July 2019 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Mamas, DO Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys (or Cowgirls)!

Today is the National Day of the Cowboy, marked in several states on the fourth Saturday of July every year. Country music, in the past and the present, is filled with the images of cowboys and cowgirls, and so we thought we’d mark today with our own celebration of cowboys with a music twist!C

Cowboy songs are said to have originated as a way to soothe nervous and apt-to-stampede cows on cattle drives out west. The yodels and soft crooning sounds in the songs would help to obscure the noises of the night that tended to spook the herd and also act as a kind of lullaby. The songs themselves often reflected a wide range of music, including old ballads, popular Tin Pan Alley tunes, Mexican songs, and blues forms. John A. Lomax published Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads in 1911, detailing 112 songs that he gathered through requests in newspapers and academic venues and by visiting known cowboy haunts. The first edition had a handwritten foreword by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Google cowboy songs today, and you can find numerous “best cowboy songs” lists, each with the individual author’s subjective preferences – from the well-known, and copyright challenged,“Home on the Range” to The Highwaymen’s “The Last Cowboy Song” to “Good Ride Cowboy,” Garth Brooks’ tribute to rodeo rider and sing Chris LeDoux. My personal favorite has always been “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” a love that began with the Alvin and The Chipmunks version of 1981 when I was a kid and thankfully later evolved to the much-better version by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings!

In line with cowboy music, there have been numerous musical cowboys on radio, records, and screen throughout the years. Gene Autry, “The Singing Cowboy,” did it all: singing, writing songs, acting, rodeo riding. He even owned a Major League baseball team in California for over 30 years. Autry has five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, recorded over 600 songs – many of which were also written or co-written by him, starred in 93 films, and hosted his own television show. He is most well-known for “Back in the Saddle Again,” but his biggest hit wasn’t about the American West or cowboys at all – instead it was the Christmas classic, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Grave of Gene Autry with a large memorial in the ground with his name and numerous accolades from American hero to Gentleman.
Gene Autry’s grave notes him as “America’s favorite cowboy” and “A believer in our western heritage.” Photograph by Arthur Dark from Wikimedia Commons

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans epitomize the musical cowboy and cowgirl. As a husband-and-wife team, they recorded songs and acted together; Evans was also a prolific songwriter. The song that is most associated with them is “Happy Trails.” Rogers, known as “The King of the Cowboys,” also brought his palomino Trigger and dog Bullet into many of his films and television shows. An exhibit on Evans at the National Cowgirl Museum & Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas, shares this quote from her, the perfect tribute to the cowgirl’s strength and independence:

“‘Cowgirl’ is an attitude really. A pioneer spirit, a special American brand of courage. The cowgirl faces life head-on, lives by her own lights, and makes no excuses. Cowgirls take stands; they speak up. They defend things they hold dear.”

Left: Cover of Dale Evans comic book showing Evans in cowgirl gear with a palomino horse; Center: Signature and impressions in concrete noting To Sid, Many happy trails, Roy Rogers and Trigger, with handprints, footprints, and hoof prints. Right: Roy Rogers and Dale Evans in matching western wear.
Left: Dale Evans was featured in her own comic book series in the 1940s and 1950s.
Center: Roy Rogers’ and Trigger’s “signatures” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Photograph by NativeForeigner on Wikimedia Commons
Right: Roy Rogers and Dale Evans at the 61st Academy Awards. Photograph by Alan Light on Wikimedia Commons

Patsy Montana, born Ruby Rose Blevins, was another singing cowgirl. While visiting the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933, Montana auditioned for a crooner role but ended up working with the Prairie Ramblers on WLS’s National Barn Dance, where she performed for around 20 years. She was the first female country music performer to have a million-selling record with “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” which was released in 1935. Her influence can be seen in later singers such as Patsy Cline and Devon Dawson, who provided the singing voice of Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl from Toy Story.

Dom Flemons Smithsonian Folkways album Black Cowboys, released in 2018, explores the history, music, and culture of the American Wild West from the perspective of the thousands of African American cowboys who also rode the ranges and pioneered the trails out west. Flemons’ album, and the research he did into the subject, underlines that cowboys weren’t exclusively white, despite popular imagery. One interesting character noted by Flemons is Bass Reeves, who became the first black deputy U.S. Marshall out west but also may have been the inspiration for the character of the Lone Ranger! Songs on the album include the familiar “Home on the Range,” “Goodbye Old Paint,” which was credited to a former slave and later cowboy, and an original song by Flemons that honors black movie cowboy Bill Hickett.

