Thursday, December 24, 2009

Time again for the Cowboy Christmas Ball

In last week's edition of the hometown newspaper, I found a syndicated piece by John Cornyn, the Republican senator from Texas, Christmas on the Frontier, published earlier this month in Cornyn's Texas Times Weekly Column.

His article deals with an historical event called the Cowboy Christmas Ball, which I wrote about here in 2007. It originated in the 1880s as a real cowboy dance held at Christmas in Anson, Texas, and was celebrated in poetic form by rancher/journalist Larry Chittenden.

As I had been thinking about posting it again for the holidays, I think I'll take a cue from Cornyn's fine column on the Texas tradition and re-publish my post below before the big day passes us by.

From December 12, 2007...

This time of year found me revisiting a favorite old antiquarian volume on the shelf: Ranch Verses, by "Larry" Chittenden, "Poet-Ranchman;" 1893, G.P. Putnam's Sons, NY. My volume is a Fourth Edition from 1897, Revised and Enlarged. It's also illustrated with drawings and photographs. Perhaps the First Edition was as well--I'm not sure about that. I'm sure I read through it when I bought it circa mid-1980s, but it would be another ten years before I would discover the seasonal gem in its collection: The Cowboy Christmas Ball.

Michael Martin Murphey popularized this poem in song on his concept album, Cowboy Christmas: Cowboy Songs II, released in May of 1991. He was not the first to put the poem to music; that had been done in Chittenden's day and collected by John Lomax in 1922 in Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. Murphey may have been the first singer to record the song.

Chittenden's poem commemorates the first Cowboy Christmas Ball, held in Anson, Texas in 1885. Chittenden, a reporter for the New York Times, was staying at the hotel while visiting his uncle who owned a ranch nearby. The dance that evening for all the area cowboys inspired his lighthearted verse an it eventually found its way to publication in 1890 in the local paper. Chittenden later inherited his uncle's ranch, moved to Texas, and in 1893 published his first book, Ranch Verse, which included The Cowboy Christmas Ball.

Incidentally, the soiree that Chittenden witnessed that night was not the first dance of that kind in Anson. The ball had been organized each Christmas for several years before that. And it continued somewhat irregularly afterward, with little regard for Chittenden's poem until Leona Barrett, an Anson teacher and folklorist, revived it under the title of The Cowboy Christmas Ball. She sought to preserve the old dance customs in such a way that her group was invited to the National Folk Fetivals, including the 1938 event held in Washington, D.C. There, her Anson, Texas Cowboy Christmas Ball dancers danced on the White House lawn.

By the 1940s, the interest and attendance had increased to the point that the event was copyrighted and a Board of Directors was created. There was even a new venue, Pioneer Hall, built as a permanent home for the three-day event. 1946 appears to have been the first year that Chittenden's ballad was put to music and sang at the ball. What John Lomax collected several decades earlier may or may not have resembled the 1946 composition by Gordon Graham, a cowboy folklorist from Colorado. Graham's rendition started a tradition of having a soloist sing the ballad before the ball. The music from that early 1885 ball consisted of a bass viol, a tambourine, and two fiddles. As the music and vocals evolved over the years, they were always held to a certain standard, which itself has been clarified over the years.

Currently, Michael Martin Murphey carries the torch for this American "old west" classic event that started with a bunch of cowboys in search of a good time, a New York reporter's creative writing, and an emerging interest in a fading way of life to preserve the old ways in song and dance. You can see Murphey's rendition via music video for however long it lasts on Which reminds me...

Having listened to the Murphy recording hundreds of times before picking the book Ranch Verses back up one day and learning that the song was in the book as a poem, and then learning the history, I had thought the characters in the song were fictitiously penned by Murphey or another songwriter. Characters like Windy Bill and Z Bar Dick and Cross P Charley seemed like old cowboy folk characters. But here in Chittenden's book is a photograph of one of the dancers in the song: the leader from Swensen's Ranch, Windy Bill from little Deadman's Branch. This is an old west character if ever there was one.

Merry Christmas from the ghosts of Windy Bill, Z Bar Dick, Cross P Charley, old Chittenden himself and the other cowpokes and their ladies!

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