By Jim Poulton
U. Utah Phillips. Credit: Flemingartists.com
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: utahphillips.blogspot.com
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.