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The Cattle King’s Prayer

Across the western United States (and even in New York), western riders take part in what is known as “cowboy church.” The cowboy church movement is commonly credited to Glenn Smith, an ex-rodeo clown who was inspired with the idea and made an enterprise of it. Worship from the saddle is not exactly my subject today, however.

Rather, I have new information to share about a poem or song commonly recited or sung at cowboy church services, as well as at cowboy poetry gatherings. It is commonly known as “The Cattleman’s Prayer” or “The Cowboy’s Prayer,” and it is unattributed. Which is to say, people don’t know where it came from.

The songcatchers of cowboy lore were aware of this piece more than a century ago. John Lomax printed it in his 1910 classic, Cowboy Songs and Frontier Ballads, but with no attribution whatever. Jack Thorp put it into the second (1921) edition of Songs of the Cowboys, and claimed to have heard it sung in a cow camp on the plains of eastern New Mexico, but it appears to me he copied the text from Lomax.

A generation ago Jim Bob Tinsley, a scholar of cowboy folksong, believed he had the origins of “The Cowman’s Prayer” pegged. He found it, unsigned, published as “The Cattle Man’s Prayer” on the front page of the Socorro (New Mexico) Bulletin of 30 October 1886. Until now this has been regarded as the best origin story for the work.

Until a couple of weeks ago I, the aging digital cowboy, stuck gold in the River Press of Fort Benton, Montana, 22 September 1886 — that is, five weeks before the Socorro text. Given that newspaper exchange was the means for dispersal of folksong on the plains, this was time enough for the song to have traveled from Montana to New Mexico.

And it sure appears the Fort Benton text is the real deal, the original. Six elegant stanzas appear under the title, “The Cattle King’s Prayer.” The editor’s note reads, “The following was picked up on the streets a few days ago. Who the author is we could not ascertain.” Which was bogus, because the editor knew exactly who had written the stanzas, and engaged in a little guessing game in subsequent columns, without revealing the secret. I have my suspicions.

For in 1930 a local woman brought into the Great Falls Tribune a photograph taken in 1886 by a fairly well-known photographer, Dan Dutro. It depicts four men, three local and one a riverboat captain, including one, the prominent cattleman John Lepley, reading “The Cattle King’s Prayer.” I believe Lepley is the author.

Now, O, Lord, please lend thine ear,
The prayer of the cattle king to hear;
No doubt many prayers to thee seem strange--
But won’t you bless our cattle range?

The ballad goes on to invoke the Lord’s blessing on roundups, water sources, forage, rainfall, and the cattle market.

Now, O, Lord, won’t you be good,
And give our stock plenty of food;
And to avert a winter’s woe,
Give Italian skies and little snow.

“Italian skies” was a stock literary phrase of the nineteenth century for sunny weather. This stanza originated about two months prior to the catastrophic winter of 1886-87.

One thing more and then I’m through--
Instead of one calf, give my cows two.
I may pray differently than other men,
Still I’ve had my say, so now, Amen!

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