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All wrapped in white linen, as cold as the clay.

A Fortnightly Review of

Cowboy’s Lament:
A Life on the Open Range
By Frank Maynard.
Edited and introduced by Jim Hoy.
$29.95 Texas Tech University Press 216 pages.

By Jesse Mullins.

OF ALL THE AUTHENTIC American cowboy folk tunes of the 19th century, the bittersweet ballad commonly known as “Streets of Laredo” holds a place of privilege as one of the most popular, poignant, and enduring works of that genre.

Little was known of its presumed author—a cowboy named Frank Maynard—until a chain of events led a modern-day cowboy folklorist to a serendipitous find. Jim Hoy, an English professor and folklorist at Emporia State University (Kansas), found not only proof of Maynard’s authorship, but something else as well. His search led to the uncovering of an entire book-length manuscript—a memoir of Maynard’s colorful cowboy past encompassing the years 1870-1880. The account is, in its author’s words, “reminiscences of wild life and adventure among the cowboys, outlaws, and Indians of the southwestern border.”

That manuscript, bracketed with insightful background commentary and a pair of appendices that serve up all of Maynard’s poetic works and the better part of his published journalistic efforts, has been published as Cowboy’s Lament: A Life on the Open Range. Hoy edited the project and included a thorough account of the remarkable twists and turns that led to the discovery of a cardboard box long buried in the personal effects of a deceased family member who’d been a niece of the cowboy. That box yielded the manuscript. It wasn’t a “lost” manuscript. It was a long-forgotten one.

IN 1924, IN A newspaper article written about Maynard, the cowboy shared his story of the creation of the song that would become “Streets of Laredo.” The story is reproduced in Cowboy’s Lament, related in Maynard’s own words:

One of the favorite songs of the cowboys in those days [the year 1876, to be specific] was called ‘The Dying Girl’s Lament,’ the story of a girl who had been betrayed by her lover and who lay dying in a hospital. I don’t remember all of the song but it went like this:

As I walked down by St. James hospital,
St. James hospital, so early one day, etc., etc.

I had often amused myself trying to write verses, and one dull winter day in camp to while away the time I began writing a poem which could be sung to the tune of ‘The Dying Girl’s Lament.’ I made it a dying ranger, or cowboy, instead of a dying girl, and had the scene in Tom Sherman’s barroom instead of a hospital.

The song (Maynard called it “The Dying Cowboy”) went through various permutations, in others’ hands, before crystallizing into the oft-recorded and -performed stanzas of “Streets of Laredo.” As Maynard indicated, his original piece was not set in Laredo, nor even in the state of Texas. Rather, its setting was Kansas – specifically the riotous, rollicking cowtown known as Dodge City.

As I rode down by Tom Sherman’s bar-room,
Tom Sherman’s bar-room so early one day
There I espied a handsome young ranger
All wrap[p]ed in white linen, as cold as the clay.

Tom Sherman’s bar-room was a real place in Dodge City—a sometimes-dangerous saloon Maynard knew well from firsthand experience. Maynard’s early version of the ode did not include some of the turns of phrase that have since become familiar to us. There is no “bang the drum slowly.” No “roses to deaden the clods as they fall.” But the cadence, the storyline, and most of all the phrasing of Maynard’s “Dying Cowboy” mark the work as the genuine article, and clearly prototypical of the later, better-known renditions of the poem and song.

Then muffle the drums and play the dead marches
Play the dead march as I’m carried along:
Take me to the church-yard and lay the sod o’er me,
I’m a young ranger and I know I’ve done wrong.

What emerges from Cowboy’s Lament, though, is something bigger than the mere back story of a famous song. Maynard’s autobiographical treatise is a find in its own right—as a cultural artifact, a fresh perspective on a world that has yielded few fresh insights for the better part of a century.

AND AN IMPORTANT WORLD it is. Our understandings of the American frontier are of more than passing historical interest. It was a historian and academician, Frederick Jackson Turner, who most aptly expressed how the American Western frontier influenced American thought, ideals, character, outlook, and manners. In what has been called his “Frontier Thesis,” Turner wrote in 1893 that it is “to the frontier [that] the American intellect owes its striking characteristics”:

That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.

The American frontier forged American character. It might not be going too far to say that the appearance of the cowboy in the late 1800s marked the culmination of the protracted process that yielded the quintessentially American character.

Whatever the case, the figure of the cowboy still holds a fascination for many – first for Americans, but also for those who would understand the American mythos.

That mythos is wrapped around Cowboy’s Lament. Written  in 1888, when the events were still fresh in memory, Maynard’s tale touches upon most of the dominant themes we might hope to encounter – the plight of the Native American tribes of the region, and hostilities with the same; the lawlessness and savagery of the times; the rigors of the epic cattle drives; the hardships and adventure of the buffalo hunting trade; the wonder and wistfulness of a quickly fading era.

“Dirty” Dave Rudabaugh.

ALONG THE WAY, THE author rubs shoulders and shares campfires with some legends of the West. There are encounters with outlaw Dave Rudabaugh and lawmen Ed Masterson and Bill Tilghman. We meet eccentrics such as Prairie Dog Dave Morrow and cattleman Christopher Carson Pepperd. Maynard crosses paths with Rowdy Joe Lowe and Charlie Siringo. He has confrontations with the notorious “Hurricane Bill” Martin and his gang.

Unlike so many Westerners who penned their life stories after having writ their names large in the frontier history of the West, Maynard has no reputation to preserve, no personal legend to perpetuate. If anything, he takes himself out of the spotlight as much as possible – though one can sense, from the multitude of dangers that the narrative recounts, that he was a capable figure in his own right. He thus maintains an observer’s tone and a measure of objective detachment. His style is somewhat reminiscent of the nonfiction prose of George Willard Schultz, another wayfaring Westerner-turned-scribe.

And no, Maynard was not immune to the prejudices of his times. He applies stereotypes to ethnicities. He dismisses some actions that a 21st century individual would find deplorable. But in the end he also shows generosity and understanding. And a wistfulness for what once was, and never will be again. That, too, is an American trait. Nostalgia. One that Wright Morris astutely linked to the restless American spirit.

Maynard, who had hardly more than an elementary education, is surprisingly literate. He shows fine understanding of narrative, and keeps things moving from start to finish. This book may not be stylistically significant or a landmark literary achievement, but it is a readable and highly informative portrait of the most colorful decade in American Western history, and a lucky find for all of us who love and study the Old West.


Jesse Mullins, a freelance writer living in Abilene, Texas, was founding editor of American Cowboy magazine and served as that publication’s editor-in-chief from its inception in 1994 until 2009. Mullins, who has lived most of his life in the same country where Frank Maynard experienced the events shared in Cowboy’s Lament, writes on “things cowboy and Western, as well as on matters cultural and spiritual” at www.jessemullins.com.

For more on this topic, see this excerpt in Chronicle & Notices.

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