Over the past decade-and-a-half-or-so, the Senate of the United States has made a tradition of decreeing the fourth Saturday of every July to be the National Day of the American Cowboy. Across the western states, the holiday is celebrated with festivals and other such customary jubilations; on Old Time Blues, we shall celebrate the occasion in the only way we know how—with appreciation of an old record.
Born Jackson Martin on the first of October, 1874, Jack H. Lee was counted among the eldest of the more authentic tradition of cowboy singers to cut records in the days before Hollywood Autrys and Rogerses took center stage (though the extent of that authenticity has been called into question). Purportedly after joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show around 1893, Jack met his future wife Kitty Miller, a native Illinoisan six years his senior, and the two began a long career singing genuine cowboy songs on vaudeville and in rodeos. Claiming to hail from Montana, they dubbed themselves Powder River Jack and Pretty Kitty Lee and were performing together at least as early as 1898. Ultimately, the duo became one of the most popular early cowboy acts, though their recorded legacy leaves little evidence of that success. The Lees were recorded for the first time in November of 1930, with a session for the RCA Victor Company in Hollywood. The date produced four titles, all of which were released to limited success as the nation plunged into the Great Depression. They returned to the studio six years later, waxing two sides for Decca in Chicago, which have never been released. An additional three recordings were made of Jack performing at the National Folk Festival in Washington, D.C., in May of 1938. Powder River Jack also published several books of cowboy lore and song folios during the 1930s which demonstrated his penchant for misappropriating authorship of traditional cowboy poetry (even going so far as to claim “Red River Valley” as his own). Jack Lee died in a car accident on February 24, 1946, in Chandler, Arizona; he was survived for nine years by Kitty, and both are interred side-by-side in the City Cemetery in Mesa, Arizona. Because of Jack’s tendency to plagiarize, the duo’s merit as cowboy performers has been challenged. While indeed neither Jack nor Kitty were likely ever working cowhands and much of their backstory was probably fabricated, they did perform and preserve genuine western folk music—even if they wrongfully attributed its origins—and, with that caveat, are no less deserving of recognition than their contemporary early cowboy recording artists.
Montgomery Ward M-4462 was recorded on November 3, 1930, in Hollywood, California. It was originally released on Victor 23527, of which a total of 2,158 copies were reported sold. Jack and Kitty both strum their guitars, while the former blows the harmonica on a rack between stanzas. Jack sings solo vocals on both sides.Certainly one of the most enticing cowboy songs put to shellac in the 1920s and 1930s and today a standard of the traditional cowboy repertoire, “Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail”, was truthfully written by Gail Gardner in 1917, though Lee claimed the credit on the record and otherwise (much to the former’s chagrin). Legend has it that Gardner and his chums in Prescott, Arizona, once tarred and feathered Powder River Jack for stealing his song.
“Powder River, Let ‘er Buck”, ostensibly actually written by Jack himself, lent its name to one of his publications in the same year he cut the record.
In 1932 Jack and Kitty Lee were in Calgary and were possibly entertainers at the Calgary Stampede as I have a picture of them with Harry Knight and Pete Knight (not related) who were bronc riders at the stampede. They were probably entertainers on the Canadian Pacific trail rides from the C. P. tourist hotel in Banff. The next year they were replaced by Wilf Carter and Jack went on a rant about real cowboys not yodeling.
I was told by my aunt, now deceased that her father had performed with Jack and Kitty Lee. She didn’t say what they did exactly except in on line she wrote my grandfather knew them for a song called “Eagle of the Sea” or perhaps “Sky” but I do not find that song anywhere in there music history. does anyone know of this song and possibly written and a tribute to the Lindberg airplane.
My grandfather was a small time comedian/artist who travel a lot with dog and pom Shows, one by the name of Defoe. Again I can’t find anything on that either. My grandfather lived in Canada and Pacific Northwest and apparently these artists performed in the area of Washington state or near. My grandfather was Albert Shepherd, aka Bert Shephert or Al Shepherd. He was English. Any info at all would greatly appreciated.
Searched my reference books on old music and only found one that’s similar. Lindbergh The Eagle Of The U.S.A. that came out in 1927 after his famous flight.