Canadian Journal for Traditional Music (1973)

Songs From Western Canada

Michael J Weiss

Weiss: Could you sing me any ranching songs?

Patton: Oh I don't know. It wouldn't be any good. Sometimes I can remember singin' to myself hours at a time. On the other hand, sometimes I can't remember nothing to sing.

It was only after ninety-six year-old Tom Patton gave me this apology and slammed the door so no one would hear that he let loose with a half-a-dozen square-dance calls and a bawdy chant about a cowboy's hardships. His singing performance, however, was well worth the wait — for quantity as well as quality. Throughout the summer of 1971 I had encountered only three other singers while recording the gold miners and ranchers along the Rockies between Alberta and British Columbia; the rest of my tapes contained oral narratives in the form of stories, personal histories, and anecdotes.1

In this article, I will present the songs that I recorded2 and a brief commentary about each singer. Since the paucity of my data will not support any generalizations concerning the genre of song in western Canada, I shall gladly take a back seat as an analyst and let the lyrics speak for themselves. As a whole, they represent modern versions of North American songs that were popular at the turn of the century. While I have not been able to discern the origins of every tune, all of the informants conceded that they had had contact with early phonograph records, so the histories of some of these songs have probably included a rendition from a record player.

And now for the singers and their songs..

— Tom Patton —From cook to boss, Tom Patton has worked on a dozen ranches, atdifferent times raising sheep, cattle, and horses. He was born in Virginia in 1876 and made his way to the ranches of western Canada while still a teen-ager. For many years he was a square-dance caller around Dog Creek, B.C., where dances were held "two nights in a row". And when he wasn't calling, he would often sing for the ranch cowboys — an activity which created a bit of friendly trouble after working an eighteen-hour day:

I was camped one night, right close to town. I was cookin' that time for the cowboys. And I was layin' in the tent singin' and a couple of them came in; and there's about a half dozen in town. And they come in and sit down. I sang a song or two for them and one of them took his six-shooter off and lays it down beside of me on the bed.

1My folklore project in western Canada was carried out with the sponsorship of the University of Maryland's General Honors Program. Currently the original tape recordings and accompanying transcriptions are housed in the Maryland Folklore Archives. In this article, all future references to the data collected will be noted by the cassette on which the material was recorded.

2A special thanks goes to my friend and colleague, Sharon Gnatt, who furnished the musical notations for each song. Her patience and assistance were invaluable during this transcribing process.

He says, "Them fellers will come in from town. You just take this and tell 'em to get the hell out." Well, they come by and they saw me layin' down with that thing on my hand and they never said nothing; pulled the flap shut. I never heard a sound. (Tape 12; Side 1)

I recorded Mr. Patton on July 26, 1971, in Kamloops, B.C. when he gave me his version of "The Horse Wrangler" (also known as "The Tenderfoot") and six square-dance calls. Those familiar with "The Horse Wrangler" will note the language differences between Mr. Patton's view of the infamous Brown and earlier versions from the 1890's. While boss Brown was formerly presented as telling the tenderfoot,

"And you're doin 'fine, "says Brown.
"And if tomorrow you don't die, I'll have another for to try,"3

Mr. Patton's boss is portrayed in a vulgar vein:

Says Brown, "You 're doin' well. And if you don 't dodge it more, Then all God's shit we 'll give you for to try."

Of the six pieces of square-dance calls that Mr. Patton sang, the third and fourth texts seem closely related to excerpts from "Old Arkansaw" and "Lady Go 'Round and the Gent Cut Through". The rest of the calls have been amassed over the years from popular and original sources. One comment indicates that Mr. Patton created some of these calls himself:

I called one out here one night, "Swing the heifers in the center and the stags outside," and some of the girls didn't like that. Oh, I used to call a lot of them.

He put me in charge of a cattle yard,
And told me not to work too hard.
All I had to do was mind a horse from getting away
I had three hundred and seventy head,
And oft times wished that I was dead.
If one was to get away, then hell would be to pay.
They saddled me up on an old gray hack
With two set tracks on his back.
They padded him down with a gunny sack, my bed he 'd taken all.
He left the ground and when I came down
Igot an awful fall.
They carried me out and rubbed me down
With an iron stake pin.

(Chorus was chanted)

Says Brown, "You 're doin' well.

And if you don 't dodge it more

Then all God's shit we'll give you for to try."
"Oh can I walk?"
"Yes. "I bound back to town.

— J. Angus McKinnon —

The son of a pioneer rancher on the Alberta prairie, J. Angus McKinnon has led a varied life in addition to working his family's grain and cattle ranch. He has been active in the local government of Calgary in recent years as well as administrating a provincial oil development company. An avid historian, Mr. McKinnon has already published one book about the development of the McKinnon and neighbouring ranches, and was working on a second when I recorded him on August 17, 1971.

