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On the Goodnight Loving Trail

By Jim Poulton

U. Utah Phillips. Credit:

I heard a song the other night, sung by Paul Rasmussen, a good friend of mine, that stayed in my ears long after the evening ended. The song was called Goodnight Loving Trail, by U. Utah Phillips - aka Bruce Phillips, aka University of Utah Phillips, aka The Golden Voice of the Great Southwest. If you don’t know of Utah Phillips, check out some of his music (and buy a new CD of his songs recorded by various artists - including Paul Rasmussen) here. He passed away in 2008, but he was a one-of-a-kind singer and songwriter who wrote of the trials of working people, union members, Wobblies, hoboes and down and out citizens of all stripes. Studs Terkel said of Phillips that he was “A Bard who gives us joy and hope.”

Phillips the storyteller. Credit:

Goodnight Loving Trail is to my ears one of the most lyrically beautiful songs Phillips wrote. It’s the story of a cowboy who used to ride as a vaquero (origin of buckaroo) on the Goodnight Loving Trail – a trail that started in Texas and wound its slow and dusty way to railheads in Colorado and to new ranches in Montana and the Pacific Northwest. The trail was named after two men, Civil War veterans Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, who blazed the route in June of 1866 with some 2000 head of cattle and 18 armed riders.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, site of Charles Goodnight’s JA Ranch in Texas. Credit: cyclewidow

The cowboy in the song was once a working cowboy like everyone else on the trail. But he got old, and when that happens, according to Phillips, “the desert’s got its own stern sort of code: you’ve got to work to eat. After you spend twenty or thirty years, twelve hours a day in the saddle, your insides get so jumbled around you can’t do it anymore. So you can only go and work on the chuck gang.”

JA Ranch, Texas. 1903. JA ranch hands packing their bedding while out on the range. Credit: Library of Congress

The cowboy who cooked at the chuck wagon was called the “Old Woman.” Although it was a role for the used-up cowboy, who the Old Woman was and how good of a cook they were was often the reason younger cowboys signed up – or didn’t sign up – for the drive.

Camp wagon on a Texas Roundup. Credit: Library of Congress

Phillips puts us inside the mind and emotions of an Old Woman, facing the decline of his abilities, his advancing age, in a world seemingly created only for younger men. Here’s the first verse and chorus (a French harp, by the way, is a harmonica):

Too old to wrangle or ride on the swing,
You beat the triangle and curse everything.
If dirt was a kingdom, they you'd be the king.

On the Goodnight trail
On the Loving trail
Our old woman’s lonesome tonight
And your French harp blows like a lone-bawling calf
It’s a wonder the wind don’t tear off your skin
Get in there and blow out the light

Many artists have done their versions of Goodnight Loving Trail. Here is Tom Waits:

And Ian Tyson, of Ian and Sylvia fame:

The lyrics for Goodnight Loving Trail were published in Phillips’ songbook, Starlight on the Rails. You can purchase it at Ken Sanders Bookstore, and you can see the lyrics for Goodnight Loving Trail at The Long Memory, a website established by Phillips’ son Duncan to preserve his father’s legacy.


The Grand Ole Opera – Fanciulla del West

By Bennett Owen

The New York Times characterizes it as ‘the original Spaghetti Western.’  Fanciulla del West – The Girl of the Golden West.


When Giacomo Puccini finished his composition he described it to a friend as, “the best opera I have written.”  And its debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on December 10, 1910, seemed to bear out the maestro’s assessment.

Credit: Thehistoryblog

Program for the world premiere of The Girl of the Golden West (La Faciulla del West), 10 December 1910, Metropolitan Opera, New York, James Fuld Collection; 284955. Credit:

Enrico Caruso was cast in the lead role as a road agent with a heart of gold and Emmy Destinn embodied a bible-toting innocent with a talent for poker and a taste for whiskey. Conducted by Toscanini, the opening night audience was so enthralled that the cast returned for an astounding 55 curtain calls. 


