Okeh 45057 – Dave Cutrell/Mc Ginty’s Oklahoma Cow Boy Band – 1926

Long before the days of so-called “country and western” music, real working cattlemen sang and played their songs out on the range.  Regrettably, being so far away from centers of civilization, only relatively little of that authentic cowboy music was fortunate enough to be recorded for posterity before commercial hillbilly music took off.  However, a handful of real cowboy singers and musicians did make it into the studio, including the Oklahoma Cowboy Band, founded by former Rough Rider Billy McGinty, which, unlike many contemporaries, would later go on to achieve nationwide acclaim.

The Oklahoma Cowboy Band, directed by Otto Gray, broadcasting from the General Electric station WGY, Schenectady, N.Y. around 1930.  Left-to-right: Otto Gray, Rex, Florence “Mommie” Gray, Owen “Zeb” Gray, “Chief” Sanders, Lee “Zeke” Allen, and Wade “Hy” Allen.  Pictured in Songs: Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, 1930.

Band founder and financier William M. “Billy” McGinty of the Indian Territory was a true cowboy of legendary stature.  Born in Missouri on New Year’s Day of 1871, he started out punching cattle at the age of fourteen, on a ranch in Kansas.  During those years, he got to know old west legends by the likes of outlaw Bill Doolin and built up a reputation for being able bust any bronc, no matter how tough it were.  Following the loss of the Battleship Maine, he went south to join up with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, going on to become a hero at the Battle of San Juan Hill—Roosevelt said of him, “we had no better or braver man in the fights”.  When the war was through, he came back home to become a star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  Sometime in the early 1920s, McGinty founded the Oklahoma Cowboy Band of local musicians around Ripley, Oklahoma.  The band made their first radio appearance in 1925 on Bristow, Oklahoma’s KFRU, and their first record for Okeh the following year.  McGinty later retired as the band’s manager to focus on his ranch in Ingalls and his duties as postmaster of Ripley, leaving Otto Gray, who raised midget cattle in Stillwater and had previously served as the band’s director, to assume his position and lead the band to great national success.  McGinty published an autobiography titled The Old West, as Written in the Words of Billy McGinty in 1937.  In his later years, he served stints as president of the Roosevelt Rough Riders Association and the Cherokee Strip Cowpunchers Association.  Billy McGinty died on May 21, 1961 at the age of ninety, and was buried in the Ingalls Cemetery.

Okeh 45057 was recorded in St. Louis, Missouri in May of 1926 by Dave Cutrell and McGinty’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band (Otto Gray, director).  Both the DAHR and Rust and Laird’s Discography of OKeh Records, 1918-1934 place the recordings in Atlanta, Georgia in March of that year, but earlier pressings on the state “Recorded in St. Louis” on the label, and Victoria Spivey made her first recordings on the adjoining matrices in St. Louis on May 11, 1926, likely placing these around that date.  The May date is further corroborated by Tony Russell’s Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942.  Although the label credits McGinty’s band as accompanying Cutrell’s vocal on the first side, he is backed only by a single guitar, likely his own.  The personnel of McGinty’s Cowboy Band for this session is unknown, but it may include Cutrell.  McGinty’s band cut two additional unissued sides that day, the titles and contents of which are lost to time.

Dave Cutrell’s recording of “Pistol Pete’s Midnight Special” holds the distinction of being the first recorded version of the traditional prison song “The Midnight Special”.  It was subsequently recorded by Wilmer Watts and his Lonely Eagles for Paramount around April of 1927 as “Walk Right in Belmont”, blues man Sam Collins for Gennett that September, and again by Otto Gray’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band in March of 1929.  In the next decade, the song came to be associated with Lead Belly, who made his first of at least five recordings of the song at his second Library of Congress session with John Avery Lomax while still incarcerated at Angola Prison Farm on July 1, 1934.  Since then, it has been recorded countless times in a variety of styles and genres.

By many accounts, the song spins a story of a prisoner at Texas’ Sugar Land penitentiary longing to receive a pardon from the governor.  The titular Midnight Special was a train that came in the middle of the night to take pardoned ex-convicts away, so as to avoid the threat of extrajudicial action by people in town, and legend had it that if the Midnight Special shone its light on you, you were soon to be pardoned.  Cutrell adds two humorous verses of his own mentioning band leaders Billy McGinty and Otto Gray: “Mr. McGinty’s a good man, but he’s run away now with a cowboy band.” and “Now Otto Gray, he’s a Stillwater man, but he’s manager now of a cowboy band.”