During the interview, three songs were taped: one original and two popular tunes. Although Mr. McKinnon has rarely performed before audiences in the past,4 he has sometimes composed lyrics to celebrate a birthday or similar occasion. The wedding anniversary of his ranch neighbours, the Evanses, prompted his writing of "The Mansion by the Bow," sung to the tune of "The Little Old Sod Shanty."5 In this composition, the lyrics of a pioneer's hard life in "the sod shanty on my claim" are ironically transformed into the splendor of "the rustic rough-board mansion" of the Evans' Bow River ranch.

4Mr. McKinnon consented to my recording his singing on the condition that I "don't play them (the recordings) for the President of the United States, or he might send me off to Vietnam."

5Allen, p. 109.

The other songs are his renditions of American pieces that were popular at the turn of the century. Mr. McKinnon's version of "The Last Great Round-Up"6 (also known as "The Cowboy's Heaven") was similar to a number of offshoots sung throughout Texas and the Southwest between 1890 and 19220.7 "The Preacher and the Bear," was composed in 1904 by Joe Arzonia of Philadelphia.8 Both of these songs, he explained, were learned "from the old phonograph, years and years ago." (Tape 1, Side 1)

You might see the hungiy coyote as he sneaks up
through the grass.
He may also be howling on the hill.
You 'll enjoy the evening silence, just before the
setting sun.
In this rustic, rough-board mansion by the Bow.
The cattle will be grazing in contentment on the flat.
The calves will be a-crawling through the fence.
The corn will be a-bloom in 'and a-fillin' later on,
Near this rustic rough-board mansion by the Bow.

6"The Cowboy's Heaven" is found in Margaret Larkin, Singing Cowboy, N.Y.: Oak Publications, 1963, p. 106.

7Larkin, p. 109.

8Newman White, American Negro Folk-Songs, Hatboro, Pa.: Folklore Associates, Inc., 1965, p. 40.

They say there will be a great round-up,
Where cowboys like dogies will stand,
To be cut by the riders from heaven,
Who are noted and know every brand.
The road that leads down to perdition
Is narrow and dim so they say.
And the road that leads up to God's kingdom,
Is staked out and blazed all the way.
I wonder if ever a cowboy, Would prepare for that great judgment day, Could say to the boss of the riders, "I'm ready to be driven away."
They say we will never forsake you,
For He knows every action and look.
So for safety you 'd better be branded,
And have your name in the old valley book.


(Ed. note: The tune to which this song was sung is the one most commonly used and as it was learned from a phonograph record it is not reproduced here. The words show some minor variations.)

Oh, the preacher went a-hunting; 'twas on a Sunday morn. It was against his religion, but he took his gun along.
He shot himself some very fine quail and a wise and a measly hare,
And on his way returning home met a great big grizzly bear.
The bear stood up on his hind legs, and went for the coon, you see.
The coon got so excited, he climbed up a cinnamon tree. The bear walked out on the middle of the road, and the coon climbed out on a limb.
And he raised up his eyes to the gods in the skies and these words said to him:
Oh, Lord, did you deliver Daniel from the lion's den, Also deliver Jonah from the belly of the whale, and then

The Hebrew children from the fiery furnace as the good book do declare.
Oh, Lord, if you don 't help me, for goodness sakes, don 't help that bear.

— Jens Hansen—

Jens Hansen has been finding gold — accidentally or on purpose — since a morning in 1929 when he chanced upon his first nugget in British Columbia. In his own words, he had found his profession:

I didn't know the first thing about the ground up here. And I'm down there, panning. I got maybe ten cents in the pan. But I took my cigarette, it's all soaking wet, and I put it right on a ten dollar nugget.
I says, "Hi!"
From then on, I looked for nuggets. (Tape 2; Side 1)

He is still popularized for the $500 strike he dug up in 1937, and has earned the name "Lucky Swede" throughout the Cariboo area of B.C. (although he was actually born in Norway). Immigrating to Canada when he was nineteen, he has been placer mining ever since he first set foot in British Columbia in 1929.

I recorded these parts of songs on July 6, 1971, in Wells, B.C. Although I am uncertain about the origins of both songs, Lucky commented that he learned them "off an old music box. We used to sing them a lot during the 'hungry thirties' up here."

No peaday was my heyday, as beer and rum I did drink.
Wake up in the morning, drunk, feeling punk.
I scoffed a man in that office, I called him belittlin'
But I realized as I grew older, I just might back
where he is his grave.
I can see my last days, they 're nearing; I can see them only so clear,
When I been working, sweating, swearing, with a pick and a shovel in hell.

Silver Springs, Maryland

Résumé: M. Weiss, qui étudie le folklore a l'Université de Maryland, a effectué des recherches au Canada, au cours de l'été 1971. Aux frontières de l'Alberta et de la Colombie-Britannique, ii a enregistré sur bandes sonores, des interviews qu'il a eus avec un certain nombre de fermiers et de fouilleurs des mines d'or. Dans cet article, il présente les chants et les appels des danses carrées qu 'ii a recueillis auprèsd'eux.