[Image: Texas longhorn cattle drive, as depicted by Nick Eggenhofer.
The horse may or may not be old but it is not, alas, a paint.]
Let’s get the music going right at the outset, and save the background for a moment. Here’s Linda Ronstadt singing “Old Paint,” which closes her great 1977 album Simple Dreams:
Pretty, no? Now, about that song:
On long trail drives, the old cowboys — so goes the legend — used to calm cattle’s nerves at night by riding around the herd’s perimeter, whistling or singing softly.* It’s a nice story, one I myself choose to accept (regardless of its truth) because it tells about good, kind, simple — and interesting — people and their relationship with animals.
Whether the story is factually true or not, there’s a whole genre of music, “cowboy songs” or “Western music,” characterized by stories of life moving cattle around on the Plains, sleeping under the stars, sharing everyday life with horses and longhorns, and dreaming about (sometimes) women — often, women the singers had voluntarily left behind. Wikipedia currently lists over sixty such songs, although this is far from complete; one collection devoted to the genre includes music and lyrics for two hundred of them. Lyrics aside, the songs are notable for their easy melodies and their rhythms, which seem geared to a capella renditions sung from the back of a horse. Indeed, Wikipedia notes:
Otto Gary, an early cowboy band leader, stated authentic Western music had only three rhythms, all coming from the gaits of the cowpony — walk, trot, and lope.
One of my favorite recent examples of the “lope” rhythm was Norah Jones’s take on “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” (written by Bob Dylan), featured here at RAMH in a whiskey river Friday post a couple of years ago. The guitar comes in first, repeating a seven- or eight-beat rhythm over and over… My first-hand experience with horses — limited to fairground pony rides and such (and I’m not sure it ever included loping) — stopped sometime in the ’60s, but even to me that rhythm feels like the rippling roll of a saddled horse’s back beneath the rider.
As for the walk…
No one knows when “(I Ride an) Old Paint” originated, or to whom it should be credited. It was collected for several studies of cowboy music around the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries, so it goes back at least that far. Poet/Historian Carl Sandburg assembled an anthology of American folk tunes in 1927, called The American Songbag; in it, he wrote:
This arrangement is from a song made known by Margaret Larkin of Las Vegas, New Mexico, who intones her own poems or sings cowboy and Mexican songs to a skilled guitar strumming, and by Linn Riggs, poet and playwright, of Oklahoma in particular and the Southwest in general. The song came to them at Santa Fe from a buckaroo who was last heard of as heading for the Border with friends in both Tucson and El Paso.
(Margaret Larkin — per Wikipedia — was was by no means some mere local folkie wandering from saloon to auditorium, as this description makes her out to be, but a well-published author and activist. Likewise, “Linn” Riggs was actually one (Rollie) Lynn Riggs, whose play Green Grows the Lilacs provided the source material for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!)
As I think I’ve always heard it, the song consists of three verses, alternating with three choruses. Verse 1 briefly states the singer’s circumstances — roaming the plains on an old pony, heading to Montana for a roundup — and the final verse, borderline mawkish, asks that his lifeless body be saddled up one last time and released to roam the land. The second verse, though, is an oddball: not a general sentimental statement, but a story in lurid pulp miniature. That verse’s subject, one “old Bill Jones,” seems to have fathered a daughter and a son, and his wife “died in a poolroom fight.” (Oh, America: you sure do know what to sing about!) But that doesn’t stop old Bill, who still wanders the West, singing as he goes…
I really like the song’s language, especially in the first verse. It’s a saddlebag from beneath whose flaps protrude raggedy bits of trail jargon:
- The paint referred to here is a type of spotted pony, a pinto.
- Old Dan: I’ve seen this described as a common name for a horse, but this seems like a stretch to me. (Why should the singer name the horse he’s leading around, but not the one he rides?) Again, I’m no expert but a more likely explanation is, I think, that the words actually are/were old dam — where dam simply refers to a mare. (In the lyrics page I linked to, I’ve used dam.)
- Throw the hoolihan (variously spelled — Sandburg says it’s hoolian): in rodeo, apparently, bulldogging cowboys used to be allowed to jump on a steer’s horns in such a way that the steer’s legs buckled, flipping it rather er, ass-over-teakettle. (Yes: jump on its horns. Not that bulldogging in general strikes me as the most humane way to comport with an animal…) This move — since outlawed — was called the hoolihan. Possibly related to this in some way, cowboys also (reportedly) developed a way of tossing a lariat over a horse or steer, a technique also called (and also variously spelled) a houlihan. As with “old Dan/old dam,” this lariat toss, rather than the wrestling move, seems the more likely meaning.
- A coulee is a ditch or ravine cut into the landscape by running water; a draw, more or less the same thing — a gully or small canyon.
- Dogies are calves.
- The fiery and the snuffy: again like “old Dan,” some interpretations claim that “Fiery” and “Snuffy” are common names for horses. (Yeah, sure. Bend over backwards much?) When I hear or read this phrase, though, I think of two kinds of impatient cows (or maybe horses). The first is the hot-headed untamable type, chafing angrily and perhaps rearing and bucking at restraints actual or circumstantial; the second, a more fearful beast, snorting through its nostrils as it eyes the landscape nervously. (The Pooch does this sometimes on walks, although from her four-inches-high perspective the landscape extends mere yards in a given direction.)
My favorite twist in the lyrics, though, comes in that odd second verse: one went to Denver, the other went wrong. This stands as an actually pretty good example of a figure of speech called a zeugma: a series of terms, the last one of which ostensibly follows but actually breaks the syntactic/grammatical pattern established earlier. (The example I’ve most often seen goes like this: He took his hat, his coat, and his leave.)
And, well, whaddaya know: Carl Sandburg himself recorded some of the songs in that “songbag,” including this week’s selection:
(If you followed the link to Sandburg’s Songbag book, a few paragraphs back, you may have noticed his claim that the lyrics say old Bill Jones had two daughters and a song. I’m sure this made sense in a poetry-technical sense, as a more exact rhyme for “…and the other went wrong.” But it doesn’t make a lot of sense on other grounds!)
* The steers probably didn’t get the same consideration once they’d arrived at the stockyard.