Pistol Pete’s Midnight Special, recorded c. May 1926 by Dave Cutrell.

On the “B” side, with fiddle, guitar, banjo, and ‘cello, McGinty’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band plays a rousing instrumental of “Cow Boy’s Dream” that puts you right there by the campfire.  In my opinion, this side is one of only a few records that capture the mystique of the wide open space of the Old West.  It also appears that whoever was typesetting the labels for Okeh that day wasn’t too fond of compound words.

Cow Boy’s Dream, recorded c. May 1926 by Mc Ginty’s Oklahoma Cow Boy Band (Otto Gray, Director).

Victor 20122 – Carl T. Sprague – 1926

Texas boy Carl T. Sprague was among the first cowboy singers to make records, with his first session taking place in 1925.  He also holds the uncommon distinction of being perhaps my favorite cowboy singer.

Sprague as pictured in Victor’s 1930 catalog of Old Familiar Tunes.

Carl Tyler Sprague was born in Brazoria County, Texas, near the town of Manvel, on May 10, 1895.  His family was involved in the thriving cattle business, through which the young Sprague learned the traditional songs of the cowboy.  He attended Texas A&M to study agriculture, but was interrupted by the First World War, in which he served as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps.  After the war’s end, he returned to Texas A&M, and graduated with a degree in animal husbandry.  After graduating, he was employed as an athletic instructor at the university, a position which he held from 1922 until 1937, and acquired the nickname “Doc”.  Following the success of Vernon Dalhart’s “mountaineer’s songs”, Sprague wrote to the Victor Talking Machine Company expressing interest having them record some of his cowboy songs.  They apparently obliged, and Sprague traveled to Camden, New Jersey to make two test recordings.  Victor must’ve liked them, because two months later, he returned to record a series of ten sides in sessions on the third, fourth, and fifth of August, 1925, half of which were issued.  His first record, “When the Work’s All Done This Fall”, became quite a hit, and proved that people were interested in hearing the song of the cowboy.  That was followed by a further three sessions over the following three years in Camden, Savannah, Georgia, and Dallas, producing eighteen more sides, all of which were released.  In spite of his records’ success, singing was but a hobby for Sprague, and he did not pursue a music career outside of record-making.  He left his post at Texas A&M in 1937 and opened a store in Bryan, and when the Second World War rolled in, he served once again, as a recruiter.  The folk revival of the 1960s brought Sprague back into music, and he played and lectured around the country, and recorded two LPs in 1972 and ’74.  Carl T. Sprague died on February 21, 1979 in Bryan, Texas, where he had called home since 1920.

Victor 20122 was recorded in Camden, New Jersey on June 22, 1926, at Sprague’s second series of sessions.  The record was released in December of the same year, and remained in the catalog all the way until 1944, perhaps indicating it was Sprague’s greatest success.  Sprague is accompanied by two fiddles played by H.J. McKenzie and C.R. Dockum.

Stark, bleak, and sorrowful, “O Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie (The Dying Cowboy)” is a mesmerizing, repetitive, and minimalistic piece, with Sprague’s vocal backed by the beat of his guitar and the forlorn fiddle’s croon, which I feel really encapsulates an archetype of cowboy music.  The song has been featured in recent years on Dust-to-Digital’s evocative multimedia collection I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces: Music in Vernacular Photographs (1880-1955).

O Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie (The Dying Cowboy), recorded June 22, 1926 by Carl T. Sprague.

On “B”, Sprague sings “The Cowboy’s Dream”, a less depressing and rather enchanting melody.  It also provides a demonstration of Sprague’s distinctive and simple-yet-pleasing style of playing guitar, which from both aural and photographic evidence, seems to have been done on a metal-bodied resonator, or at least it was by the end of his recording career in 1929.

The Cowboy’s Dream, recorded June 26, 1926 by Carl T. Sprague.

Victor 21470 – Jules Allen “The Singing Cowboy” – 1928

From 1930 Victor catalog.

From 1930 Victor catalog.

If there’s one thing I enjoy, it’s singing cowboys.  Not those Hollywood type like Roy Rogers (not that I have anything against Roy, I like him too), but the handful of real life cowboys that made recordings of songs from right there on the range in the 1920s and ’30s.  This record falls squarely into that category.  This was one of my lucky finds from a little store out in Mineral Wells, Texas, along with some other fine rural selections.  It’s likely been in Texas ever since it left the pressing plant in Camden.

