The Music of Deadlands

At some point in the storytelling process, music became a part of the narrative. I think it started with the scene in Sound of Thunder, in which I originally envisioned Gabe and Marie singing to each other. I wanted to look up authentic cowboy songs, and at the time I was working in a library that had an extensive music collection. I still have scans of particular pieces I found useful or relevant when I worked close enough to a music library in college.

My biggest concern in using cowboy music in this was a level of authenticity. I’m not one hundred percent concerned about historical accuracy, I’ll admit. I like stories. I do enough research that it feels real, and honestly you can get some great ideas just reading history, but I would hate to include a song and learn later that it was created in 1925. And it seems, in my research into “the singing cowboy”, authenticity has been the concern since those interested started collecting cowboy songs. John Lomax and Jack Thorp, the two most recognizable figures in collecting traditional American songs, both traveled the American west to record and write down songs. Thorp traveled 1,500 miles through New Mexico and Texas, and of the two I find him the more genuine character. Thorp did his work in 1889 and 1890, before the rise cowboy songs as entertainment, though I also did some reading on Jules Verne Allen, who was one of the first “singing cowboys” in the entertainment business and performed from 1928 – 1931 in a troupe called The First American, dedicated to Native Americans. Comanche, Taos, and Cochitl performed traditional dances, and afterwards Allen would croon to the crowd.

While these persons found firsthand accounts from real cowboys of cowboy songs, it seemed that there was difficulty in recreating it fully. Thorp mentions it was difficult to find cowboys who had a decent voice, and those that did couldn’t remember full songs. Many songs stole melodies and were retold over various people, notably “Red River Valley” has the same melody as a Gaelic/Irish folk song. Like Norse mythology or Roman beliefs before the Greeks rolled around, a lot of this stuff can’t be found in its original form simply because it wasn’t written down until much later, or because it was shared orally, and in that changes and new ideas were introduced or taken away. Collectors of cowboy songs might complete songs through seven different sources, and Lomax admits he got many of his songs from letters written to him. Deviations from the original might be noted, or not, depending on who was writing.

The other thing I found interesting in the myth of the singing cowboy was that these were not work songs. They were leisure time songs, sang to soothe animals, to keep themselves awake around the campfire, or just to pass time. Work songs are often rhythmic, meant to mimic the labor being done, something that’s uncommon in cowboy songs. They also weren’t often together, and any singing would’ve been a solo venture. Through varying first person accounts, cowboys can’t quite agree if singing does or does not really happen on the job. Thorp himself (a ranch hand for many years) claims he never heard any singing on the job, but at night something like a low hum would rise up, not loud or bad enough to scare any animals, just something to kill time. Cowboys apparently often refused to sing to the folklorists or were uninterested in sharing, and both Thorp and Lomax recount times they either stayed in the back of cowboy activities, or stayed back so they were not easily visible.

A few anecdotes to cowboy songs: I discovered Bill Jack Curry, a black saloonkeeper in San Antonio, is credited with providing “Home on the Range” to researchers, which was then named President (elect, at the time) Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite song in 1932 which propelled the “cowboy songs” music industry. In 1934 Arizona couple William and Mary Goodwin tried to claim copyright on that song, claiming they’d done so in 1905, but the courts proved the song had been in print as early in 1873.

Unrelated to the historical music, I’ve forced myself to pick up the pace some with family troubles and hospital visits making it either hard to find the time to finish these or hard to find the motivation, and I’ve created a playlist of western and spooky themed music to use, appropriately titled Deadlands. I feel it captures the mood I go for here rather well, and so I share it with you here.

No historical music to be found, and near the end is the song that inspired the creation of Leith and Aggie. I must also credit the Indie Western playlist, which is where I found the majority of this music.


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