Sunday, December 05, 2010

Cowboys and Race

Interesting NPR story on black cowboys and how African-American music forms influenced cowboy music.

I will quibble with the article a bit though. Americans tend to think of race as black and white when it is far more complicated than that. Of course, there's lots of good reasons to think of our past in this way. But when we are thinking about the West, race becomes multifaceted. For instance, while the article references Mexican cowboys, it suggests nothing on how Mexican music could have influenced cowboy music. Similarly, while there were in fact white, black, and Mexican cowboys, there were also a lot of Native American cowboys, particularly after 1900. While the open range and the classic days of the cowboys had passed by this time, and while the standards of cowboy music and cowboy culture had already started becoming canonized in popular culture, did Native American music affect cowboy music much? And did cowboy music affect Native American music? Certainly there's a long history between country music and Native Americans.

The diversity of cowboys should hardly be surprising--the reality was that cowboying was (and is) a terrible job. The hours were long, the isolation tremendous, the physical danger very real. This was not a job for people who had a lot of other economic options. And in 19th century America, that meant for non-whites. The romanticization of the West and cowboys that began as early as the 1880s whitened our memories of it, something that is hardly surprising since the popularity of Western literature, music, and art has always been far more about the urbanized eastern mind than any sort of reality.

Anyway, I wish the article more directly dealt with the complex diversity of race among cowboys rather than tell the story primarily as black and white.