Songs that lend a voice to the equestrian world in a way only music can.
In 1997 Paula Cole lent her voice to the perpetual question: “Where have all the cowboys gone?” But her hit song wasn’t intended to add to the chorus of those lamentingly the loss of that chivalrous and gentlemanly behavior that began in the era of knights in shining armor. Instead, Cole called “Cowboys” an ironic study of the gender stereotypes that still plague us. So when she sang the timeless lyric, what she really meant was get your meat-eating, beer-drinking, gun-slinging kind of guy out of here!
Truth be told, I never liked this song. Apart from the fact that I feel like this when I hear it, I am disappointed by the fact that the title poses an interesting question that the song in no way answers. So instead of subjecting yourself to Ms. Cole’s track one more time, try this playlist and see if these songs can provide an answer to the probing question: “Where have all the cowboys gone?”
Get the full playlist on Spotify here: Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?
1. HORSE AND I by Bat For Lashes from the album Fur And Gold
So much of the idyllic image of the chivalrous cowboy is derived from the medieval knight that I thought it appropriate to begin this playlist with the sound and sentiment of several centuries before the American cowboy ever existed. In Horse and I, Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan sings an Arthurian tale of becoming a knight or perhaps a warrior king by some mystical experience. “They sang to me, “This [armor and crown] is yours to wear. You’re the chosen one, there’s no turning back.” And so the picture of the honest and valiant man on a horse is created in the world of this playlist.
The word chivalry is in fact derived from the French word ‘chevalier’, literally meaning knight, and chivalry was originally related to being a skillful horseback warrior. The idea of chivalry developed through the 12th and 13th centuries to encompass moral values, and by the 14th century, being a knight no longer necessarily meant being a crusading warrior. Noble orders of knights were founded with their own ‘chivalric codes” that emphasized loyalty, piety and courtesy. It was these codes that were later mimicked by many an American cowboy to make up codes of the American west.
In a bit of an ironic twist, it was a horse, not a knight or a cowboy, that was a real life hero to Khan. Khan’s father left her home when she was 11, leaving her world in shambles. She found comfort during this difficult time by nursing a horse abandoned in a nearby field. Subsequently, horses have turned up in several of her songs, including Horse and I, which is not only the opening track to this playlist, but also the open track on her debut album.
2. WORSHIP YOU by Vampire Weekend from the album Modern Vampires of the City
Next up is “Worship You,” by Vampire Weekend. This song has a driving beat that makes you think of horse hooves charging over great spans of land, and features the lyric “We worshipped you – your red right hand. Won’t we see you once again? In foreign soil, in foreign land, who will guide us through the end?” Together they create the image of a white knight whose honor now seems in question. Indeed, Vampire Weekend lead singer, Ezra Koenig, says this song is fundamentally about putting a great deal of faith in something only to find later that you must question or lose your faith in it. This was the case in the 15th century, a time when many historians say chivalry died, at least in terms of the chivalric system of warfare, and with the introduction and increasing use of gunpowder and firearms in the 16th century, the skills of knights became obsolete for warfare. But while the real white knight no longer existed, certainly the ideals remained.
3. CAVALRY by Mandolin Orange from the album This Side Of Jordan
Chivalry reemerged in Victorian England, where medieval values were romanticized and chivalry came to be synonymous with the modern-day gentlemanly behaviors like opening doors and pulling out chairs. This was the era in which fox-hunting gentlemen and dashing cavalry officers were held on high. At the same time, the cowboy was emerging as a cultural force in America. Over time, the cowboys adopted their own blend of chivalrous and Victorian values, b the hazardous and isolated nature of cowboy work also bred a tradition of self-reliance in them.
In “Cavalry,” Mandolin Orange sings of knighthood and cavalry service from the perspective of the horse, and in the key of folk country. In each line of this sad song, you can hear the horse’s desire to run from military work in favor of the solitary life of the cowboy. And so this playlist shifts from the ancestry of American cowboy to his real life struggles since the horses are heading that way anyhow.
Interestingly, this song was simply called “War Horse” by a YouTube user. It’s not hard to see why one would equate this track with the “War Horse,” story, but in reality another great film was responsible for its creation. “Cavalry was written after watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy — one of many times watching these,” admits Mandolin Orange’s Andrew Marlin. “I got to thinking about how the horses would ride fearlessly into battle, right into these monstrous creatures, with nothing to gain from doing so.”
