WHILE on a scholarship at Harvard University in 1906, John Lomax received encouragement from the distinguished professor George L. Kittredge to collect Western ballads. Having grown up near Meridian, Texas, on a branch of the Chisholm cattle trail, Lomax had already begun to gather cowboy songs. The first of several editions of Lomax's work, ``Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads,'' was published in 1910. Before the collection of the songs was finished, Lomax had traveled over 200,000 miles in 47 of the states. Barrett Wendell, another Harvard professor who encouraged Lomax, wrote in the introduction of the 1910 edition that old ballads are ``expression straight from the heart of humanity.''
Origins of frontier ballads are found in the distant past. The spirit of Anglo-Saxon ballads current in England and Scotland during the 16th and 17th centuries were carried to the New World by emigrants. Variations of old songs served as emotional drama that softened the hard edge of isolated life.
Cowboy songs, once recorded on numerous phonograph records, were made popular by radio singers. The songs are rarely heard on today's television. Cowboy music has been replaced by country music.
Cowboy songs are important in American history because they shed light on conditions of pioneer life. They also express a true conception of the American cowboy. Magazine stories and movies have generally been romantic and wildly imaginative in portraying this lasting figure of a vanished era.
Only a few classic novels like ``The Log of a Cowboy'' by Andy Adams have not blurred the Old West in a hazy mythology.
The cowboy's fascinating period begins in south Texas before the Civil War, when Mexican cattlemen abandoned ranches and left cattle behind. The Republic of Texas declared the unbranded cows to be public property. Then cowboys gathered wild herds and drove them north to market.
In this hard life, drovers could be on the trail for three months in all kinds of weather, pushing four or five thousand head of cattle over hundreds of miles. Though usually seen as a romantic figure, the cowboy was a skilled workman engaged in a tiresome and dangerous task. Mounted on his horse, with lariat, chaps, revolver, and sombrero, he could stop a stampede or sing to the cattle. Like others often alone at work, the cowboy sang, and singing became a part of his occupation.
Songs had such practical uses as stirring up lagging cattle and quieting them. The singer might produce more yells than melody, putting life in the animals. To quiet the cattle during the nocturnal screams of wolf or lion, the cowboy would croon a lullaby, his voice already familiar. It is said that ``dogie songs'' might have been created to prevent cattle stampedes. The rhythmic chorus of one roundup song is familiar:
Whoopee ti yi yo, git along little dogies, It's your misfortune and none of my own; Whoopee ti yi yo, git along little dogies, For you know Wyoming will be your new home.
The songs cover a wide range of subject matter: adventure, love, trail hardships, the bad man, Texas, home, death. For entertainment a cowboy might sing an old popular song, one from the music hall or vaudeville stage, or create one spontaneously.
Old English and Scottish ballads, especially ``Sweet William'' and ``Barbara Allen,'' were often heard. A sad and appealing song, ``The Dying Cowboy,'' the most popular of all cowboy songs, begins with ``Oh bury me not on the lone prairie.'' It is derived from an old song called ``The Ocean Burial,'' the first line being ``Oh bury me not in the deep, deep sea.'' ``The Dying Cowboy'' is a good example of how some of the cowboy songs were made: Change the words of an old familiar song to fit a new setting.
``The Cowboy's Prayer,'' ``The Great Roundup,'' and ``The Cowboy's Hymn'' are among a number of religious songs adapted to trail life. In the prayer, the cowboy asks that the roundup be blessed and says that the herd ``represents a sack of gold.'' In the hymn, the singer wonders ``If ever a cowboy/ Would drift to that sweet by-and-by'' to face the ``Boss of the Riders.'' This song contains a refrain, ``Roll on, little dogie, roll on,'' that night riders found effective in lulling cattle to sleep.
Superior songs are those dealing with everyday life and work with cattle. These include ``Whoopee Ti Yi Yo, Git Along Little Dogies'' and ``The Chisholm Trail.'' Origin of the word ``dogies'' is unclear, but it could be a corruption of the Spanish word dogal, meaning halter, which restrained a suckling calf from its mother.
SOME of the cattle trails that developed after the Civil War were given names. The Chisholm trail, a natural highway for cattle, 400 yards wide and 600 miles long, was beaten down by marching hoofs, wind, and water until it became lower than the surrounding earth.
From deep south Texas, the trail ran through Fort Worth, and beyond the Red River in Indian Territory it branched to reach Ellsworth and Abilene, Kansas. By the early 1870s, 1.4 million cattle had moved over the trail. One version of ``The Chisholm Trail'' contains 40 rhymed couplets which account for every experience a cowboy would have in driving a herd to Dodge City, Kansas.
Collections of songs other than those by Lomax appeared in the 1920s and 1930s. The list includes ``American Ballads and Songs'' by Louise Pound; ``The American Songbag'' by Carl Sandburg; ``Frontier Ballads'' by Charles J. Finger; and ``Singing Cowboy'' by Margaret Larkin. The first collection was privately printed by N. Howard Tharp in 1908. These works keep alive an important part of America's common heritage.