It was the first opera to be premiered at the Met and was due in large part to the influence of German financier Otto H. Kahn.  Puccini had been captivated by the American west since 1890 when he took in a performance of Buffalo Bill Cody’s touring wild west show in Milan. 

Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives and the New York Times

He based “Fanciulla del West” on a play by David Belasco who had also penned the basis for Puccini’s masterpiece “Madame Butterfly.”

Credit: © T.P./Lebrecht Music & Arts 2010

And Belasco knew what he was writing about. His parents were among the original ‘49ers’ of the California gold rush and his father was part of a posse that hung a miscreant captured only because the lawmen saw blood dripping from a loft in a cabin where he was hiding…a scene that becomes the dramatic high point of Puccini’s opera.  

By the end of act two, innocent maiden Minnie has fallen in love with the bandit, Johnson, and challenges the Sheriff to a round of poker. If he wins he can kill Johnson and marry her. If she wins the Sheriff must leave them alone.  Minnie cheats and wins…

Puccini also filled his opera with uniquely American influences from Indian drumbeats to polkas and waltzes.  As for the storyline, it’s summed up vividly at the magnificent website ( “It goes against a century’s worth of cinematic myths about the Old West. Instead of a strong, silent cowboy rescuing a helpless heroine, we have an emotionally vulnerable bandit rescued by a gun-toting, poker-playing, independent woman.”

Enrico Caruso, Emmy Destinn y Pasquale Amato, primer elenco de La Fanciulla del West (Imagen: White Studios/Metropolitan Opera Database | Ed. CP). Credit: camelloparlante

After its premier, the opera lost much of its luster and was panned across Europe … with the exception of Germany where its debut in Berlin garnered rapturous praise from a people obsessed with the western novels of Karl Mai.


And strangely enough, the work is credited with turning American operatic tastes away from Germanic composers in favor of Italian styles…a status quo that remains firmly in place today.  Whiskey per tutti??? I’ll drink to that…


Closing Scene from the San Francisco Opera. Credit: operanut


The Brown Dirt Cowboy – Troubadour of the American West

By Bennett Owen

Credit: Western Wishes

Bernie Taupin is a fanatic bull riding fan and co-owner of  ‘Little Yellow Jacket’ one of the most fearsome bulls in the business.

Credit: Teague Bucking Bulls © 2010  Little Yellow Jacket: PBR Bull of the Year 2003


He’s also a horse breeder and rancher with a spread in the Santa Ynez country of central California.


He’s a voracious reader and chronicler of the roots of American music and folklore, with a weekly satellite radio show that is a combination of time travel, history lesson and pure listening pleasure.

Credit: Bernie Taupin

He’s an established artist and (as family and friends enthuse) a gourmet cook and restaurateur. Not a bad resume if you include the following:

  • 200 Million Singles Sold
  • 60   Million Albums Sold

And collaboration with:

  • Alice Cooper
  • Jefferson Starship (We Built This City)
  • Heart (These Dreams)
  • Rod Stewart
  • Willie Nelson
  • John Anderson
  • Rick Derringer
  • Cher
  • The Stray Cats

And many, many more, believe me, not to mention Grammy nominations galore and a Golden Globe for his musical contribution to Brokeback Mountain.

And of course the one and only, the incomparable, Elton John.  Here’s John’s assessment of legendary songwriter Bernie Taupin:

“Without Bernie, basically, there wouldn’t have been an Elton John. I mean...I’m just a purveyor of Bernie’s feelings, Bernie’s thoughts.”


And many of those thoughts centered on the American west. When I grew up, Elton John was NOT an act that teenaged boys hooked on Neil Young admitted liking. But he was a guilty pleasure for me because the lyrics resonated and I always wondered how a “True Brit” could sing songs that tugged so hard at my bona fide western heartstrings.

“I'll take my horse and I'll ride the northern plain
To wear the color of the Grays and join the fight again,
I'll not rest until I know the cause is fought and won:
From this day on until I die I'll wear my father's gun.”

