verses; it is really ‘original research’ as interesting and surely as valuable as much that passes under that name; for it helps every one of us to understand our own country.”

In the forward of the book, President Theodore Roosevelt said “It is a work of real importance to preserve permanently, this unwritten ballad literature of the back country and the frontier.”

“Lomax was such an important, amazing figure in American folk music,” Gillette said in an interview with Chisholm Country magazine on location. “I don’t know what we would have done without him.”

The obvious anchor of the Lomax Gathering, Gillette stayed close to the songs Lomax documented in his books. And before they died down, Gillette already came to Lomax Gatherings in Meridian with his late brother Guy. He is delighted the Bosque Museum is honoring Lomax’ legacy in this way.

“We grew up listening to albums that my parents bought in the fifties,” Gillette said, remembering Folkways Records and Dallas folk singer Hermes Nigh and Cisco Houston who did a lot of Lomax material. They were less interested in the fun Hollywood depiction of the West, but working on the ranch with their grandfather they were fascinated with the reality of pioneer life in the 1800s, and consequently the authentic songs. “And you can’t get anything better than what Lomax collected.”

Each of Gillette’s songs conjured up distinct images of the West, like the one about a gray-haired, former top hand from the trail in an old armchair in the lobby of a big hotel who shared that he wanted to be in Texas for the roundup in the spring: to see the cattle grazing, as the campfires smoked at the breaking of dawn, to hear the broncos neighing and the cowboys sing. And that he would like “to sleep his last long sleep with mother earth for bed, my saddle for a pillow, the bright stars overhead.”

Gillette used his voice only to recount another favorite, E.U. Cook’s poem: “The Devil Made Texas” when the devil wanted to build a hell of his own, he populated it with tarantulas, thorned cactus, horned toads, ants, steers with long horns and jack rabbits with the longest ears, rattlesnakes, thorns and brambles on the trees, mosquitos, chiggers, fleas, poisoned centipedes to provide “stings, cuts, bites, scratches and blisters galore,” red hot peppers, summer heat that was “too cool for the devil and too hot for men.”

Towards the end of the evening, as night took over and the event lights threw deep shadows, adding to the feel of times gone by, the Deep South blues that Lomax was also famous of documenting came out in Gillette’s unique song featuring the harmonica and bovine bones.

Extremely talented and dynamic duo guitarist, vocalist Harris and fiddler vocalist Sandoz turned up the tempo and the fun with some more contemporary songs but in a truly traditional Texas swing style, with incredible dexterity and a yodel here and there. The song line from “You’re from Texas” personifies the two perfectly: “a smile like an acre of sunflowers and your eyes are blue bonnet blue,” as does the line of a Harris original song “Old Soul,” as they like to “live by the code of the cowboy, mesmerized by a simpler time.”

Corb Lund’s catchy song “Cows Around” certainly appealed to the audience, which included some full and part time ranchers. “What else you gonna spend that extra money on? What else is gonna get you up hours before dawn? What else is gonna keep toiling on and on and on?” It showed Harris’ true love for cattle – she has her own Diamond K Angus herd. Once again the young women astounded with their entertaining and phenomenal musical skills.

“It was just a thrill to be here last year and to love, honor the legacy of John Lomax,” Harris said in an interview with Chisholm Country magazine on location, on why the duo returned to the Lomax Gathering.

Ever since she started playing music, Harris was aware of Lomax’ legacy, because she started learning music with cowboy songs and was interested in the history behind the songs.

“People are always talking about how much John Lomax did for this genre, so it’s especially meaningful to us,” Harris said.

“There are not too many people out there, our age that enjoy cowboy music and the history behind it,” Sandoz said about why she calls Harris “my old lady friend.” It is “tongue in cheek” because they both grew up on classic country and folk music, and still prefer to listen to that over popular contemporary music. “It’s just a blast to play this music alongside Kristyn.”

Gore, new to the Lomax Gathering, complemented Gillette and the Harris/Sandoz duo perfectly. A singing cowboy and a minister to ranching and rural communities, he continued painting pictures of the cowboy life with his songs and stories.

“John Lomax is kind of the beginning – there were just a few guys back in the 1800s, early 1900s that appreciated Western verse,” Gore said in an interview with Chisholm Country magazine on location, explaining why it was important for him to be part of the Lomax Gathering event. “It was not a real popular genre; never has been really. It’s always had a sort of clique following. But John Lomax probably has the greatest collection of those kind of songs and poems that started it – poems that became songs later.”

Many songs from Lomax books are now known today thanks to his work as a ballad hunter. Gore is the proud owner two first editions of Lomax’ “Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads,” which he regularly goes back to for inspiration.

“When they [the museum] called to be a part of this, you know, it’s a big honor for anybody that does cowboy music and poetry, to be part of an event that celebrates one of those early guys, John Lomax or Jack Thorp or Bruce Kiskaddon or S. Omar Barker – those famous old, classic writers and collectors of all these things,” Gore said. “That was very important to me.”

Gore’s warm, velvety voice, and subtle, alluring guitar playing gave the audience many heartening Gore originals. One time when he was filming a television show, Tom Moorhouse said that his father liked “salt-backed horses and sunburned men.” It became the inspiration a song which he opened with, instantly setting the beautifully wistful tone of his set, especially the lyrics “And the day lies before you and your life is too good to be true. You’re living out the dream of generations, gone before you; with a story played out time and time again. Salt-backed horses and sunburned men.”

Gore is proud to have spent time “on the wagon,” on the Swenson Ranch – one of the oldest ranches in Texas. That time on the range, sleeping with his bedroll under the heavens – “never alone with the stars above, with the prairie and skies his home,” inspired several of his songs; like the captivating lyrics “Ride out on the morning, a king among men, sun on the horizon, your face in the wind. Tall in the saddle, hoof beats – the sound that matches your heart as you see your shadow on the ground,” with the song’s cadence taking you out on that horse on the trail.

His song “The Old Man,” honored Tom Blassingame from the JA Ranch, who rode broncos until the day he died at 91 under a mesquite tree by the water – “Another chapter closed, and now the cowboys know that the old man ain’t riding broncos anymore.”

But even with the passing of the old guard, Gore believes that cowboy life prevails; it may be a little different, but it prevails – with cowpokes, vaqueros, buckaroos from Sonora in old Mexico, to Alberta and the ranges in between. He calls them the foundation of our nation and the soul of our land.

With the musicians clearly loving what they do and sharing their art, the inspiring narrative songs kept on coming in the Round Robin that followed, taking the audience to a simpler place in time, to God’s country filled with hawks on the wing, harmonicas, banjos and bones, the bloom on the sage, glorious sunsets, stars so bright, prairie moons and coyote tunes.


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