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Cowboy and Western Songs
A Comprehensive Anthology
By Austin E. Fife and Alta S. Fife
Bramhall House
372 Pages
ISBN:  0-517-387689

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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.


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