Cover of Dom Flemons' Black Cowboys with an illustration of Flemons with a guitar over his shoulder.
Dom Flemons’ Black Cowboys album cover. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

This is just a small selection of music-related stories about cowboys and cowgirls, but hopefully it gives you a taste to listen and learn more – and to start celebrating every year on National Day of the Cowboy!

From the Vault: Without a Yodel – The Manuscripts of W. E. Myer and His Lonesome Ace Label

Yodeling? Maybe for Jimmie Rodgers, but not for the little-known W. E. Myer.

William Evert Myer (1884—1964) was an entrepreneur from Richlands, Virginia, who tried his hand at producing a successful record label called Lonesome Ace. Sadly he felt the crushing blows dealt by the Great Depression instead. A man of many interests and talents, Myer taught school, studied law, and worked on the accounts of a coal company before following his musical dream. He sold phonographs and records in his store and also wrote several songs – or “ballets” as he called them – preserving them in a set of manuscripts that were recently donated to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum’s collections.

Black-and-white portrait of W. E. Myer as a young man -- dark hair, dark suit, high collar and striped tie.
William Evert Myer. Gift of Dwight Dailey and Robyn Raines, in memory of their great-grandfather W. E. Myer

Unlike much of the rest of the listening public at this time, Myer didn’t like Jimmie Rodgers’ popular yodeling sound. Indeed, he immortalized his thoughts on this subject with his Lonesome Ace record label. Each record was blazoned with Charles Lindbergh’s plane The Spirit of St. Louis and bore the motto “WITHOUT A YODEL”! Lonesome Ace’s promotional material also declared: “Every song has a moral,…and all subjects are covered without the use of any ‘near decent’ language which is so prevalent among many of the modern records.” Myer’s quirky label and his work to release records were the culmination of all of his hopes: a removal of yodeling from the lexicon of American popular music and a desire to shares his musical loves.

Myer’s strong opinions led him to seek out more well-known musicians as a way to market his own songs. Most of all, he wanted his songs to be performed by musicians he liked, and one of his grandest notions was to have the famed country-blues musician Mississippi John Hurt set lyrics that Myer wrote to music. He sent Hurt several of his compositions, and Hurt set three of them to music he chose: “Waiting for You” and “Richlands Woman” set to his own melodies and “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me,” ironically set to Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train.” This last song was a wild mixture of country, blues, and legendary sea creatures that was later recorded by musician Tom Hoskins in 1963.

Typed lyrics to "Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me," including copyright date of 1929 and the note "By William E. Myer." The lyrics included 6 verses and a chorus, and there is a pencil-written number 15 at the bottom of the page.
“Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me” tells the sad tale of a man who is unhappy in his home life and missing a sweetheart so he looks to burial at sea as sweet respite amongst the mermaids. Gift of Dwight Dailey and Robyn Raines, in memory of their great-grandfather W. E. Myer

Myer also approached traditional musician Dock Boggs, a banjo-frailing, hard-drinking coal miner from a musically inclined family in West Norton, Virginia. Boggs had recorded with The Magic City Trio, led by Fiddlin’ John Dykes, with New York’s Brunswick Records in March 1927, the same year as the Bristol Sessions. During the succeeding years, he did well playing in his local community for various dances and events, much to the chagrin of his wife. And In 1929 Boggs recorded with the Lonesome Ace label, producing four sides of Myer’s “ballets” with his own choice of tune, but following Myer’s advice with “False Hearted Lover’s Blues” by setting it to Myer’s suggestion of Boggs’ “Country Blues.” Even with Boggs’ skill and Myer’s entrepreneurship, the Great Depression led to the decline of the record label and Dock’s career as a musician. Myer declared bankruptcy in 1930 after releasing only three records, and Dock pawned off his banjo to make ends meet.

Close up of the Lonesome Ace record label showing the biplane in flight at the top of the label with the words The Lonesome Ace "Without a Yodel" underneath the image.
The Lonesome Ace record label for Dock Boggs’ recording of Myer’s “Old Rub Alcohol Blues.” From discogs.com

However, this was not the end of Dock Boggs or of W. E. Myer’s music. During the folk revival of the 1960s, Boggs was rediscovered by folk musician and folklorist Mike Seeger, who traveled to Virginia and located Boggs at his home near Needmore. Boggs had recently purchased another banjo, and after Seeger heard him play it, he convinced Boggs to perform at various folk festivals and clubs. This rediscovery brought a renewed love by the American public for the music of Dock Boggs, which continues through today.

