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  • Matthew Kerns

Night Herding


Colter Wall's Night Herding Song, from his 2018 album Songs of the Plains, is a good example of the continued fascination for cowboy life. This particular song demonstrates the kind of tune a cowboy would sing to the herd at night, as he tried to keep the cattle together while the other cowboys in the company slept.


Oh say, little dogies, why don't you lay down? You've wandered and trampled all over the ground Lay down, little dogies, lay down I've cross-herded, circle-herded, trail-herded too But to keep you together, that's what I can't do Bunch up, little dogies, bunch up My horse is leg-weary and I'm awful tired But if I let you get away I'm sure to get fired Bunch up, little dogies, bunch up



N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945), Night Herder, Collection of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth.

Texas Jack was the first to write about cowboys singing to cows at night, in a piece he wrote for The Spirit of the Times magazine in 1876:


"As night comes on, the cattle are rounded up in a small compass, and held until they lie down, when two men are left on watch, ridin' round and round them in opposite directions, singing or whistling all the time, for two hours, that being the length of each watch. This singing is absolutely necessary, as it seems to soothe the fears of the cattle, scares away the wolves, or other varmints that may be prowling around, and prevents them from hearing any other accidental sound, or dreaming of their old homes, and if stopped would, in all probability, be the signal for a general stampede. ‘Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,’ if a cowboy's compulsory bawling out lines of his own composition, such as these:


Lay nicely now cattle, don't heed any rattle,

But quietly rest until morn.

For if you skedaddle, we'll soon give you battle.

And head you as sure as you're born

can be considered such.

Some poet may yet make a hit,

Of the odds and ends of cow-boys' wit."

Frederick Remington, In From the Night Herd. On the cover of Harper's Weekly, October 9, 1886.

It's not too hard to imagine Texas Jack's voice, often described as a deep, rich bass, combined with his creative verse intoning the cattle to remain calm, might sound something like Colter Wall does on this track. That is despite the fact that the man who wrote an initially recorded the Night Herding Song was another real-life cowboy whose voice is altogether different from Mr. Wall's.


Harry Stephens, who wrote and recorded the Night Herding Song, was a cowpunch from Texas. His voice is not that of a singer, but of a cowhand. Cattle aren't interested in sonorous voices and perfect pitch, Singing to cattle kept the herd calm and under control, and as the pair of cowboys who drew night herding duty took turns serenading the steers, they could use the songs to tell stories, entertain each other, and assure one another that there were no problems that night.

The Night Herding Song, first published by musicologist John Lomax in Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads in 1910, has been covered by many musicians, including famous cowboy singers Roy Rogers and Ramblin' Jack Elliot. What began with cowboys like Texas Jack leading longhorns up the Chisholm Trail became art, and inspired much of what would become western, then country & western, and finally country music.


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