Ian Tyson’s Raven, or, What is Western Music?

In what seems to be my style lately, I’m going to review Ian Tyson’s album Raven somewhere in this post.  When I started, I realized I couldn’t do a straight-up review.  Anyway, what’s the point – I think he’s doing okay without my take on it – but it made me revisit the subject that has been on my mind since the spring: western music.

So as soon as I put the disc on, I was reminded of a ‘discussion’ my husband and I had the other night.  I scare quote discussion because it really was that, and I made the effort to redirect the conversation before I got too emotional on a topic that really bothered me.  We were talking about the difference between regular country music and western music.  I was trying to explain the difference, that I knew how western music sounded, but sometimes explaining something like that is impossible.  “How do you know?” he kept asking me.  I suggested that it was probably a relatively unchanged music going back to the days of the early anthologies of cowboy songs.  A guitar, a clear voice, poetic lyrics about the land and a cowboy’s long day on the range, you know.  He said no way did that music make its way from Texas up through Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, without encountering influences that changed it.

This was when I started to get upset.  My professional self knows that is the case, of course.  No music is so isolated that it is exempt from external influence, especially a music that is based in oral tradition.  Still, I know what it sounds like!  I just do.  We went on to talk about other things, but as soon as I hit play on Tyson’s album a couple days later, there it was.  Western music.

Now, Tyson has gone and done what my husband suggested.  He throws in a syncopated bass and drum ostinato into “African Skies”.  You hear Spanish rhythms and harmonies in “Back to Baja”.  He’s also doing the classic western things, like connecting land and history in “Charles Goodnight’s Grave” or introducing a local rodeo rider in “Saddle Bronc Girl”.  What is it, then, that makes his music western?  Is it the gentle fingerpicking on guitar?  The arrangement of the acoustic guitars that operates as a continuous, moving backdrop?  Is it the loping beat?  His voice?  The subtle inclusion of Mexican, Spanish, or African-American influences? (Lots of people say the yodel started in black music before it migrated to country.)  Is it the plain, economical, but poetic language of the lyrics?  I would say yes to all of these things.  Is it the same as it was a hundred years ago?  Probably not.  But I bet it has a lot of similarities.

I stopped listening to or thinking about western music for a long time.  I have taken a professional beating for my interest in a) country music; b) Western Canada; and c) independent musicians.  Writing grant proposals to departments and funding bodies that still reward people who study Stravinsky has been a challenge.  Add to that ten years of studying (and listening repeatedly to) a small group of Western Canadian country artists...by the time I was done my dissertation I was ready to shoot anybody who yodelled.  I moved on to new things and resurrected old projects.  Nothing seemed to get me anywhere.  Nobody was interested in my work.  I was a failure in every endeavour.

(*Note: I want to add here that I’m not feeling sorry for myself.  There is a significant shift in academia and the work available to post-grads that is well-documented [also see here] and affects every single person I know in any academic field.  The common attitude among most people I speak to now is that we must find any way possible to make a decent living, whether we are mathematicians, psychologists, anthropologists, or musicologists.  People are teaching privately, getting additional vocational training where we can, taking on gigs we never thought we would [one of my friends balances conducting a teen jazz band with bass lessons and a part-time job at an artist friendly tax office].  While we rail against the shift in the academy that favours gross administrative salaries, enormous advertising budgets, corporate partnerships, and profitable ventures over securing capable educators who produce solid research, we also have to just fucking pay the bills.  We are fully aware that we operate in a world that doesn’t reward those who work in the humanities, and particularly the fine arts, but we do hope to help those fields achieve better recognition for their role in creating civilized societies throughout our lifetime.  I’ll just repeat: I’m not feeling sorry for myself.  But this is the situation.)

One night in the early spring, during a long period of depression, I listened to a song.  It may have been Tom Phillips, or Corb Lund; it was someone from out west.  It was a significant moment, because I realized that this is the thing that I love, studying this music, and I had spent the last three years trying to get away from it...all in an effort to make myself an attractive candidate.  I made the decision there that this preoccupation with the professional package of myself had to stop.  I booked a trip to Calgary, I started listening to western music again, and I started to get a bit happier.

All is not myopic in this post.  What I’m getting at here is that country music, and more frequently, cowboy and western music, takes some harsh criticism for being a variety of things: unsophisticated, cheesy, inelegant, simple, the list goes on.  Western music also suffers from its conflation with western movies, and country music, both of which have been cited for similar cultural infractions.  I suppose you could look at the feigned surprise on Tex Ritter’s face when the Texas Playboys appear behind him in the forest to play “You Are My Sunshine” in Take Me Back to Oklahoma as cheesy.  But take away all that, and western music, whether the collected ballads of John Lomax or the contemporary songs of Ian Tyson, is the beautiful, poetic story of the lone cowboy as he goes about his work.

Let me address John Lomax for a minute.  Of course, his story is famous among western singers or roots music aficionados or music scholars.  For those who don’t know, let me quickly recap the part of his story that is relevant here.  He began collecting cowboy songs, the ones he heard actual cowboys singing while growing up, in the late 19th century.  When he went to continue his education (I’ll quote the Wikipedia entry on him here, ‘cause it says it best): “he...arrived at the University of Texas with a roll of cowboy songs he had written down in childhood. He showed them to an English professor, Morgan Callaway, only to have them discounted as ‘cheap and unworthy,’ prompting Lomax to take the bundle behind the men’s dormitory and burn it. His interest in folksongs thus rebuffed, Lomax focused his attentions on more acceptable academic pursuits.”


It wasn’t until Lomax got to Harvard that he was able to resurrect his interest in cowboy ballads, culminating in the publication of Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads in 1910. 

This is over a hundred years ago.  Somehow, western music has survived in popular culture for over a hundred years.  Disco lasted four.  Swing lasted eight.  Really.  Until its second wind in the 90s.  So why is western music still treated with such disdain in cultural, academic, or media discourse?

I used to get Edith Fowke’s anthologies of Canadian folk music from the library and sit at home, learning the songs, wondering why so few from Western Canada made it into the book.  Sure, there was “Flunky Jim” and “Alberta Homesteader” but not many others, and besides, nobody wanted to sing them with me.  That may have been the point where I decided to spend my life thinking about Western Canadian country music.  Mostly cowboy music.  And so, back to it I go.

I sort of wish this would happen (not really because I like my job), but I highly doubt it would after the response to the Quebec student protests this year (also from the Lomax Wikipedia article): “ ‘The Great A&M Strike’ broke out. The strike, caused by student dissatisfaction with the administration, continued even after February 14, 1908, when the University, in a conciliatory gesture, fired some of its administrators. Unable to teach because of the strike, Lomax decided to see about resuming his collecting of cowboy ballads with a view to publishing them in a book.”

Heh.  Be careful what you wish for.

Views: 935

Comment by Joe Gorfinkle on September 3, 2012 at 12:38pm

 Studying and recording folk music is a great calling. I applaud you.

Comment by Alex Rettie on September 4, 2012 at 4:53am

Nice article, Gillian. Fascinating story about Lomax. Greetings from Calgary!

Comment by Richard Brautigam on September 4, 2012 at 9:07am

Gillian, very thoughtful article.  The two forms of music that have most touched me are "traditional Irish" and the music you describe as Western.  I would include Ian Tyson as the modern media "source", since so many current performers (Tom Russell, Nancy Griffith, Lyle Lovett, (add a name here!) were influenced by Ian's writing and performing approach.  When I returned to NYC from Texas in 1981, I made a point of sharing as much of the "new Western music" I had heard in Houston and Austin in the previous three years.


Your passion keeps your spirits high.  That is it's own reward!

Comment by Michael Helwig on September 4, 2012 at 10:29am

very thoughtful article...I, too, subscribe to the "I know it when I hear it" theory...while my taste in western music is more "traditional", I do hear western in a lot of Ian Tyson's music

Comment by Kim Ruehl on September 4, 2012 at 11:25am

I loved this for many reasons, but mostly because I spent my life in classical music before finding my way to folk music. These days I'm listening to classical music in the car because I need a break to remember why I love folk and Americana music (so inundated as a reviewer). But I've found what I love about both forms is a certain raw honesty which exists nowhere else in music...maybe because so much of "classical" music is informed by folk music which is even older than it. I don't know. I can't complete this thought right now, but I wanted to thank you for this piece and say I'm right there with you. (Also didn't know that bit about Lomax, so thanks for that.)

Comment by Barry Garneau on September 4, 2012 at 3:39pm

Good article. Didn't realize why you seemed to do your pieces in NoDepression so thoroughly, yet with humor and humanity and welcome other's thoughts and comments.

Ian Tyson was one of my first, along with Sylvia at the time, great singing sounds turning me on to Gordon Lightfoot  and a whole passel of singers, songwriters, instrumentalists and, oh yeah--yodelers.

West Canada has produced so many musicians, well east Canada too, that it becomes surprising to me that I never knew music came from there. Leonard Cohen spoke to the difference in the scene in Montreal as opposed  to 'biz' and bucks here in the US of A. Across the border line.

I can't describe 'western' music, but I know it when I hear it.  I know... not exactly dissertation or even heated conversation material.

Being a Garneau, as in French Canadian, and a lover of all things cowboy, Git Along Little Doggies and Tumblin' Tumble Weeds were corraled into my childhood music mind listening to Record Ranch (came on right after Straight Arrow...or was it Gene Autry) sittin' on the split rail fence of our western Vermont home up there on Bear Town Road frammin' on my dads guitar.

Comment by Richard Brautigam on September 4, 2012 at 4:03pm

Barry, as a many time visitor to your great country, I always think Canadians are the "Americans with better natures"  When I lived in Houston John's son Alan was still alive, and did all he could to encourage and foster the careers of some of the folks I listed earlier.  One of the most authentic Western singers in Texas was Kenny Threadgill.  The same goes for most of the Austin crowd, with one of the outliers being Uncle Walter Hyatt and his band.  If you count Bob Wills, then Uncle Walt's Band makes it in on certain of their songs.  "Streets of Laredo" and "When The Works All Done Next Fall" hopefully fall in the range.

Comment by Barry Garneau on September 4, 2012 at 6:10pm

Richard, I was born just inside the states from Canada first grade most of the 24 kids in all 8 grades spoke French except me, but I was the only first grader to break out singing at my desk and I was roundly chastised and told it just wasn't done. However, I kept it up through all the grades including the University of the Streets and on. Even did my time in Austin and got to play with some excellent musicians and some just plain good and soulful. I like to think I keep a good nature through it all, and that would be due to music. Kept me going when nothing else did/would/could. There are just too many roots, sources, influences, fatback beat, melodies of the angels,

My two times in Canada were as a kid with my parents, Montreal. Then again with Todd my surrogate son, and did the Gaspe peninsula and Chic Choc mountains worthy of a song, which once again can't describe beauty like that except in music Like the Leblancs and Lenny Breau. Eastern I guess you'd call it except LeBlanc became the Whites and Kentucky Colonels only to die in the west.

Music keeps going on, with the help and history of musicologists, folk lorists, writers, bloggers, commenters and commentators.

Academia is a tough row Gillian, but you seem to have what it takes and more. A few get a break, some by talent, some by luck. Keep on keepin' on!

Comment by Gillian Turnbull on September 4, 2012 at 6:48pm

Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments and for being so nice.  Barry and Richard, I just got some books and recordings today - cowboy songs (all the songs you mention are in the books), and instructions on how to yodel.  I think it's going to be the new project at home.  We're aiming for this:


Kim, it's interesting that you equate classical and folk that way..something I had never thought of because classical has this reputation (and role in my life) for being something to escape.  But I think you are right - there  is a sense of returning to basics in classical music.  Now I often do anything I can to escape roots music - lately I've been listening to Billy Joel, which is so bombastic and orchestral.  But I still gravitate to the western stuff.  It's not indie and angsty and muddled by too many other genres like contemporary roots.

Sometimes nothing beats this, right?

Comment by Gillian Turnbull on September 4, 2012 at 6:55pm

oh...my last comment made me think of this:


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.