Music of the Old West: Pioneers & Native Americans DR. LAWRENCE E. ANDERSON Founding Director and Conductor Emeritus Danville Community Band The saga of pioneers and settlers 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 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.
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