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'Singing in the Saddle'

The Sons of the Pioneers in <I>The Big Show</I> (1936). From left: Karl Farr, Bob Nolan, Tim Spencer, Hugh Farr and Len Slye (later known as Roy Rogers).
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The Sons of the Pioneers in <I>The Big Show</I> (1936). From left: Karl Farr, Bob Nolan, Tim Spencer, Hugh Farr and Len Slye (later known as Roy Rogers).
Tex Ritter and his horse, White Flash, in the 1940s.
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Tex Ritter and his horse, White Flash, in the 1940s.

The true cowboy of the trail drive was only around for about 20 years, in an era that began shortly after the Civil War. Legend has it that cowboys sang to their cattle to settle the animals down at night.

The songs that became known as "cowboy music" were made famous in the mid-20th century by stars including Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Tex Ritter. With little time to build a tradition, songwriters looked to a hodgepodge of sources, according to the author of a new book about the singing cowboys.

"They didn't have time to really develop a long-standing tradition, so they just took from everything else," says Douglas B. Green, author of Singing in the Saddle: The History of the Singing Cowboy, in an interview with NPR's Bob Edwards. Green himself is a singing cowboy, better known as Ranger Doug from the Grammy Award-winning group Riders in the Sky.

Cowboy music came "from the popular music of the day, from the Irish and Scottish music, from Vaudeville, from the blues, from Mexican music to just anything that happened to be there," Green says. "They took it, and it was this wonderful amalgam and it was all amped up in the early '30s when they started using it for the [western] movies."

Some of the songs were "absolutely haunting, brilliant, evocative music of the West," Green says. "Some of it was pretty schlocky, sure, but some of it was absolutely unforgettable" -- such as the Sons of the Pioneers' classic "Cool Water" and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds."

Roy Rogers came out of the Sons of the Pioneers, a group in which he performed under his real name, Len Slye. "They were so interesting to me because they were just a bunch of guys from all over the country who had come to Hollywood just hoping to get into movies, [to] get into show business," Green says. "They all were so talented and they wrote these brilliant songs. They were very sophisticated songs... These weren't trained musicians and yet they wrote some of the most stirring melodies of the 20th century."

The era of the singing cowboy itself lasted just a few decades. "Every fad has its day," Green says. "Things come and things go. The singing cowboy was hot for a while, and then it wasn't. By the early '50s it was just about over."

But Green's group, Riders in the Sky, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, helped bring about a revival in the genre. "I hope we created a consciousness out there that this music... wasn't nostalgic, it wasn't just a part of the past. It was a living American tradition and (is) still going on."

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