In western music, America preserves a large part of its idiosyncracies
and its folklore, from the life of Jesse James to the death of Clementine.
this collection includes commentary, notes, a lexicon, and variants of
words, and melodies (with chords for the guitar), which will make it tempting
to conoisseurs of Americana, sociology, and good folk singing.
We can, for example, learn from the texts of their songs something
of the difficulties of the westward migrants; of the hatreds of townsmen
and farmers for ranchers, rivals, and Mormons; of the western tendency to idealize women,
romanticize outlawry, and caricature hardship. We have here a documentary
not only of the extraordinary events but of the commonplaces of a faded
and boldly distorted era.
Indeed, the present book by the editors and annotators of Songs of the Cowboys
draws on more than three decades of song hunting and a cross-referenced collection of
ballads gathered from oral tradition, resources of other field collectors, periodicals,
esoteric publications, and frontier newspapers. This loving experience results in a historical
compendium of the music that helped to pass the time
and dramatize the era of the Far West. Whether sentimentalizing mother or
disposing of a rustler, these ballads and the companion drawings will raise
contemporary spirits as surely as ever they did those of their cowboy creators.
Austin E. and Alta S. Fife have been interested in
Western American folklore since the 1930s. Vacations that they were able
to wedge in during graduate studies at Stanford and Harvard were spent
interviewing old-timers from Arizona to Montana, Wyoming to California.
Mr. Fife elicited anecdotes, tales, beliefs, sayings, proverbs, and pioneer
reminiscences, while Mrs. Fife recorded them stenographically. In recent years,
the Fifes, authors of Songs of the Cowboys, have directed their
major efforts toward the songs, ballads, and other "primitive" poetry
of the American West. Their collection, drawn from multiple sources,
comprises nearly fifty volumes, all neatly bound, paged, indexed, and
cross-referenced, so that now the Fifes can say a great deal about the origin,
content, melodic form, dissemination, and the popularity of the hundreds
of songs in their collection.
Mr. Fife, who is retired, was head of the Department of Languages and Philosophy
at Utah State University. He is past vice-president of the American Folklore
Society, an erstwhile fellow of the French Musee National des Arts et
Traditions Populaires (1950), and of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial
Foundation (1958). He was a visiting professor and lecturer on folklore
at many colleges, and he has fulfilled advisory missions for the United
States Office of Education, the Modern Language Association of America,
and the Peace Corps.
Mary Jo Schwab completed a major in music at Utah
State University. She was reared in the cattle country of western Wyoming.
J.K. Ralston is a Western painter and illustrator
of distinction. A native of Montana with his studio in Billings, he has
spent more than sixty years painting the West of the cowpuncher.