“My Father’s Gun” – Tumbleweed Connection         

Credit: Amazon

There are so many others – Indian Sunset – Texas Love Song - Roy Rogers – Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy –  and the albums – Tumbleweed Connection – Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player – Rock of the Westies - all written with love and longing by a Catholic school dropout Brit.

Credit: rhapsody

Taupin grew up in northern England but was captivated by the American west at an early age, listening incessantly to the gunfighter ballads of Marty Robbins:

A fanatic devourer of westerns, he can recite the dialog from ‘The Wild Bunch’ line by line.

Credit: DVD

His boyhood dream was to “experience the life of a western cowboy”, and by 1993 he had achieved his dream, moving to his California ranch, immersing himself in western culture and playing a major part in keeping the mythos alive and vital for another generation. His bi-weekly program ‘American Roots Radio’ is a must for any audiophile.  

Taupin’s meteoric career began with a satchel of songs sent to an obscure London recording studio, which then coupled him with an unknown named Reginald Kenneth Dwight. By 1970 they were going places and as Elton John’s star rose, he and Taupin traveled to Los Angeles for the first time. Taupin described it this way for Rolling Stone:

Credit: brizzle born and bred

“We came to California in the fall of 1970 and it seemed like sunshine just radiated from the populace…I guess I was trying to capture the spirit of that time encapsulated by the women we met. They were these free spirits very ethereal in the way they moved...They’d mother you and sleep with you. It was the perfect oedipal complex.”

Credit: real down to mars girl

Out of that experience Taupin wrote ‘Tiny Dancer’, one of the  most beautiful and haunting songs in pop history. In the movie ‘Almost Famous,’ director Cameron Crowe uses it as a metaphor for the single tattered thread holding together a rock group on the brink of breakup. The scene was filmed in northern California and it too is a classic:

All of that from Bernie Taupin, a most unlikely western hero.

Credit: Carlene Carter Fan Club


Captain Jack Crawford and California Joe

By Jim Poulton

Captain Jack Crawford. Credit:

John Wallace 'Captain Jack' Crawford was a legend of the old west. A cross between a mountain man, a scout, a soldier and a poet, Crawford (1847-1917) was one of the most popular performers in the west, and by the end of his life a genuine celebrity. Born in Ireland, but relocated to Minersville Pennsylvania at 14, Crawford served in the Civil War for the Pennsylvania Regulars. When the war ended, he made his way to the Dakota territory, where he was made Captain of the Black Hills Militia out of Custer City in 1875. A journalist with a flair for storytelling, Crawford began touring the western landscape in search of stories and inspiration.  

Partly because of his knowledge of the area, and partly because of his captivating personality, Captain Jack replaced Buffalo Bill Cody as Chief of Scouts for the 5th Cavalry on August 24, 1876, and later that year joined Cody's Wild West show. Unfortunately, their partnership ended within a year on a sour note: during a staged battle on horseback in Virginia City, Nevada, Crawford accidentally shot himself in the groin. He blaimed the injury on Cody's drunkenness, and the two parted ways intemperately.

Drunkenness was, in fact, an issue for Captain Jack. Two years after returning from the war, he had promised his dying mother that he would never drink - and he seems to have kept the promise. He was one of the very few men in the military who refused to drink, and "the only man on the frontier who could be entrusted to deliver an unopened bottle of whiskey, according to William “Buffalo Bill” Cody." (see the Black Hills Visitor for a complete biography of Crawford).

Advertisement for Buffalo Bill Cody's show. Credit:

Crawford relocated to the New Mexico Territory in 1879, and spent the remainder of his life scouting, acting, lecturing, ranching, mining, and working as a special government agent and for the Justice Department (investigating illegal liquor trafffic on Indian Reservations). To say he lived a full life is, obviously, an understatement.

On stage, Crawford performed poems and songs that he had written during his many travels. One of those was California Joe. Written in the year of Joe's death and published in Crawford's book, The Poet Scout: A Book of Song and Story, in 1879, Crawford claimed the story was true, and that Joe was shot by his own men. Of Joe, Crawford said: "He was a good, brave, generous man, and his only fault was liquor." 

