Pre-19th century Starting in the 17th century, immigrants to North America brought with them the music and instruments of the Old World, including the fiddle, dulcimer, and harmonica. “Blue Juniata,” a song about a Pennsylvania Indian maid named Alfarata, could be considered the first popular “Western” song. Published in 1844, it contained the elements that would become synonymous with future Western ballads—it romanticized the sylvan landscape and introduced a valiant hero. As they moved west, emigrants on the Oregon Trail and 49ers spread popular songs of the day like “Clementine,” “Betsy from Pike,” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” Many of these songs were iterations of traditional music from the British Isles.
1870s–1890s The birth of the American cowboy as we know him emerged with the advent of long-distance drives to move cattle to northern markets after the Civil War. These itinerant livestock herders included men from all walks of life and nationalities. For entertainment (and to ease homesickness and soothe flighty cattle herds) they sung the songs from their native cultures and homelands, and these songs were often reshaped to fit the new landscape. Thus “The Ocean Burial”—originally written in 1839 by Bostonian Edwin Chapin—and its lyric “O! bury me not in the deep, deep sea,” eventually became “The Dying Cowboy” with “Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie.” Musical influences included Celtic, slave, and parlor songs.
1900s–1920s William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West show did much to popularize the romantic image of the drover in the late 19th century. The cowboy was elevated from a lowly laborer to a knight of the plains, though his services were concurrently being truncated by the introduction of barbed wire. Nascent folksong collectors realized that the “passing of the cowboy” meant the loss of a historic record. Folklorists Howard “Jack” Thorp and John Lomax had both published small collections of cowboy songs by 1910. Without them, classics like “Windy Bill,” “Sam Bass,” and “Home On The Range” might have disappeared. In 1925, Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry began broadcasting Western-based music, which helped popularize the genre, too.
1930s–1950s The era of silver screen cowboys marked the heyday of Western and cowboy songs in popular culture. Crooners like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, and Rex Allen—along with bands like The Riders of the Purple Sage, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, and The Cass County Boys—drew moviegoers by the millions to weekly openings of “oaters” at the local Bijou. And a band that took harmony singing to new heights, The Sons of the Pioneers penned lasting standards like “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “Cool Water,” “Blue Prairie,” “Way Out There,” and “The Timber Trail.”
1950s–present day After WWII, jaded audiences cooled to the singing cowboy. Consequently, many performers tried to transition into a smoother, more sophisticated style of music that came to be known as “country-western.” By the late 1970s, Nashville was simply known for “country” (having dropping the “western”), as more pop singers appropriated the emerging style. Rising out of those years, performers like Marty Robbins, The Reinsmen, Katie Lee, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Glenn Ohrlin, Riders In The Sky, Ian Tyson, Don Edwards, and Michael Martin Murphey brought renown to cowboy songs. And newer artists, like Joni Harms, R.W. Hampton, Dave Stamey, Stephanie Davis, and Brenn Hill continue to write and innovate within the genre.