We all know Black people have created or significantly contributed to many, if not most major American music genres. Genres such as:
Rock and roll.
Wait, cowboy music?
Yes, you read that right! It's time for a quick Black Music Project history lesson.
After the Civil War, thousands of formerly enslaved people headed west, lured by the opportunity for freedom, regular wages, and to escape the social restrictions of the South. Because many of them had experience working cattle on plantations, the work of a cowboy was a natural fit. The terms cowboy and cowhand have a fascinating but racially tinged history. Originally, cowhand was a designation given only to whites. Cowboys was a term solely used for Blacks.
Why the distinction?
The word boy had a derisive undertone that maintained the racial codes of the day and reinforced white supremacy as it referred to all African-American males, regardless of their age. So yes, the word cowboy, which today is a symbol of masculinity and strength and is so associated with America that its most profitable sports franchise appropriated the term, was originally a racist put-down for Black men working in the West.
While segregated work crews were common, Black cowboys often worked alongside whites, indigenous Americans, and Mexican vaqueros. The dangerous nature of the work meant these men had to trust each other for their safety. Cowboys sang songs around the campfire to entertain themselves, but also to calm their cattle. Cattle stampedes were costly financially and physically, and there is truth to the old adage that music soothes the savage beast.
Historians today estimate that about one in four cowboys were African-American. Another interesting yet overlooked aspect of cowboy history is that some cowboys were actually cowgirls. Names like Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, and Belle Starr are fairly well known, but did you know that there were also many African-American female cowhands and settlers in the Old West? Mary Fields, aka Stagecoach Mary, Bridget “Biddy” Mason, and Cathay Williams were just a few of the Black women that helped settle the Old West.
We know much of the Black history of cowboy songs because they were recorded for posterity by musicologist and folklorist John A. Lomax, who wrote about them in his book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads published in 1910.
Because cowboy songs were part of an oral tradition, it’s impossible to say who wrote a particular piece. Many versions of the same song might exist, with each cowboy or cowboy crew adding its own spin.
One thing we do know from John Lomax’s son Alan is that the version we know of “Home on the Range”, perhaps the most famous cowboy song of all time, is from Black cowboys.
He wrote in the liner notes to his 1999 album Deep River of Song: Black Texicans: Balladeers and Songsters of the Texas Frontier:
The cries and songs on this record are perhaps the most direct evidence we have of black participation in the cowboy song tradition, although it seems unquestionable that this participation was rich and important. My father recalled a black bartender in San Antonio who sang “Home on the Range” into his little cylinder recorder in 1908, and it was this black variant, not any of its predecessors, that became our national western hymn.
Dom Flemons performs “Home on the Range” as it was sung by an ex-Buffalo Soldier for John Lomax in the early 20th century. The video starts at 9:17. This song was included on his 2019 album Black Cowboys.
America is a relatively young country searching to define just what it is and who matters in shaping its identity. The western settlement stood completed just as the forces of American media were coming to full power in the early and mid-20th century. Newspapers, pulp fiction novels, radio shows, and most importantly, Hollywood reinforced the social mores and conventions of the era, meaning prejudice, misogyny, and racism were baked into the myth-making. The white males in charge of creating those myths made sure to focus on the heroics of their tales to the exclusion or downright debasement of all others.
The African-American origins of cowboys and cowboy music are just another example of a whitewashed history that seriously needs a more inclusive paint job. Why is it important to know about the history of Black cowboy music? As history professor Michael Searles at Augusta State University in Georgia said in an interview with NPR in 2010:
Many people see the West as the birthplace of America. If they only see it as the birthplace of white America, it means basically that all other people are interlopers — they're not part of the core of what makes an American. But if they understand that African-Americans were cowboys, even Native Americans were cowboys, Mexicans were cowboys, then it really opens the door for us to think about America as a multiethnic, multiracial place. Not just in the last decade or century, but from the very beginning.
The history of cowboys and their multiracial musical heritage is another prime example of why we created the Black Music Project, to show that Black music is the story of America. Please watch our TikTok version of this exhibit too!
Interested in learning more about Black cowboys and their music? Check out these resources:
The album Black Cowboys by Dom Flemons from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
The book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads by John Lomax.
The album Deep River of Song: Black Texicans: Balladeers and Songsters by Allan Lomax.
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