John Maddox Roberts’ and Deuce Richardson’s comments regarding the Border Reivers on the “hot pursuit” piece inspired me to dig out an essay I originally wrote for the late , lamented Robert E. Howard blog The Cimmerian. I’ve edited the piece to be a little less Howard-centric. One of these days I’ll take up the torch of the Reivers of the 16th Century English/Scottish Borders at length. You can’t get any more “Frontier Partisan” than an entire culture based on cross-border raiding and cattle rustling.
Of songs sung on the Western frontier, most of them, especially cowboy songs, originated in Texas, since that state was the first Anglo-American region to truly deserve the designation of “West” in the proper sense. Texas songs went up the Chisholm (Trail) with the longhorn herds and spread all over the West, being changed in other states to correspond with the locality in which they were sung. Other songs – hunter’s and rivermen’s – came through the Middle-West. A few originated in America, most were old British ballads changed by ignorance or intent, taken from, and added to, to suit the minstrels’ notions. Its strange how old some of those songs are, and how long the old ballads lingered.
Robert E. Howard to H.P. Lovecraft, ca. October 1931
Decades after Robert E. Howard touched on the connection between his beloved cowboy songs and the British Isles from whence his bloodline hailed, an ace mandolin player from Alberta, Canada, embarked on what was then a unique project. David Wilkie and The McDades blended cowboy songs with traditional “Celtic” instrumentation — the tin whistle, the harp, the fiddle, and, of course Wilkie’s mandolin in an infectious CD titled “Cowboy Celtic.”
The 1995 CD created such a stir that Wilkie put together band called Cowboy Celtic and released another CD, this one titled “Cowboy Ceilidh” (a Ceilidh being an Irish or Scottish gathering of friends with music, dancing and storytelling).
Wilkie explained the connection of Celtic music with the folk music of the American West:
On the western plains of 19th century North America, intoxicating Gaelic melodies drifted through the evening air at many a cowboy campfire and during lonely shifts at night guard. These songs were brought over from the old country and often refitted with lyrics to suit the singer’s new occupation.
The Celtic origins of cowboy music are well documented. Traditional Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh folk music served as the foundation and model for countless cowboy classics. Cowboy Ceilidh melts the rolling hills of Ireland into the dusty trails of Texas; the rugged Scottish Highlands into the majestic Alberta Rockies; and the gentle English chalk streams into the roaring rivers of Montana.
Perhaps the most classic example of Celtic roots for a cowboy song is found in “The Streets of Laredo, or The Cowboy’s Lament,” which was “The Unfortunate Rake” in Scotland and “The Bard of Armagh” in Ireland. The lyrics change with the locale, but the theme remains the same: a dying man warning others not to follow the path of sin that leads inexorably to “beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly and play the dead march as you carry me along…”
Much that is labeled “Celtic” in the modern era isn’t necessarily all that “Celtic.” Many of the ballads that come from the Borders between England or Scotland should not be labeled so — because the people there were not specifically “Celtic.” I grappled with this at some length in the piece “Wrestling With Celts.”
However you label the old ballads, they still have the power to stir the blood with tales of mayhem, betrayal, regret and sorrow that would have (and did) fit along the American frontier as much as they did on the English/Scottish Borders.
Take “The Betrayal of Johnnie Armstrong,” the tale of the execution of a Border Reiver during the 16th Century.
Wilkie notes that:
Across the sea in Scotland, centuries earlier, scenarios similar to those in the old West were being played out. Cattle men were swimming herds through rivers, trailing cattle through glens controlled by rival chieftains, getting ambushed by reivers (cattle thieves) and being hung for rustling.
The lyrics of “The Betrayal of Johnnie Armstrong” are in the fine old tradition of rough-edged epic poetry:
Come all you border riders
And listen to my song
My story has been told before
I’ll not detain you long.
It’s the tale of Johnnie Armstrong
And the king who did betray
A man of trust and honesty
His cattle taken from the enemy
But they hung him from the gallows tree
Johnnie Armstrong’s gone away.
Cowboy Celtic’s music ensures that the old ballads linger just a while longer.