Texans John A. Lomax (1867-1948) and his sons Alan Lomax (1915-2002) and John Lomax Jr. (1907-1974) are revered by musicians, historians and folklorists alike. Based mostly in Austin, they gathered cowboy songs, folk ballads, gospel and blues from every remote spot that their cars could travel with unwieldy recording equipment.
That music is preserved at the Library of Congress and elsewhere.
In 2017, UT Press, in conjunction with the Briscoe Center for American History, brought back into print a paperback edition of John A. Lomax’s “Adventures of a Ballad Hunter,″ which was written near the end of his life in the 1940s.
It is a treasure trove of disconnected tales, from his early days in Bosque County memorizing what the cowboys along the Chisholm trail sang to calm their dogies to his harrowing visits to prison farms in the Deep South, where he discovered Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, the folk and blues musician who later traveled the country with Lomax.
We obtained permission from his grandson, John Lomax III, to reprint one of the book’s most memorable anecdotes:
Out on a busy corner near the cattle pens of the Fort Worth Stockyards, I had come upon a blind man twanging his guitar while he sang doleful ditties and listened for the ring of quarters in his tin cup.
“I don’t know any cowboy songs,” he explained to me. “But lead me home to lunch; my wife can sing you a bookful.”
The old man shuffled along beside me, clasping his guitar as I guided him over the rough places in our path. We were headed for the trees that fringed the West Fork of the Trinity River near Fort Worth. Often I stumbled, for I was carrying the heavy Edison machine.
We found the blind singer’s wife out behind a covered truck, a forerunner of the trailer, seated in front of a gaily colored tent. She wore a Gypsy costume, richly brocaded. She had used paint and powder with skillful discretion on a face naturally comely. While I chattered with her, the old man disappeared into the tent. In a few minutes, out he came. Gone where the round, humped shoulders, the white hair, the shambling gait, the tottering figure — and the colored glasses! Before me stood a young, handsome, dark-eyed man, alert and athletic. He made no explanation. He was a perfect and fascinating faker.
“We do team work here. My wife shakes down the saps who like to hold her hand while she reads their fortunes in the stars. All the self-righteous fools go away from my tin cup happy, marking down one more good deed on their passports to Heaven. We aim to please our customers, and I think we do.”
Thus the faker rambled on while a smiling man served delicious food and a bottle of wine. Later in the long Texas afternoon, amid the cheerful talk, the fortune teller sang the songs of the road. She and her family for generations had lived as Gypsies.
“This lady,” said the faker, “who has joined her fortunes with mine, travels with me now from Miami, Fla., to San Diego, Cal. We belong to that fringe of society which takes life the easiest way. We toil not, neither do we spin.” Raising a tent flap he showed me rich purple hangings, thick Persian rugs, a divan spread with soft silken covers — amazing luxury.
“With our burros, Abednego and Sennacherib, to pull our covered wagon, we travel as we like. Our rackets roll in the money.”
He lay flat on his back on the mesquite grass, puffing a cigar, as he gazed at the white patches of clouds that swept across the deep blue Texas sky. I glanced curiously at Abednego and Sennacherib as they munched their alfalfa. They seemed as old as the pyramids and as solemn as a pair of Aztec idols — which they, indeed, resembled. They seemed to talk to each other with abundant, constantly moving ears, fastened loosely to their great bony heads.
And here, close by, sat the fake Gypsy lady, dressed like a princess, strumming her guitar and singing the songs that she picked up in her wanderings.
She scorned the clumsy horn fastened to my recording machine, and I caught few of the tunes. I remember that she sang me the first blues that I ever heard, moving me almost to tears, and a pathetic ballad of a factory girl who got splinters in her toes. Many and many another song she sang that unhappily are gone with the Texas wind. Then came four stanzas and the refrain:
As I was walkin’ one mornin’ for pleasure
I met a young cowboy all ridn’ along;
His hat was throwed back and his spurs was a-jinglin’,
As he approached me a-singin’ this song:
Whoopee ti yi yo, git along, little dogies,
It’s your misfortune and none of my own.
Whoopee ti yi yo, git along, little dogies,
For you know Wyoming will be your home.
“To me,” she said, “that’s the loveliest of all cowboy songs. Like others, its rhythm comes from the movement of the horse. It is not the roisterous, hell-for-leather, wild gallop of ‘The Old Chisholm Trail,’ nor the slow easy canter of ‘Goodbye, Old Paint.’ You mustn’t frighten the dogies. They get nervous in crowds. Lope around them gently in the darkness as you sing about punching them along to their new home in Wyoming. They’ll sleep the night through and never have a bad dream.”
After the refrain she would give the night-herding yodel of the cowboy, born of the vast melancholy of the plains, a yodel to quiet the herd of restless cattle in the deep darkness of a rainy night, when far-off flashes of lightning and the rumble of distant thunder meant danger. While the cattle milled around and refused to lie down, close to the fringe of the circle of moving animals rode the cowboys giving this wordless cry to the cattle, the plea of a lonesome lobo wolf calling for his mate, the croon of a mother trying to quiet a restless babe in the long watches of the night, like the soft moo of a cow wooing her offspring from its hiding place to come for its milk.
“Quiet, cattle, quiet. Darkness is everywhere, but we, your friends, are near. Lie down little dogies, lie down.” The yodel was pervasive, far-reaching. Even in its high notes it was soothing and tender. It seemed to catch up in its lilt all the perils of the night and merge them into a paean of peace.
As the Gypsy woman, swayed by the beauty of her notes, yodeled on, the leaves of the overhanging cottonwood trees fluttered noiselessly, the katydids in the branches stopped their song and seemed to listen. In all our world there was no other sound save that beautiful voice imploring all little dogies to “lay still, little dogies, lay still.”