The cowboy song refers to a song by or about cowboys, or both. As a subgroup of folk songs of US origins, the cowboy song is second in number only to the spiritual and the songs of Native Americans.
The cowboy song has been classified into two types. The first type is a song that is made up and passed on by word-of-mouth in the oral tradition. The second type of cowboy song is an adaptation of found words to a familiar tune, creating a new song in the process.
The earliest collections of cowboy songs are credited to Nathan Howard Thorp, whose Songs of the Cowboy in 1908 is reckoned to be the first, and John Avery Lomax, whose 1910 collection, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, collected for the first time many songs that are now among the best known of the genre.
Among the most popular cowboy songs are these seven. “The Old Chisholm Trail” is an anecdotal cowboy song, each stanza detailing the typical ups and downs in the life of a cowboy. “Git Along Little Dogies” has no ups: only downs. It is an episodic complaint about life on the trail.
“The Cowboy’s Lament,” in some versions called “The Dying Cowboy,” is the tale of a young cowboy who knows he’s “done wrong,” framed by the comments of the cowboy narrator of the story who finds him mortally wounded and sees to his burial. “Home on the Range” extols the beauty of the western United States. “I’m A-Leavin’ Cheyenne,” also known as “Old Paint,” tells of a cowboy leaving Cheyenne, heading to Montana.
Some examples of the cowboy song that tell a story are biographies of outlaws. One of these is “Billy the Kid,” which outlines the fall of Billy the Kid at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett. “Jesse James,” focuses on the end of the life of one of the famous James brothers, who was further immortalized in the 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.