Below is a recording of California Joe, sung by Lum Wilson "Bill" Jackson, made in 1941 at the Arvin FSA (Farm Security Administration) Camp south of Bakersfield California. Camps like Arvin were built by the FSA to house migrant workers during the Great Depression. The recording is part of the Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, a collection of recordings, photographs and manuscripts documenting life in FSA camps in California in 1940 and 1941. The collection has recently been released to the public by the Library of Congress.

Charles Todd recording in 1941. Credit: Library of Congress

Musicians, Migrant labor camp, El Rio, CA. Credit: Library of Congress

And here are Captain Jack's original lyrics:

Well, mates, I don t like stories, Nor am I going to act 

A part around this camp-fire That ain't a truthful fact.
So fill your pipes and listen, I'll tell you—let me see, 

I think it was in fifty, From that till sixty-three.

You've all heard tell of Bridger, I used to run with Jim,
And many a hard day's scouting I've done 'longside of him. 

Well, once, near old Fort Reno, A trapper used to dwell; 

We called him old Pap Reynolds — The scouts all knew him well.

Fort Reno, near El Reno Oklahoma. Credit:

One night the Spring of fifty We camped on Powder river, 

We killed a calf of buffalo, And cooked a slice of liver: 

While eating, quite contented, We heard three shots or four 

Put out the fire and listened, Then heard a dozen more.

We knew that old man Reynolds Had moved his traps up here;
So, picking up our rifles And fixing on our gear, 

We mounted quick as lightnin', To save was our desire. 

Too late; the painted heathens Had set the house on fire.

We tied our horses quickly, And waded up the stream;
While close beside the water I heard a muffled scream.
And there among the bushes A little girl did lie.
I picked her up and whispered: "I'll save you, or I'll die!"

Lord, what a ride! old Bridger, He covered my retreat.
Sometimes the child would whisper, In voice so low and sweet: 

"Poor papa, God will take him To mamma up above; 

There's no one left to love me—There s no one left to love."

The little one was thirteen, And I was twenty-two. 

Said I: "I'll be your father, And love you just as true. 

She nestled to my bosom, Her hazel eyes, so bright,
Looked up and made me happy, Though close pursued that night.

A month had passed, and Maggie (We called her Hazel Eye),
In truth, was going to leave me— Was going to say "good-bye." 

Her uncle, mad Jack Reynolds—Reported long since dead— 

Had come to claim my angel, His brother's child, he said.

What could I say? We parted. Mad Jack was growing old;
I handed him a bank-note And all I had in gold.

They rode away at sunrise, I went a mile or two, 

And, parting, said: "We'll meet again—May God watch over you."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Beside a laughing, dancing brook, A little cabin stood,
As, weary with a long day's scout, I spied it in the wood.
A pretty valley stretched beyond, The mountains towered above, 

While near the willow bank I heard The cooing of a dove.

'Twas one grand panorama, The brook was plainly seen, 

Like a long thread of silver In a cloth of lovely green. 

The laughter of the waters, The cooing of the dove,
Was like some painted picture— Some well-told tale of love.

While drinking in the grandeur, And resting in my saddle, 

I heard a gentle ripple Like the dipping of a paddle. 

I turned toward the eddy A strange sight met my view: 

A maiden, with her rifle, In a little bark canoe.

She stood up in the centre, The rifle to her eye; 

I thought (just for a second) My time had come to die. 

I doffed my hat and told her (If it was all the same)
To drop her little shooter, For I was not her game.

She dropped the deadly weapon, And leaped from the canoe. 

Said she: " I beg your pardon, I thought you were a Sioux;
Your long hair and your buckskin Looked warrior-like and rough;
My bead was spoiled by sunshine, Or I'd killed you, sure enough."

"Perhaps it had been better You dropped me then," said I;
For surely such an angel Would bear me to the sky."
She blushed and dropped her eyelids, Her cheeks were crimson red;
One half-shy glance she gave me, And then hung down her head.

I took her little hand in mine— She wondered what I meant, 

And yet she drew it not away, But rather seemed content. 

