What kinds of music did they listen to in the Old West?

I was thinking the other day about music history and I realized I don’t know diddly about 19th Century America, other than reading Thomas Jefferson’s little account of his slaves singing and playing their banjars.

I assume there weren’t any “Cowboy crooners” strumming guitars, since IIRC the “Spanish” guitar wasn’t popular in this country until the 20th Century. I still like that scene in The Three Amigos though.

How about classical music? I don’t know of any American composers from the era, but how about the Europeans? Did any of the folks we revere nowadays make it big in this country? (“Dude, you gotta like, totally check out this new Tchaikovsky sheet music I got. It makes my chaps sizzle!”) Did they prefer contemporaries or dead people?

I don’t expect there was a Tombstone Philharmonic, but would there be little travelling chamber groups?

Okay, so none of this is the stuff you want to knock back whiskey and ogle floozies with. What do you call the stuff the white-haired guy plays on that little piano? In the really late period (1910?), I guess it could be Ragtime, but I’m thinking more about 1870 or so. Traditional pieces, little ditties the piano man threw together, popular songs with a known author?

What’s the generic term, if any, for American music of this era? If you don’t know a name for it, I’ll have to make one up, and we wouldn’t want that.

Nothing I write about any person or group should be applied to a larger group.

  • Boris Badenov

This is a total guess, but I would think composers like Stephen Foster would be big. And, in farms where the wife had a piano, perhaps light Classical. If the sheet music made it to the Frontier, that is… Also, folk ballads (like Foster but not as famous now) that were popular at the time.

Cowboy songs like “I ride an old paint”
Songs from the old country “Annie Laurie”
Songs from shows–my favorite–“Ole Dan Tucker” (also the favorite of Abraham Lincoln
Sea chanteys “My bonnie lies over the ocean”, “What shall we do with a drunken sailor”
Assorted tunes:
“Sweet Betsy from Pike”
“I gave my love a cherry”
“Drill ye tarriers, Drill”
“get along little dogies”
“loch loman” (sp?)

In the period from about 1865 to 1890 or so, and especially out West, Smilingjaws is correct. It would have consisted primarily of tunes like “Darling Nelly Gray”, “Old Folks At Home”, “Blue-Tail Fly”, “Sweet Betsy From Pike” and “Old Dan Tucker”, with the occasional schottische or waltz thrown in for good measure. Depending on the sympathies of the town in question, you might get some Union or Confederate war songs thrown in (even after the war), like “The Battle Cry of Freedom” or “The Bonnie Blue Flag”, and a lot of old spirituals, like “Dem Golden Slippers”, were adopted for piano playing in saloons.

Outside of towns, like on cattle drives, the cowboys developed a number of tunes like “Get Along, Little Dogies”, “The Streets of Laredo”, “The Old Chisolm Trail”, “Green Grow the Lilacs”, and “Cowboy’s Lament”. Contrary to popular misconception, the cowboys didn’t sing because they liked to; they traded off in shifts throughout the night, riding in circles through the herd and singing, because the sound of the cowboy singing quieted the cattle and kept them from stampeding. During the drive itself, they didn’t sing----the cattle were kept in line by a combination of whistles and gutteral shouts. (That part anyway, TV and movies have correct. One of the few things in Westerns they do have correct. :))

By the 1890’s, two different trends popped up: maudlin morality tunes and ragtime. These were both made increasingly popular due to the fact that some sharpies in the big cities had discovered that if you printed off sheet music in ton lots and sold it, say a dime per song, you could make lots o’money. In the absence of radio and record players, this was the equivalent of Top 40, 1890’s style. Every home usually had a piano, and sheet music became wildly popular. The maudlin songs consisted of things like “She Is More to be Pitied Than Censured”, and “She May Have Seen Better Days”; (conjure up the image of the wilting frail with one forearm thrown across her forehead “Alas, woe is me!”, and you get the idea.) Many of these songs depicted a girl in some sort of straits (a forerunner of the “Perils of Pauline” movies, where the woman is tied to the railroad tracks, and such), and the lyrics reflected it. (“My mother was a lady, Sir, as yours was, I’ll allow; and you may have a sister, who needs protection now. I’ve come to this great city, to find my brother dear; and you wouldn’t dare insult me, Sir…if Jack were only here!” Hoo, boy.)

