Sources Of A Classic Cowboy Song: American Songster Radio Season 2 Episode 6

Oct 26, 2018

This is the sixth and final episode from season two of American Songster Radio.

"Goodbye, Old Paint" is one of the most famous cowboy songs. The first recording of this song was performed by Jess Morris, who sang it into John Lomax’s recording machine in 1947. Jess was raised in the Texas Panhandle region, where his father was a trail boss on the XIT ranch, an establishment known for hiring many black cowboys. One of them, a former slave named Charley Willis, taught young Jess how to play the song on the jaw harp. A few years later, Jess learned to play the fiddle from another black cowboy named James Neely. Jess would adapt Willis's song to the fiddle and perform it for the rest of his life.

While Willis never recorded a version of "Goodbye Old Paint," Jess would continue to tell the story of the generous black cowboy who helped begin his long musical career. In the 2010 NPR story "Who Were the Cowboys Behind 'Cowboy Songs'?" Franklin Willis describes his great-grandfather by saying: "He had a knack for singing. He had a gift, if you will. His voice was real soothing to the cattle, and this is why they wanted him to participate in these big cattle drives, because he would sing to them [the cattle] and just make them relax." This enduring story reinforces the importance of recognizing the multilayered musical exchange that occurred among the working cowboys.

In this episode of American Songster Radio, Dom traces the history of "Goodbye, Old Paint."  He also shares his version of the song, played live on stage.