“Why is cowboy music important?” Swallow Hill Music Instructor Mike Jagel asked rhetorically as he looked out from under his ten gallon hat. “There’s a lot of reasons. To me the most important reason is I love the music.”
“The cowboy era is one of the most romantic and fun-filled eras of American history,” he continued as a group of students listened on and nodded.
Mike and his students recently met in Tuft Theatre to share a few tunes, and talk about the appeal of cowboy music in anticipation of Swallow Hill’s upcoming class, American Cowboy Music Ensemble.
The class is being offered during our next session on Monday evenings from 8 to 9 p.m. at our Yale Avenue location. The session begins Monday, March 4.
“The reason we have this music here today is because it was passed down, people singing together and shared it with each other.” Swallow Hill student and banjo player Evin Urban said after she contemplated the meaning of this music. “That’s why something like this class is important for us to continue this music by playing it together and sharing it as an experience,”
Other students grew up on this music. The class is a way for them to re-connect with the music even as they learn more about it.
“Cowboy music is the music I grew up on, particularly as it morphed into folk music,” student Elly Valas shared. Elly, who also plays the banjo, added “it was something we sang… we were just a singing family.”
“I grew up with this music also,” student and guitarist Ann Herron mentioned. “I grew up on a ranch in southeastern Colorado, kind of in the area where Bent’s Old Fort is. This was just part of life with ranching and rodeoing and everything that went on there, were the the cowboy songs.”
Continuing, Ann said, “as an interesting aside, one of the local ranchers in my area, Dan Gates, had a son named Curtis. Curtis Gates professionally became Ken Curtis, and he sang with the Sons of the Pioneers for many years. He’s the man who played Festus Haggen on Gunsmoke.”
As he took all of this in, folklorist, musician, and Swallow Hill student Rex Rideout thought about how many of the songs came about.
“It’s like sea shanties or logging songs,” Rex said of cowboy songs. “It was something the guys did with their work. They were in isolation from other people, had time to think about it, and so, instead of penning this at a desk somewhere, much of it – especially the early songs – were composed in the saddle.”
He summed his thoughts up by saying “this is as real as it gets.”
For student and guitar player Don Snow, the class seems like part of a natural progression when he considers the other styles of music he’s studied at Swallow Hill.
“Since I’ve been here (at Swallow Hill) I’ve learned to appreciate a lot of different kinds of music,” Don said. “I’ve been playing bluegrass, folk, cowboy would be the next logical step and it sounds like fun to me.”
Mike listened to what all of his students had to say.
“Musically, cowboy music is the foundation of modern country music… that’s where it started.” Mike pointed out cowboy music was an early style of folk music to add a drum kit. “That’s where you started hearing electric guitars, the pedal steel, or lap steel, that was invented during that time period.”
As he spoke, Mike talked about how the music traveled culturally from the dusty old trail to something more recognizable to modern listeners.
“Country and Western music,” Mike mused. That’s also one of the grandparents of Rock and Roll. It’s like, what did Elvis and Buddy Holly and those cats listen to when they were coming up? That’s what it was. That’s what the cool things were.”
Mike thought about it some more and turned back to the music’s roots and said, “to be truly authentic, you don’t digitize it. You sing it. You live it. You have the visceral experience of singing and playing the music.”
“While you’re doing that you can sort of feel the beat of the saddle, you can almost smell the cattle – just almost, but not quite, which is good,” he said to some knowing laughs.
“You can when the wind turns right,” Evin chimed in to even more laughter, suggesting more than a few of the folks gathered in Tuft Theatre had some experience with ranching.
With that, the laughter died down and Mike looked around the room, and without saying a word everyone knew it was time to kick off another cowboy tune.