My journey into American folk music

In a previous post, I asked folks to ID some lyrics from American folk songs. I needed to know which set of lyrics was the most recognizable. The three I listed were Oh Susannah (the Niners variant), The Old Chisholm Trail, and Buffalo Gals. Buffalo Gals was the most recognizable, closely followed by Oh Susannah despite the odd lyrics, and not many people knew The Old Chisholm Trail.

So let me explain why I was asking, and how I learned way more than I intended about American folk music.

I just finished a short story about a Pony Express rider and his very annoying talking alien-pony. In the last line of the story, the pony bursts into song. I was looking for the most recognizable, song-virusy, Western-themed tune possible. The story takes place in 1860. The “cowboy era” of American history is roughly 1840-1890.

When I drafted the story, I wrote, “Oh give me a home…” which is of course Home on the Range, which I think most of us know. I didn’t check the year on that because, you know, it’s freaking Home on the Range. A smart reader caught me; turns out that the poem which became the song wasn’t even _written_ til 1873. And the song itself was written in the early 20th century. I thought about leaving it as-is, because it’s the perfect song. But I like history, and I couldn’t stand to write an impossible anachronism. (As a friend put it, “I admire your dedication to pedantry.”)

So I went to look for a different cowboy/Western song for the alien-pony to sing. Turns out that almost any cowboy song you actually know wasn’t written until after the cowboy era was over. Many cowboy songs were written for Hollywood films in the 40s and presented as “authentic cowboy songs.” The old tunes are mostly forgotten. I found a huge archive of cowboy song lyrics which appeared authentic… but I knew three tunes out of maybe 60 listings, and they were pretty obscure. And those few were all written later than 1860. So even the “authentic” songs didn’t really exist in 1860; they were written for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. In short, we didn’t get nostalgic about the Wild West until it was almost gone.

This sent me looking for early 19th century folk songs. Once again, I had heard some of these titles but didn’t know the tunes (and thus I expect most readers wouldn’t either). I had only a few plausible choices. Oh Susannah had potential; it was essentially the “Who Let the Dogs Out” of the 1850s, written by Stephen Foster. Using the Niner variant (with a washpan on my knee…) definitely gave it a Western feel, and it was the unofficial theme of the California Gold Rush. The Old Chisholm Trail might have worked, though its history is murky; the trail itself wasn’t named til 1867, but the tune is older. And of course Buffalo Gals might work, and it calls to mind the Le Guin story (not a bad plan, in a story with a talking alien-pony). Buffalo Gals was written in 1844 by John Hodges.

I tested those three songs out on you guys, with surprising results. A lot of people said they recognized Oh Susannah even with unfamiliar words, which I’m sure a linguist specializing in lyrics could explain to all of us (maybe the words are similar enough to wake the brain-part that plays music?) I didn’t know the Niners version was so unusual. I grew up learning both versions almost equally; I wasn’t sure which was “authentic” til later. The Old Chisholm Trail was not very recognizable. I think more of you know The Old Chisholm Trail than you think… it’s just hard to recognize the tune from the written word. I’m surprised that Buffalo Gals is the best known. I had never heard that song before the Le Guin story, so I looked it up and listened, and said, “Nope, never heard that song until now.” Everyone else seems to know this song, apparently from It’s A Wonderful Life.

Thus, the pony now sings, “Buffalo gals, won’t you come out tonight…”

If you have ever wondered, “How hard does Vylar Kaftan work for accuracy in her stories?” …now you know. Please send Advil and vodka.

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