Ragtime got started shortly after the Sapnish-American War and went great guns straight through until the end of World War I. By that time, the Wild West was pretty well settled, and radio wasn’t far behind, which changed things drastically.

I hope this helps!

NO, NO, NO. the only song cowboys sang was Riders in the Sky. Duh!

The only way to rid yourself of temptation is to yield to it–Oscar Wilde

smilingjaws is correct. Cowboys sang songs like that. You are wrong about the guitar. (I have a degree in classical guitar) In the west the guitar was very popular for its versatility and its portability. Granted, many of the musicians would rather have had a piano but as I said earlier it is not as portable as a guitar. The guitar was popularized by Django Rheinhart. He made it into a common band instrument. Before that, it was an accompaniement to a folksinger. Also, dulcimers were popular but really only in the mountains hence the mountain dulcimer.


Gasoline: As an accompaniement to cereal it made a refreshing change. Glen Baxter

I would imagine also that even in “The Old West” people would have been familiar with the work of European composers and might have played piano pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Liszt, Chopin or the like.

J’ai assez vécu pour voir que différence engendre haine.

Whoopee! I’m right about something musical! I like those old songs–I have a cd of songs that were popular in the 1890s–“Silver threads among the gold”
We learned lots of these songs in choral music in elementary school. don’t think that kind of music is taught anymore–ah, the good old days :slight_smile:

Of course, the guy who played barrelhouse piano in the saloons had to keep an eye on the door so he could shift to a minor key when the bad guys came in. :slight_smile:

Live a Lush Life
Da Chef

I don’t know why I thought that guitars weren’t popular in the U.S. before the 20th Century. Maybe I’m getting this confused with a drop in popularity, to the benefit of the banjo, which happened in early jazz bands, since banjos were better able to compete with the volume of the brass. Which is not really relevant.

Thanks folks. Y’all have been really informative. I didn’t know Ragtime was popular that early on.

By the way, I thought minor chords were for when somebody died, and diminished chords were used when the bad guy came in.

Now, I want to go back in time and create some Old West World Music. There would be a mariachi from Old Mexeeco on guitarron, an Apache playing Apache fiddle, an Appalachian on dulcimer, a Yankee on piccolo, a Mississippi freedman on harmonica and vocals, and an Indian from an appropriate tribe on tom-toms. Then I would take them on a world tour. Translating between them would be pretty hard though. “How d’ya say F sharp Mixolydian in Apache?”

Nothing I write about any person or group should be applied to a larger group.

  • Boris Badenov

During the Depression years the government sent out people to record folk songs. Most of the people were in their 70’s at the time of the recordings. Many of the songs are from the 19th century. The collections were done to preserve the many different ethinic songs that had come over with the emigrants.

These songs are in the “Archives of American Folk Song” in the “Library of Congress”.

I have a book “Folk Songs Out Of Wisconsin” that is published by “The State Historical Society Of Wisconsin” It has many of the songs from Wisconsin, but the songs did not just occur here. It has photos and drawings from about 1900 - 1940. The songs are great to read, just for the insite into these peoples lives. You’ll appreciate the book even more if you can play an instrument and sing them.

I always liked “The Dreary Black Hills”, “On The Lakes Of Pontchartrain”, “The Shanty Boy”, “The Ship That Never Returned”, and “Red Iron Ore”.

Here’s one you probably had in music class “Froggie Would A-Wooing Go”.

Don’t forget all the emigrants had their own versions of church music too.

During the Civil War (if anybody asks ‘can you ever really have a civil war?’ I’m gonna smack him one…) a great many songs were written , & carried over into peacetime.
“Tenting On the Old Camp Grounds”; “Battle Cry Of Freedom”; “Ashokan Farewell” and many others. There are songbooks & tapes available from Civil War history publishing houses.