We sat upon the mossy bank Her eyes began to fill
The brook was rippling at our feet, The dove was cooing still.

I smoothed her golden tresses, Her eyes looked up in mine,
She seemed in doubt then whispered "Tis such a long, long time
Strong arms were thrown around me I'll save you, or I'll die."
I clasped her to my bosom My long-lost Hazel Eye.

The rapture of that moment Was almost heaven to me. 

I kissed her 'mid her tear-drops, Her innocence and glee.
Her heart near mine was beating, While sobbingly she said: 

"My dear, my brave preserver, They told me you were dead.

"But, oh! those parting words, Joe, Have never left my mind. 

You said: We ll meet again, Mag, Then rode off like the wind.
And, oh! how I have prayed, Joe, For you, who saved my life, 

That God would send an angel To guard you through all strife.

"And he who claimed me from you, My uncle, good and true—
Now sick in yonder cabin Has talked so much of you. 

If Joe were living, darling, He said to me last night, 

He would care for Maggie When God puts out my light."

We found the old man sleeping. "Hush ! Maggie, let him rest." 

The sun was slowly sinking In the far-off glowing west; 

And, though we talked in whispers, He opened wide his eyes. 

"A dream— a dream!" he murmured, "Alas! a dream of lies!"

She drifted like a shadow To where the old man lay. 

"You had a dream, dear uncle Another dream to-day?" 

"Oh, yes; I saw an angel, As pure as mountain snow,
And near her, at my bed-side, Stood California Joe."

"I'm sure I'm not an angel, Dear uncle, that you know; 

These arms are brown, my hands, too My face is not like snow. 

Now, listen, while I tell you, For I have news to cheer, 

And Hazel Eye is happy, For Joe is truly here."

And when, a few days after, The old man said to me: 

Joe, boy, she ar' a angel, An' good as angels be.
For three long months she's hunted An' trapped an' nursed me, too;
God bless ye, boy! I believe it— She s safe along wi' you."

The sun was slowly sinking When Mag (my wife) and I
Came riding through the valley, The tear-drops in her eye. 

"One year ago to-day, Joe— I see the mossy grave— 

We laid him 'neath the daisies, My uncle, good and brave."

And, comrades, every Spring-time Was sure to find me there—
A something in that valley Was always fresh and fair. 

Our loves were newly kindled While sitting by the stream, 

Where two hearts were united In love's sweet, happy dream.


This Old Porch - Robert Earl Keen Jr., Lyle Lovett (condensed)

© Photographs ©Michael Wilson.

This old porch is like a big old red and white Hereford Bull
Standing under a mesquite tree
And he just keeps on playing hide and seek
With that hot august sun
Just a-sweatin' and a-pantin'
Cause his work is never done


Main Street, Christoval, Texas.

And this old porch is like a steaming, greasy plate of enchiladas
And you can get 'em down at the Lasalle Hotel
With iced tea and a waitress
And she will smile every time

Credit: Lasalle Hotels by Magnolia Hotels-Bryan

Credit: EyalNow

And this old porch is the palace walk-in
On the main street of Texas
That's never seen the day
Of G and R and Xs
With that '62 poster
That's almost faded down
And a screen without a picture
Since Giant came to town

Credit: Texas

Credit: Texas

And this old porch is like a weathered, gray-haired
Seventy years of Texas
Who's doing all he can
Not to give in to the city

Mexican women sitting on porch, San Antonio, Texas. Credit: Library of Congress 

And you know his brand new Chevrolet
Hell it was something back in '60
But now there won't nobody listen to him
'Cause they all think he's crazy

Credit: Gordon Berry Collection ©

And this old porch is just a long time
Of waiting and forgetting
And remembering the coming back
And not crying about the leaving
And remembering the falling down
And the laughter of the curse of luck
From all of those passerby
Who said we'd never get back up.

Old farmer and his wife on front porch of their home near Marshall, Texas. Credit: Library of Congress

Sometimes I convince myself that I’m about a halfway decent writer. Then something like this comes along. Damn.  Here’s the full version, sung as only Lovett can.