Music of the Old West

The saga of the settlers/pioneers migrating to the “Promised Land” is replete with the tremendous hardships they endured during the five to six month journey across the Western frontier. During their long trip west they provided their own entertainment by playing, singing and dancing to familiar music. In a large wagon train there were usually a few people who could play instruments. As one can imagine, this brief interlude from the rigors of the day was a pleasant activity to look forward to each night.
“Music passed the time; it entertained and comforted; it brought back memories of home and family and it strengthened the bonds between friends and comrades and helped to forge new ones,” wrote Kenneth A. Bernard in his book, Lincoln and the Music of the Civil War.

Old Dan Tucker; The Arkansas Traveler; Oh Susanna; Buffalo Gals; Turkey In the Straw; Camp town Races; The Santa Fe Trail and Aura Lee, are just some of the songs of the Old West that were popular with the pioneers on the trail.

The music the setters brought with them in mid-19th century America had several roots. Some of it was influenced by folk music traditions of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Some western music celebrates the life of the cowboy on the western range and prairie. Many cowboy songs during this time can also be traced back to European folk songs. Other influences from the 1840s were from minstrel shows and popular music of the day. “Different brands of western Americana were absorbed in the American culture by way of sheet music,” wrote Beth E. Ledy in her book, Frontier Figures.

Frontier Instruments
The oldest and most widely used instrument by the pioneers was the “fiddle,” or Violin. For years it was the primary instrument found on the frontier. Davy Crockett, a noted character of the Old West, was not only a hero, he was also a fiddler. An interesting fact is, in order to preserve an old American tradition, Henry Ford started a fiddling contest in 1920.

guitar in wood texture backgroundThe Concertina, whose modern cousin is the accordion, is an octagonal shaped instrument with a bellows and buttons on each end. It was used as a dance instrument and to accompany singing.

The Banjo has its roots in Africa. It was brought to the new world by slaves and was prominent in minstrel shows. The Harmonica, also known as a mouth organ, was a popular instrument on the plains. Because of its size it is portable and was a favorite instrument of soldiers in the Civil War. The Guitar and Mandolin were also among favorite instruments played by the settlers.

The lure of the Old West or, as it was called, the Wild West, was enticing to the people who were trying to carve out a better life and future for their family and their childrens’ families. People rarely, if ever, set out on their own to cross the vast expanse. Rather, they became part of an organized group that was led by an experienced wagon master who had previously made the trek.

The primary mode of transportation was a wagon called a “Prairie Schooner.” It was pulled by mules or oxen. Oxen were preferred as they were stronger than mules or horses and were easier to handle and train; also their diets were not as fussy as the mules and horses demanded.

Interestingly, people did not ride in the wagons, they walked. The wagons had a ten-foot long bed that was only four-foot wide. It was full of food and supplies for the long journey. On an average day they would travel ten to fifteen miles. When the terrain was good, maybe twenty miles, and when it was bad, perhaps only eight miles.

Hazards and dangers were constantly dealt with almost every day. Present almost daily was rough terrain, rain, mud, rattle snakes, rivers to cross and wild animals, to name a few.

This long, exhaustive and hazardous trek fulfilled the vision and idealism of Manifest Destiny. Many, of course, didn’t make it. There were deaths along the way and loved ones were buried by the trail. If the trail got so rough and was hard to maneuver properly, household items were thrown out of the wagons to lighten the load. It is said that the trails west were strewn with hundreds of objects discarded by the

There were many facets of the arduous journey they were about to undertake. They endured many hardships during the hazardous trek across the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Among the few pleasures they had was their musical entertainment when they set up camp at the end of the day.

Music of the Plains Indians
Music lies at the heart of Indian culture. Both secular and sacred music was common to the Plains Indians. A prominent and important part of Indian customs was powwow meetings where mainly secular music was used.

Sacred music was used for giving thanks for life itself. Sacred music is characterized by various sizes of drums; large ones for powwows and smaller ones for personal use. In both sacred and secular music, the drum must be heard by all participants because it is the most important sound in the music.

Music has many functions in the life of the Plains Indian, according to J. Bryan Burton of Westchester University. He lists the uses as: Religious; healing; work songs; game songs; courtship; story telling; hunting; growing crops; war chants and dances.

The music is of a high, intense vocal style and is nasal in sound. It has a melodic pattern that descends and also has rhythmic drumming. “Traditional Indian music usually begins with slow and steady beats that grow gradually faster and more emphatic,” writes Charlotte Heth in the Grand Encyclopedia of World Music. “Various flourishes like drum and rattle tremolos, shouts and accented patterns add variety and signal changes in performance for singers and dances.”

Plains Indians Instruments
The main instruments, and certainly the most prominent of the Indians instruments, are Drums. The sound of the drums relates to the heartbeat of the earth. The drums usually had a rawhide head on one or both sides and were often used in conjunction with the voice.

The Whistle was the primary melodic instrument often made from reeds, river cane, wood or bone. It was used to call to the spirits. Rattles were made from many sources, including shells, wood bark, deer hooves, animal horns, and hide. The Courting flute, was played by men to court the women. It was used also as a solo instrument.

Contemporary Indian music continues to evolve with influence from Rock, Country and Jazz.

For more fascinating information on the Western Pioneers and Native Americans, take a step back in time and take the family to visit the Blackhawk Museum’s “Spirit of the Old West” exhibition. You’ll see a collection of Native American and Western Artifacts that will fascinate and educate visitors of all ages. Check their website or call 925-736-2277 for hours and information. Please submit your questions and comments to Visit our website at for up-to-date information about the Danville Community Band.