Have you ever noticed the sort of informal competition between classical and folk music over which one is older? It's not really a fair contest; their stuff comes with dates and ours doesn't, but clearly the oldest folk material predates the vast majority of classical music.
Still, it's nice for folk music to be able to assign a date once in a while. So when I realized that the well-known cowboy song Little Joe the Wrangler (Laws B5) reached the century mark this year, I decided I had to include it.
It is almost certain that this song was written by N. Howard Thorp in 1898. His own account is that it was "written by me on trail of herd of O Cattle from Chimney Lake, New Mexico, to Higgins, Texas, 1898." Thorp published the piece in Songs of the Cowboys (the first-ever collection of cowboy music) in 1908, using the well-known Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane for a melody.
The only reason for doubting this account is that John A. Lomax published the piece in Cowboy Songs in 1910. Chances are, though, that Lomax simply stole it; it's known that he stole other songs from the Thorp book (which consisted primarily of traditional songs).
Thorp himself seems to have been a fascinating character, educated and from a wealthy family, who turned cowboy when the family's fortunes took a turn for the worse. (Thanks to Lyle Lofgren for this information.)
Whatever Little Joe's origin, it has done well in tradition, being collected as far afield as California, Colorado, Indiana, Missouri, and Texas. It also inspired a parody, Little Joe the Wrangler's Sister Nell, which also entered tradition; Glenn Ohrlin learned it in South Dakota.
The version given here is from Arnold Keith Storm (Take the News to Mother, Folk-Legacy FSA-18). He had it, I believe, from his father. The tune has strayed a little bit, and the text is significantly different from Thorp's (apart from verbal differences, of which there are dozens, the original had two more verses, and in the original it is Joe's father, not his mother, who remarries, while the river is the Red, not the Pecos). But I like this version; it keeps the plot short and to the point.
The "remuda" (v. 1) is the collection of spare horses used by the cowboys.
Oh, Little Joe the Wrangler will wrangle nevermore;
His days with the remuda they are o'er.
'Twas a year ago last April that he rode into our herd,
Just a little Texas stray and all alone.
It was late and in the evening when he rode into our herd
On a little Texas pony he called Chaw.
With his brogan shoes and overalls, a tougher lookin' chap
You never in your life before had saw.
He said he'd had to leave his home, his ma had married twice;
His new pa whipped him every day or two.
So he saddled up old Chaw one night and quietly rode away
And now he's trying to paddle his own canoe.
He said if we would give him work he'd do the best he could
Although he did know nothin' about a cow.
So the boss he cut him out a mount and kindly helped him on
'Cause he sorta liked that Texas stray somehow.
We travelled up the Pecos, the weather bein' fine,
We camped down by the south side of the bend.
When a norther started blowin', we called the extra guard
'Cause it took us all to hold the cattle in.
Now, Little Joe the wrangler was called out with the rest,
The lad had scarcely gotten to that herd,
When those cattle they stampeded -- like a hail storm 'long they fled
And all of us was ridin' for the lead.
Midst the flashes of the lightnin' a horseman we could see:
It was Little Joe the Wrangler in the lead.
He was ridin' old Blue Rocket with his slicker o'er his head
He was tryin' to check those cattle in the lead.
At last we got them millin' and kindly settled down,
When the extra guard back to the camp did go.
But one of them was missin', we saw it at a glance;
'Twas our little Texas stray, poor wrangler Joe.
Next mornin', just at daybreak, we found where Rocket fell
Down in the washout twenty feet below.
Beneath the horse's body, a-lying where he fell,
Was our little Texas stray, poor wrangler Joe.
The original source for this was Thorp's Songs of the Cowboys; this qualifies as a collector's item today. However, an annotated version of this book has been published by Austin E. and Alta S. Fife; this include's Thorp's text, an alternative, and several parodies. The Fifes also published Thorp's text in their Cowboy and Western Songs.
Many additional references can be found in Laws, Native American Balladry, where this is item B5. Most of the items are in journals or on Library of Congress recordings, but there is also a text from Randolph.
Information on the parody Little Joe the Wrangler's Sister Nell can be found in Glenn Ohrlin's That Hell-Bound Train.