Myer, though not revitalized by the folk revival, continues to be known because of his association with Boggs and other important musicians. The stories told to us by his family underline what a remarkable character Myer was, and his manuscripts, which are now part of the museum’s collection, highlight this even further. With song titles like “Old Rub Alcohol Blues” and “Milkin’ the Devil’s Billy Goat” – and one of my personal favorites “The New Deal Won’t Go Down,” which supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program – it is clear that Myer’s songs reflected a wide range of interests and stories! And while Myer’s Lonesome Ace may not be well-known or prolific, it certainly played a noteworthy role in the folk music of Southern Appalachia – even “without the yodel”!

The typewritten lyrics to "Milkin' the Devil's Billy Goat," including the copyright date of 1929 and "By William E. Myer" at the top of the page. The song consists of 7 verses and the chorus.
The lyrics of “Milkin’ the Devil’s Billy Goat” chastises and judges “tattlers.” Gift of Dwight Dailey and Robyn Raines, in memory of their great-grandfather W. E. Myer

Along with the William E. Myer manuscripts, the donors generously gave the museum several other items related to their great-grandfather, including the collector’s edition of The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records Vol. 2 (1928-32), which contains the duets by Emry Arthur and Della Hatfield of the two Myer’s songs they recorded.

Radio Bristol Book Club: Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club! Originally inspired by Reading Appalachia: Voices from Children’s Literature, a recent special exhibit at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, readers from the museum and the Bristol Public Library came together from March to June to explore books featured in the exhibit.

Four members of Radio Bristol Book Club gathered round the mic in the radio studio, each holding their copy of Sounder.
The very first Radio Bristol Book Club in March 2018, when the group read Sounder by William Armstrong. © Birthplace of Country Music

But we just loved this program so much that we decided to make it a permanent Radio Bristol show! And so each month we will be live on-air discussing books related to the museum’s content, regional music heritage and music history further afield, and Appalachian culture and stories. We invite you to read along and then listen in on the fourth Thursday of each month at 11—11:30am when we will dig deep into the feelings and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

For our first book within this new focus, we chose a book about some of the main players in the story of the 1927 Bristol Sessions: Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music by Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg. We will be discussing this book on July 25 at 11am live on Radio Bristol.

Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? serves as both history and biography. It shares the story of the Carter Family as musical pioneers, tracing their journey from the hills and mountains of Virginia to the 1927 Bristol Sessions to national recognition via border radio and a large catalog of influential and iconic recordings. The book explores their musical impact, along with the various routes A. P., Sara, and Maybelle took after they were no longer performing together and their continuing legacy. Not only does Zwonitzer and Hirshberg’s meticulously researched but eminently readable book give readers a deep understanding and appreciation of the Carters’ as a potent musical force, but the book also shines a light on the early commercial country music industry.

The cover of Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone has an old publicity photograph of the Carters -- A. P. standing, Sara with her autoharp, and Maybelle with her guitar. On the bottom left of the cover a vintage record label-style graphic bears the title and subtitle of the book.
Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music was published in 2002. It was a finalist in the National Book Critics Circle awards for biography/autobiography, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and an American Library Association’s Booklist Editor’s Choice.

Mark Zwonitzer is a writer, director, and producer, who has worked on numerous documentaries including American Experience, Freedom Riders, The Supreme Court, and The Irish in America. In 2016 he published his second book, The Statesman and the Storyteller: John Hay, Mark Twain, and the Rise of American Imperialism. Charles Hirshberg is a journalist and sportswriter, with articles appearing in numerous publications such as Time, Sports Illustrated, Life, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. In 2004, he also wrote a history of television sports journalism, ESPN 25. Reflecting some interesting scientific connections in his family – his mother is astrophysicist Joan Feynman and his uncle is physicist Richard Feynman – Hirschberg was once editor of Popular Science magazine.

We cannot wait to bring this story of The Carter Family to Radio Bristol Book Club! We hope that you can read Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? too and then join us at 11am on Thursday, July 25 as we discuss the book on air. You can tune in locally at 100.1 FM or listen via the website or app. Many of the Radio Bristol Book Club books will be available at the Bristol Public Library or The Museum Store at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum so stop by to borrow or buy a copy. The BPL librarians or the museum’s frontline staff will be happy to help you find the book.

You can listen to archived book club discussions from previous shows here.