Monday, August 5, 2013

The Original Singing Cowboy

The first cattle drives began around 1836 when ranchers needed a way to transport their cows to railheads so they could be shipped east and north. When the war broke out between the states, the Union army blocked the cattle trade and the east saw a shortage of beef. During this time, cattle in Texas multiplied and after the war, ranchers could get top dollar a head for their cattle.
Because of a law banning Texas cattle from crossing into Missouri, Abilene and Dodge City Kansas became the favored delivery spots.  Cowboys would drive herds along the Chisholm or Western Trail to railheads in Abilene or Dodge City. There were other smaller trails but these were the most used. During its peak use, the Western Trail would be five miles wide with trailing cattle.

Find his collection at All Music
To keep the milling bovines calm, especially at night, cowboys would sing to them. It’s said there are at least 1000 different verses to the song, “The Old Chisholm Trail” due in part to the amount of time a cowboy had to himself. Boredom often breeds creativity and so verses were drafted by a number of cowboys. Many songs were written by serenading cowboys under the blanket of stars and to an audience of grazing stock. It can be said that these ballads influenced many country western songs.

I would like to introduce you to one of our local heroes, a man who is often called “the original singing cowboy” for being one of the first to record traditional cowboy ballads. Carl T. “Doc” Sprague grew up in a small town outside of Houston but he went to school at TAMU and eventually settled in Bryan, Texas. His Uncle Booth had been a working cowboy and had taught Carl songs he’d sung when working the cattle. Carl, himself, had been on cattle drives and could relate to the varied lyrics.

Carl graduated from TAMU in 1922 with a degree in husbandry, and he was hired as an athletic trainer for TAMU. His experience conducting a weekly radio show for the campus helped land him occasional singing spots of the radio, which in turn helped him get his first contract with Victor in 1925. His debut song, "When theWork's All Done This Fall" sold over 900,000 copies.  In fact, it was the first cowboy song to achieve hit status. He quit his job for TAMU in 1937 to operate a filling station/grocery story and work as an insurance agent until joining his comrades in arms during WWII.
In addition to singing only traditional western songs, he dressed in long-established cowboy gear, complete with hat, shirt, belt, chaps, boots, and even spurs. He basically introduced America to the sounds and images of the traditional cowboy, with his haunting, rustic renditions of music that might have otherwise been lost to us.

He recorded 33 songs between 1925 and 1929. After that, he settled in Bryan and went back to selling insurance but there was renewed interest in his music when folk music became popular in the 1960s and 70s so for a short time, he once again performed for the masses. He recorded two more albums in 1972 and 1974 for a German label. He died in 1979 but he left behind a legacy that can't be forgotten. His crooning gave us a historical look back into the days of the cattle drive and his fashion statement encouraged many young gentlemen to dress like a real "cowboy."


Ginger Simpson said...

I thought Gene Autry was the original singing cowboy. That's what I get for thinking. Thanks for setting me straight with your interesting article.

Ciara Gold said...

Thanks Ginger. I didn't know about Carl until I went to a program about a month ago. My town is fixing to have it's 75th birthday and one of mom's friends knew Carl and was talking about him. My husband is very knowledgeable about CW music and even he didn't know about Car.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Great post, Ciara, and one I enjoyed immensely. Carl Sprague's name sounds familiar, but I could not have put facts to the name. I am pleased to learn about his contributions.

Charlene Raddon said...

I'm with Ginger in thinking Gene Autry was the first known cowboy singer. I have his autograph, by the way. That doesn't date me too much, does it?

Dan James said...

Coulda fooled me. Growed thinkin Nolan Rinehart was the only singing cowboy. Workin on a ranch I heard the outlaw zebra Dunn. Spun my head. Asked my friend if he'd heard of it sure asheck he did.sung it on a cassette n' sent it to me it was sure a dandy. His name was Dallas Nevada slim Taylor andsomebody I'll treasure forever. Hope lots of other folks do also.