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.