Jules Verne Allen was born on April 1, 1883 in the charming little town of Waxahachie, Texas, he began working as a cowboy in the next decade, punching cattle from Montana to the Rio Grande.  He served his country in the Great War, enlisting in the Army in 1917.  For many years, Allen worked as an officer of the law, as a police officer and deputy sheriff in El Paso, and as a member of the legendary Texas Rangers.  As a cowboy, he learned the traditional songs of the West, played on the guitar, and when the Western phenomenon swept the nation in the late 1920s, Allen began performing those songs on the radio for WOAI in San Antonio and WFAA in Dallas.  Billed as “The Singing Cowboy”, he cut three sides for the Victor Talking Machine Co. on one of their field trips in El Paso in 1928, later making twenty more sides, of which all but one were issued.  One of the most popular of the early singing cowboys, in 1933, Allen wrote Cowboy Lore, a book detailing the life of a cowpuncher.  Continuing to perform on the radio into the 1940s, Allen died on July 10, 1945.

Victor 21470 was recorded April 21, 1928 by Jules Allen during one of Victor’s field trips in El Paso, Texas.  These two are Allen’s debut recordings.

First up, Allen sings N. Howard Thorp’s classic cowboy song, “Little Joe, the Wrangler”.

Little Joe, the Wrangler, recorded

Little Joe, the Wrangler, recorded April 21, 1928 by Jules Allen.

Next, Allen sings the Texas gambling song “Jack o’ Diamonds” in the old cowboy rather than the blues style associated with the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson.  The last time we heard this tune, it was sung by TCU physics professor Newton Gaines, and to be honest, I believe ol’ Jules delivers a better performance.

Jack o' Diamonds, recorded

Jack o’ Diamonds, recorded April 21, 1928 by Jules Allen.

Timely Tunes C-1564 – Jim New – 1929

In 1931, Victor introduced their first budget label, Timely Tunes in an attempt to cope with the economic downturn. Timely Tunes was not much of a success, as only about forty were issued over a period of three months beginning in April of ’31. In that short time, however, quite a bit of fascinating material was issued, including this intriguing pair of Dallas, Texas recorded folk songs by Newton Gaines under the pseudonym “Jim New”.

A listing for one of Gaines' records in a 1930 Victor supplemental.

A listing for Gaines’ other record in a 1930 Victor supplemental.

The colorful character of Dr. Samuel Newton Gaines (sometimes called Newton C. Gaines), born in 1890, was a professor of physics at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth noted for his work with sound waves, and long time member of the Texas Folklore Society, serving as president in 1929. Besides physics, Gaines had a passion for Western folklore and cowboy songs, and also enjoyed throwing boomerangs and wearing kilts and colorful caps. In the 1920s, Gaines served as the first chairman of the fledgling physics department at TCU, and dedicated himself to ensuring the department’s excellence. In October of 1929, Newton Gaines recorded four cowboy songs in one session for the Victor Talking Machine Company on their Dallas field trip. One pair of sides was issued on Victor’s V-40000 rural series and the other two were pseudonymously released on their short-lived Timely Tunes budget label in 1931. Gaines was an associate of John A. Lomax, recording several cylinders for the Library of Congress under his supervision, and receiving mention in Lomax’s 1934 book American Ballads and Folk Songs. Gaines retired from TCU in 1958 and died in 1963.

Timely Tunes C-1564 was recorded October 12, 1929 in Dallas, Texas, and this issue dates to 1931. While the label credits the fictitious “Jim New” as the artist, Newton Gaines is credited as the arranger on both sides.

On the first side, Gaines sings a railroad disaster ballad, “Wreck of the Six Wheeler”, which bears great lyrical resemblance to Andrew Jenkins’ “Ben Dewberry’s Final Run”, and “Milwaukee Blues” as recorded by Charlie Poole’s North Carolina Ramblers, as well as Richard M. Jones “Trouble In Mind”.  This one’s not a very cheerful song, and Gaines’ mournful voice certainly doesn’t add any joy to the mix!

Wreck of the Six Wheeler

Wreck of the Six Wheeler, recorded October 12, 1929 by Jim New.

On the flip side, Gaines sings a considerably less depressing version of the classic Texas folk song, “For Work I’m Too Lazy”, also known as “Rye Whiskey” or “Jack o’ Diamonds”.

For Work I'm Too Lazy

For Work I’m Too Lazy, recorded October 12, 1929 by Jim New.