Haunted Cowboys

I’ve got a thing for music that conveys its feeling accidentally, and I really do think I mean accidentally. That the kind of music I enjoy most seems to sound melancholy is merely an aesthetic preference, and usually an uninteresting one. But I realize that, so that’s why I stress the accidental. I don’t trust easily. I won’t give the benefit of the doubt. You can’t just force the sad. You don’t just get to use it. For me to trust it probably, make your sound on accident.

I like jazz, for example. Jazz can sometimes sound sad. The only thing I know about jazz is that most musicians couldn’t tell you how they did or do what they do while playing it. Jazz as a whole seems to be an accidental form. Accidentally created, accidentally played, and it accidentally works. That’s not to say you don’t have to be good, but it seems to be a form of so much constant creation that you can’t exactly plan the kind of feeling a song will take. Of course, you’ve got compositions, compositions with their own sounds and feelings, but even predetermined they’re interpretable. The impetus is on the musician, not the song. I suppose that’s why you’ve got classics covered so often, because it’s not the song that’s important, it’s the human. And I suppose when I say the accidental, I’m sort of saying the human. And with the human, you’ve got context. I think that’s why the context of jazz is so important. That’s why it’s the music of such a specific time and place.

And I think that’s why I’m thinking about westerns, another form of a very specific time and place. Even if the form might not be as complex or innovative as jazz, it has just as much context.

The classic idea of a cowboy song might sound something like “Riders in the Sky,” a driving account of a lone ranger on the move, or something like “Ridin’ Home,” which is loopy and bouncy, has those fake horse steps and has something to do with going home. You can practically see the dusty orange frontier that these songs take place on. And of course, the cowboy that comes to mind is white, despite the fact that some estimates have almost a fourth of all cowboys being African American. But it’s because they’re the song form of the paradoxical American myth of the west. An open and blank slate for anyone, but only a certain anyone, and one that also needs to be fought for and conquered.

And that’s a heavy bit of influence. You’d think a form couldn’t surmount itself if one of its main influences is an American myth of the west and all the problems that come with that. And truthfully, it often doesn’t, and really, maybe it never fully does. But when it’s not a song about a Good Guy roaming the range (and sometimes even when it is), westerns sound haunted. Despite all the bravado of the cowboy, his songs, paradoxically, often sound sad and haunted.

The stress is on the open, hollow vowels. The A’s and the O’s are long and drawn out. The chords often turn minor. A song that comes to mind is something like “Cool Water.” You’ve got the stress in that title alone. It’s not cold water, it cool water. There’s a hollowness. A hollowness, you might think, similar to the myth they are trying to create.

Maybe that sounds like a stretch, but that’s exactly what I’m saying. Even if accidental, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the men living out on the plains and prairies would create a music that so directly steers toward the haunted. It’s an almost instinctual sound. What does one do in the face of something so much bigger and so much more dangerous than yourself? You huddle together, you make yourself seem big, and you try to make as much noise as possible. It’s almost as if in the A’s and the O’s you can hear these men trying to fill up all that space that probably seemed unbelievable to them. That they were only huddling against a landscape, a landscape that didn’t harbor a single thought of them, accounts for the melancholy. Is it possible to be heroic when there’s nothing actually fighting you?

But, still, the haunt. An indiscriminate land can leave you feeling lonely and meaningless in the face of it, but that doesn’t necessarily account for the haunted. Americans have never really found nature haunting. Indiscriminate yes, but not haunting. When things are haunted, it’s what happened on them. 

In the long drawn out vowels and in the minor turns you hear something within the loneliness. There’s something underneath all the movement and bravado and heroics of westerns. It’s almost, you’d think, as if these men are aware of an atrocity occurring or having occurred somewhere. Somewhere out on the plains an atrocity took place, and it quite literally seems to have quivered the cowboy’s voice. It’s that accidental recognition of the atrocities of American movement west against the indigenous populations that is the most authentic sound in western music, and it’s that sound that I listen for in westerns. It’s why I trust cowboy music. It’s why it registers true sometimes in my ear. Because it seems they couldn’t help but sound terrified.

I think it’s true that even sounding haunted westerns can’t surmount their own form or the myth they’re playing on, however. I don’t listen to westerns the way I listen to jazz. I don’t have a playlist of westerns. It is still too gimmicky in a way that, despite being so specifically a mid-20th century music, jazz isn’t. But there’s an unnerving thought I have sometimes about western music. There’s another reason I think I find myself more and more interested in it besides what it might illuminate about the past.

Listening to western music there’s a sense of a post-climate change sound. The music comes from a place of stereotypical dryness and barrenness, and that’s a place the entire world seems to be heading towards. In fact, I can distinctly picture Americans roaming a drought prone continent to the sound of the song “Cool Water.”

All day I’ve faced the barren waste

Without the taste of water, coooooool, waaaater.

And I don’t think it’ll just end with the reminiscence of cool water. Lawlessness, gunfights, vigilante justice, hell it might all make a comeback one day soon, and if it does America already has a music for it. And like any good society that’s put its  faith into technological progress, we’ll use that technology to help us really dive into the hollowness of our open vowels. Perhaps, say, a lot of synth, which coincidentally is something I also happen to enjoy when it’s turned melancholy, and doesn’t it all seem to be nowadays? Are bedroom-pop artists the new cowboys, or are they going to have to start roaming the wastes first? Either way I guess, of course, the West is still the future.

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