4. COLDER WEATHER by Zac Brown Band from the album You Get What You Give
“Colder Weather” is a beautiful track from southern rock outfit, the Zac Brown Band. Although these boys are from the south, the song was written while they were touring in the Midwest, and I expect that is why it has such an extraordinary western cowboy feel to it. This song appears here on the playlist to build on the message begun in “Cavalry.” While cowboy values may be chivalrous and gentlemanly, the reality is that a cowboy has always been a “ramblin’ man.” And, as Zac Brown sings, “You ain’t ever gonna change. You got a gypsy soul to blame, and you were born for leavin’.” Why is it whenever we ask, “Where have all the cowboys gone?” this essential fact is forgotten?
5. TALL BOOTS by The Wild Feathers from the album The Wild Feathers
Perhaps The Wild Feathers have an answer to that question. In “Tall Boots,” this five-piece band, all from either Texas or Oklahoma and who currently call Nashville home, sing that they are lovers of yesterday. From this passion for years past come archetypal heroes who wear tall boots and are, despite their troubled days, always trying to make their way home. So yes, the cowboy is out there all alone, but don’t we love to imagine all of his journeys are journey’s home?
6. I WANT A PAIR OF COWBOY BOOTS by Jens Lekman from the album I Know What Love Isn’t
But I think Jens Lekman may have it right. We all tend to treat the cowboy’s rugged individualism as a plus, never accounting for what detractions it might cause – that is except for Lekman. In “I Want A Pair Of Cowboy Boots,” he’s not asking for these iconic shoes to carry him home. No, instead he sings, “I want a pair of cowboy boots. The kind that walks the straightest and the most narrow route. Anywhere but back to you.” So essentially he’ll take the cowboy code, but he’d also like the rambling ways thank you very much!
7. HERO by Family of the Year from the album Loma Vista
“Hero” is one of those songs that crawls up in your soul and spins our head around. It’s impossible to listen to it without being swept into another world. For purposes of this playlist (and the music video – more on that on Saturday), it’s easy to hear how this song is a simple plea to have some of the crippling pressure of preconceived notions lifted from his shoulders of cowboys, both good and bad. So, again, where have all the cowboys gone? Family of the Year might say we’ve completely buried them in unrealistic expectations of a man who is at once the perfect gentleman and a rugged loner. “Let me go. I don’t wanna be your hero!”
8. LATE NIGHT by Foals from the album Holy Fire
With “Late Night” from the Foals the mood turns dark. “Now I’m the last cowboy in this town. Empty veins and my plastic broken crown… Oh now Mama, do you hear my fear? It’s coming after me!” This last cowboy is desperately calling for a certain someone to bring him to his feet again. The question is “Is ‘Mama’ coming?” By that I mean, much of the romanticized notions of the knight, the gentleman, or the cowboy require a culture of women, which really doesn’t exist anymore. If I’m to give any credit to Paula Cole, it is to say I think that was a point she attempted to make with her song. But by being on the other side of the issue, The Foals make the point better. In this case the woman ran away and broke the cowboy. It can happen.
I must digress from the story for a moment to discuss the origins of this band’s name. Foals are an English quintet from Oxford who used to get into a good bit of mischief as boys back home. So much trouble that a friend of the band took to calling them foals, and the name stuck. I’m thinking that makes them Foals of Chaos! Love it!
9. NO REST by Dry the River from the album Shallow Bed
If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m an eternal optimist on most topics. Great men on steeds can’t really be all gone – killed by simultaneous over expectations and lack of support – can they? With Dry the River’s help, we begin the process of repairing the broken pieces. In “No Rest,” they sing of being an old and rusted king who is brought back to life by a clever companion. So too can the romanticized cowboy be revitalized by adding a bit of modern realities to the myth. But it won’t be easy, and this song promises no clear-cut path. At the close, this song defines their hearts as a “herd” and explodes into the lyric, “I loved you in the best way possible.” That’s definitely a good place to start.
10. CHASING TWISTERS by Delta Rae from the EP Chasing Twisters
Since the playlist began with a woman singing about being a knight, it seems only fitting that it should end with two women singing about being a cowboy – the larger than life Pecos Bill who could lasso a tornado to be specific. This track was in fact written by Delta Rae guitarist and vocalist Ian Hölljes, but is sung by his band mate and sister Brittany Hölljes as well as vocalist Elizabeth Hopkins. While this could just be another tough cowboy song, the combined male and female effort provides an interesting depth to the lyrics, in particular: “I’ve been waiting for so long now. I can feel you in the hollow. In every cloud on the horizon. Come back to me darling.” Who is calling whom home? The beauty of it is that it can go either way. And hopefully this serves as inspiration that if you try a little bit of equality and realistic expectations in your relationships, you just might find that your white knights and cowboys haven’t gone anywhere.
If you would like to listen to a thoughtful investigation of the question “Where have all the cowboys gone?” by a lasting ‘90s icon, try this track from Alanis Morissette.
Alanis Morissette – Precious Illusions