Chapter Thirteen 3
Chapter 13 – page 4
The Dodge City Cowboy Band
The Hey Ho! Raggedy Oh! refrain that connects all the many variants of the old Billy Barlow song (including Lookout Mountain) was still well-enough known in 1882 to have been used by the musicians of The Dodge City Cowboy Band. This brass band was supposedly made up of ordinary cowboys from the area around infamous Dodge City in Kansas. It may have in fact used a mixture of professional and amateur musicians who lived near enough town to meet for practices. Some of them would have had ordinary day-jobs as townsmen. It is unlikely that many, if any, of its members were actually cowboys, who were likely to be either itinerant workers or ranch-hands living away from the town.
The band members dressed for the part in leather breeches with fancy stitching, colourful shirts, bandanas, silver spurs, slouch hats with longhorn badges, and buckled-on ivory-handled revolvers. The band leader kept time with a gun which he claimed was always loaded, “to kill the first man who strikes a false note.”
The standard of their playing suggested that they were no instant, hastily assembled band. They played at fairs and cattlemen’s conventions and toured all over the United States. The businessmen and ranchers of the Dodge City area sponsored the group initially, helping pay for their costumes and travel expenses. They soon became very much in demand. Early in their career, in the Summer of 1882, they travelled by train to Topeka to enter a band competition at a soldiers’ reunion. A newspaper in a town along the way commented on their “rigging” and noted that,
“As the train passed they were singing ‘Oh! dear, raggedy Oh!
just look at the riggins on Billy Barlow.”
Compare these lines with a couplet out of the Billy Barlow song published by J G Osbourne in 1834:
If you want the cut of a coat or anything just so
Just look at the rigging of Billy Barlow.
The Dodge City Cowboy Band played, as part of their repertoire, a variety of pieces that included classical music, marches, dances, and popular songs of the day. Among these pieces must have been the Billy Barlow song. Twenty-five fabulously dressed, musical, cowboy Billy Barlows must have been a truly wondrous sight.
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It is noted in the biography of George Coppin that the Billy Barlow tune was played, with a trombone solo, by a brass band on the streets of Melbourne Australia in the latter half of the 19th century.
I’ve found no records of the last time the Billy Barlow song was sung in character by any of the performers who played him. Coppin frequently said goodbye as Billy, but he probably played Billy Barlow for the last time in 1901, just five years before his death. Other early music-hall performers who sang Billy Barlow songs in character — Sam Cowell, John Lawrence Toole, W. G. Ross, John Sims Reeves, and Benjamin Olliver Conquest — were all dead by 1908, as was Robert “Billy” Barlow. If the elusive Billy Barlow murdered in Little Rock Arkansas in 1914 sang Billy’s song in his act as a minstrel, it’s possible that he had been still performing it after 1900. The newspaper article seems to imply, however, that he had been long retired by the time of his death.
As is the case with so many of the very early music-hall songs, Billy Barlow is not in collections from the turn of the century. Some songs that were not tied to a specific character — like Sam Cowell’s, The Railway Porter and Bacon and Greens – lived on. Some of the early songs that were stories told in the third person, like Lord Lovell and Thomas Haynes Bayly’s, The Mistletoe Bough, passed back and forth between the stage and rural folk communities as they had always done. This was a phenomenon confined mostly to America, and to a lesser extent Australia, by the 19th century. In the British Isles there were few of these isolated communities left. In America, songs that were set to a dance tune had a good chance of survival, often as play-party songs. Play-party is the name given to events where the singing of the dancers replaces the use of musical instruments.
Hundreds of 19th-century popular songs made their way to Australia from America, arriving as song-sheets and with American gold-diggers, settlers, minstrel troupes, and solo-performers. Thousands of copies of sheet-music were shipped from the big American publishers, who saw a growing market in Australia. There was competition from British printers, but they were, however, far behind their American cousins in marketing skills. Also British song-sheets took much longer to reach Australia. When ships docked in Sydney, crowds of young men and women were waiting there for the latest popular song-sheets.
In Australia there was brief, though only mild, interest when Billy Barlow in Australia was rediscovered in the 1950s. It had appeared in several 19th-century collections published in New South Wales. Folksong collector Hugh Anderson wrote a book of The Songs of Billy Barlow, in which he gives the words to, and some background on, this and several other Billy Barlow songs.
In America and in England, the Billy Barlow songs lay packed away in the collections of theatre memorabilia kept by all sorts of people, some of them actors and singers. These boxes of souvenirs typically get lost or destroyed, unless they come into the hands of an enlightened descendant of the original collector.
Fortunately for those of us who are interested in the songs of the 19th century, the collecting of sheet music was a popular hobby, and the publishing companies had responded to the demand enthusiastically. They had even instigated it. Libraries all over America now hold huge numbers of 19th-century music-sheets and booklets, donated to them from various sources. In this way, as indeed in many other ways, America became the treasure trove of songs, both traditional and composed, of the Western World.
Billy Barlow/Let’s Go A-Hunting was found and taken up in the folksong revival that began in the late 1950s. Never one of the most well-known songs of this era, it has proven to be enduring, even though it is now mostly found in books and recordings of children’s songs. As I’ve already noted, its origins are obscure.
The old Billy Barlow song with the refrain, Hey-Ho-Raggedy-Oh, has also been recently resurrected, possibly as a result of a renewed interest in the Civil War since the making of an American documentary on the subject by Ken Burns. Collections of Civil War songs now have Billy Barlow and Lookout Mountain listed among them. Few singers will be interested in bringing 19th-century Billy’s words back, but his tune is timeless and lovely, whether played on a fiddle, a banjo, a tin whistle, or a harp.
IN THIS SECTION:
HEY HO RAGGEDY-O:
A Study of the Billy Barlow Phenomenon
(written by Joy Hildebrand)
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