Let me admit, I’m not exactly steeped in the cowboy songs idiom, though I certainly trawled through some collections by the Lomaxes et al. at the start of my own so-called-singing career. But when I saw the Andy Hedges album Roll On, Cowboys, due for release on March 26 2023, my attention was grabbed by the presence of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott as well as some familiar song titles. I can date my interest in folk music in general to a radio broadcast from the Beaulieu Folk Festival that featured Elliot along with Martin Carthy, the Watersons and others, so that Elliott’s arrangement of ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ entered my repertoire immediately. So, of course, I threw my hat in the ring. This double CD includes features no less than 22 tracks, so I won’t attempt to list and critique them all, but I’ll pick out some of the highlights (of which there are many).
There’s a wider range of material here than you might think: in nearly all of them, Andy duets with Elliot and other artists such as Pipp Gillette, Corb Lund, Brigitte Reedy and Brenn Hill – familiar names in this idiom. There are, of course, traditional songs like ‘Goodbye Old Paint’, ‘Root Hog Or Die’, ‘Rounded Up In Glory’ and ‘Railroad Bill’.
Several other songs are considered traditional, but have been changed lyrically:
- ‘Long Summer Day’ is an old song from slavery times – in fact, I used to have it in that form on an LP by Guy Carawan – but this version has been retouched by Guy and Pipp Gillette to echo their experiences of working on their grandfather’s ranch in Texas. This is a pacier version than Carawan’s, closer in tempo to the long-ago Lonnie Donegan version, if anyone is old enough to remember that.
- ‘When I Was A Cowboy’ is well-known from Leadbelly’s recordings, but the verses he sang have little to do with the cowboy idiom, so the late Don Edwards refashioned it with some floating verses relating to trail driving.
There are recitations of verse by Waddie Mitchell, Andy Wilkinson, Captain Jack Crawford (an old-time performer and friend of Buffalo Bill Cody), Charles Badger Clark, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. On the latter, Elliot’s recitation is accompanied by Andy Hedges’ guitar. And there are instances where tunes have been put to poems by Charles Badger Clark, Henry Herbert Knibbs, James Grafton Rogers and others.
There are modern(-ish) songs in the idiom like the excellent title track (by Bob Campbell) and others by Andy Wilkinson, Joel Nelson, Randy Rieman, and Woody Guthrie’s ‘Philadelphia Lawyer’. ‘Dodgin’ Joe’ is a very catchy partial reconstruction by Andy Wilkinson and Andy Hedges of a song of which just two verses were collected and written down in 1889.
Other standouts for me? Well, if I didn’t have the review copy, I’d buy it just for the track (‘Railroad Bill’) that juxtaposes Jack Elliot’s recollection of recording with Woody Guthrie, Brownie and Stick McGhee, and Sonny Terry; an extract from that session; and a recent recording by Hedges, Elliot, and Dom Flemons. Or maybe Andy Hedges’ harmonies with Brigitte Reedy on ‘Desert Sands’, or Randy Rieman’s ‘Cowboy Blues’ (clearly influenced by Jimmy Rodgers).
However, I can’t say there are any tracks I don’t like. These are decent and unflashy performances of songs and poems that throw light on a genre I’m beginning to feel deserves more attention than it usually gets – it will certainly be getting more of mine. If it’s a genre that interests you, you’ll already want to hear this: it’s an important historical artifact. If it isn’t, you might just find that it sparks an interest you didn’t know you had.
Artist’s website: https://andyhedges.com/home
‘Philadelphia Lawyer’ – live with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Tom Russell: