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The Dim Narrow Trail

Over the past couple of years I’ve been engaged in a revival of balladry on the Great Plains. Returning to my roots as a folkie from way back in the twentieth century, I have been revisiting the histories of folksongs once considered of unknown origins, documenting them, and singing them as a contribution to our regional literature. It is amazing how, with the advantage of digitization of documents, especially newspapers, it is possible to track traditional ballads to their very origins.

There are complications, of course. For instance, I’ve gone into a rabbit-hole of documentation on an old cowboy song known by many titles--“The Cowboy’s Dream,” “The Cowboy’s Hymn,” “The Dim Narrow Trail,” “Roll On Little Dogies,” and others. I find it, under the title “The Cowboy’s Dream,” in a booklet, Cowboy Songs, published by the WPA Federal Writers Project of Nebraska in 1937.

On examination, I determine the Nebraska writers have lifted the text of nine stanzas (plus a chorus) directly from John Lomax’s classic compilation of 1910, Cowboys Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. Checking back to Lomax, he says explicitly, “Sung to the air of ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.’”

The Nebraska authors, however, transcribe another melody for the verses, which goes something like this:

Last night as I lay on the prairie and looked at the stars in the sky

I wondered if ever a cowboy could drift to that sweet by and by

The road to that bright, happy region is a dim, narrow trail, so they say

But the broad road that leads to perdition is posted and blazed all the way

Scholars of balladry pretty much throw up their hands when they essay to fix the origins of the cowboy song, citing all manner of reminiscent accounts dating from the 1870s and 1880s. On the other hand, I now can give you a fixed point of reference in the ballad’s history: a text published in the New Mexican Review, 9 March 1893, under the title, “The Cowboy’s Hymn.”

The publication notice says the song “was written by Mr. John L. Zimmerman, and set to music by Mr. Fred W. Joyce, both formerly of Las Vegas and Roswell, and is dedicated to Hon. Ernest Meyers, representative of Barnalillo County in the last legislature.” Major Meyers was quite a historic character, a pioneer of the liquor industry in New Mexico Territory, adept at both business and fisticuffs.

This is the sort of specificity that might inspire confidence in a researcher--unless he has been inoculated to the tendency of folk authors to claim personal authorship of ballads that, in fact, they have simply appropriated and made their own through adaptation. Given the multiple, if sometimes dubious, accounts of previous circulation, I suspect this 1893 text is a matter of such appropriation, and so I cannot pin down a specific origin for the song.

I can, however, conclude that the 1893 text is powerfully significant in the circulation and popularization of the ballad, for thereafter it appears in many iterations up and down the plains (although, oddly, nowhere I have seen in Dakota Territory). And “The Cowboy’s Hymn” or whatever you call it is, certainly, a folk song, circulating and morphing as it travels the plains, as the multiple texts I have from across several states attest.

I cut some slack to the folk authors and their claims, for as one of my collected texts confesses in New-Testament fashion,

I wonder if ever a cowboy prepared for that great judgement day

Who could say to the Boss of the riders, I’m ready to be driven away.

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