Styles & Forms | Cowboys & Playboys | Country
The western music – be it jazzy, danceable western swing or spare cowboy songs – that thrived for more than two decades from the 1920s grew out of several strains of American folk tradition, chiefly balladry and fiddle-band music, each of which had over time developed its own regional flavours and stylistic quirks.
The Development Of Cowboy Music
The eclectic instrumental style that flourished west of the Mississippi evolved naturally in the cultural melting-pot of the south-west and beyond. Its ultimate origins may have been Old World – Scottish and Irish fiddle tunes, for example, carried west by pioneers – but by the twentieth century this frontier music had been impacted, whether overtly or subtly by myriad influences, including popular music of the day, the music of slaves and their descendents, and that of other ethnic groups like Czechs, Germans, Poles and Mexicans.
The historical development of the cowboy song and singing cowboys, however, was less straightforward, even controversial. N. Howard Thorpe and others had collected cowboy songs since the late-nineteenth century, but it remains unclear how much of this music actually sprang from authentic cowboys or authentic ranch life. What is certain is that the growing popularity of such songs reflected a national fascination with all things cowboy that grew apace into the early decades of the twentieth century.
The 1920s was a pivotal decade. Radio and the growth of the phonograph industry greatly enhanced the exposure and expanded the commercial possibilities of the music, while large population shifts from the countryside into urban areas brought rural music into towns and cities. There it found not only a built-in audience among transplanted country folk, but also potentially huge new audiences among city dwellers. As Time magazine put it in 1946, trying to put its finger on Bob Wills’ enormous popularity, ‘His trick was to bring ranch-house music nearer to the city.’
Wills himself felt that the introduction of PA (public address) systems was the key factor that facilitated the development of his western swing in the early 1930s. This technology allowed fiddle bands, previously restricted to small venues like house dances because of the lack of amplification, to move into dancehalls. Almost overnight, a band could play for hundreds of dancers instead of a few dozen. The new environment demanded the addition of further instruments and with this growth came a mandate of sorts to expand the horizons of the music – to please an audience that had been newly exposed to a variety of styles and was no longer content with just the old fiddle tunes.
Following closely behind the introduction of the PA system was that of electrically amplified instruments. Originally a necessity to enable the instruments to be heard over the din, electrification of instruments such as guitar and steel guitar opened up huge possibilities for the artistic development of these instruments and country music was at the forefront of this progress.
While cowboy music and the nascent western string-band style often...
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