Soldiers’ songs seem to stick with us a long time. Hmmmm.


shoot fahr it duz mah heart good to hear from yall.( aint no postrophe in yall cause it don’t need one, hit’s a word.) Sousa music was top 40 then. ( Bonny Blue Flag) [taint Sousa] Rag Time was big time ( Texas Boy, ater all) course we got a derinition here WHEN was the old west? Lots those cocktails was invented then , not just that ‘shot o’ rye, Wild Bill hickock was a gin fizz fan.
( Bonny Blue Flag) What is now considered " Broadway" (maybe Vaudeville) was popular, traveling shows, Read Eddy Foys writings, espicially the time he was in Tombstone doing his award winning show and got “interupted” by a gun fight in the audience He says Wyatt Earp was conspicuous in his ‘alaclarity’ in diving under a table.
( Bonnie Blue Flag) Cowboys Lament was a song to be sung when one was feeling alone has as many verses as any song you can name. (That’s he one that goes " I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy"[ Smothers brothers anyone?] "streets of Laredo for you yankees) ( Bonnie Blue Flag) actually if you check it out the trail towns were the big cities o the time ( however short lived) and they were where the money was, before radio and CD’s you went to the live audiences. Yes the classics were popular, more so than now. Remember th original ‘cowboys’ were Texans who came back from the lost cause and had nothing, many of them were educated ) in the EAST) and weren’t just yayhoos. Since there was no radio, most towns had a band maybe yclept an orchestra, they were musicians they knew music and played it. many a wady was marched to his unmarked grave to the strains of beetoven, bach, or the 3rd B lead Belly, oh teh the blues. they were around back then too.

Yup, yup, yup. Other tunes include:
“Oh Susanna”, “Camptown Races”, “I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”, “Dixie” (natch), “Carry Me Back to the Sweet Sunnny South”, “Call me Pet Names”, “The Old Family Clock”, “Woodman Spare that Tree”, “The Old Family Clock”, “That Old Gang of Mine”.
The Africanized “Jim Crow” genre of song coupled with dance movements was popular for raucous crowd performances (and was performed largely by whites), while female vocalists on stage (a la Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles) tended to stick with the Jenny Lind (P.T. Barnum’s “Swedish Songbird”)-style warblings that proved themselves popular.
The vast, and I mean VAST, majority of people’s everyday musical experience, though, had its source in the hymnals.

By the way, “Ashokan Farewell” is a relatively contemporary piece, written by Jay Ungar.

It takes 42 muscles to frown, but only 4 to slap someone upside the head.

Both kinds, of course. :wink:

Folk songs are mostly from the south, but also played in the west:
Arkansas Traveler, Buffalo Gals, Ground Hog, Turkey in the Straw, Yellow Rose of Texas, Uncle Joe, etc. Oh Susanna was copyrighted in 1848, very popular in the gold rush.Jesse James, the tune, is from the 1860s.Jack of Diamonds has roots back to an English song.
Alan Lomax recorded a mess of the stuff in field recordings.
A guy named Wayne Erbsen puts together booklets of old songs.800 752 2656, Native Ground Music.

pologies offered. My mistake.

A lot of towns had orchestras, balletts even Opera Houses ( real opera not oprey) Tombstone WAS one of the major stops by the legit artists, remember it was a gold town. At one time it had more milionaires than any city in US, even though it was never a highly populous place. Don’t forget the Jersey Lilly, aka the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lynn enamoured of Roy Bean ( totally one sided from his side). From Tennessee area after the war came a lot of people with close ties to elizabethan era england. A lot of what we think of as old hillbilly folksongs are directly from shakespeare’s time. One title 'Nashville Girl" is a cheerful little ditty that has been traced way back. A few lines " I took her by her long dark hair, I swung her round a round, I threw her in the river, stood by and watched her drown." And they claim todays music is a bad influence.

“Pardon me while I have a strange interlude.”-Marx

mr john writes:

> Don’t forget the Jersey Lilly, aka the
> Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lynn enamoured
> of Roy Bean ( totally one sided from his
> side).

The Jersey Lily (Lillie Langtry) was not the same person as Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale. Lillie Langtry was an actress, not a singer. She was a generation younger than Jenny Lind. They did both do tours of America though.