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This 1940s publicity photo was titled: Alan Lomax--Authority on American folk-lore ... Archivist to the Library of Congress ... Commentator and artist on "Columbia's School of the Air" Find the archival scan here.

Ten Thousand Cattle for Our One Thousandth Post

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It’s hard to believe, but this is the 1000th published post here at Folklife Today! In our not-quite-ten years of existence, our dedicated crew of bloggers at the American Folklife Center and the Veterans History Project has published research articles, guided readers to fabulous collections, celebrated holidays, announced live events and podcast releases, and premiered concert and lecture videos. We’ve also done occasional celebratory posts, indicating milestones in our own journey and connecting them to similar milestones in the history of the AFC archive. This is that kind of post; we’ll talk about one of the songs on the Archive’s 1000th disc.

Much as it took us not quite ten years to reach our 1000th blog post, it took the Archive of Folk Song not quite ten years to reach its 1000th disc. Recorded in June, 1937, AFS 1000 contains six songs, but I’ll concentrate on one of them, which is a fascinating slice of Americana. It reveals a lot about the history of the archive, the methods of Alan Lomax, and the development of a well known cowboy song. It also introduces us to the mysterious “Daca,” a little-known folksinger and “hidden folklorist” active from the 1920s through the 1940s, whom we’ll profile in a later post. This last track of our 1000th disc is known as AFS 1000 B2, and is Alan Lomax, then Assistant-in-Charge of the archive, singing “Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle.” Hear it in the player below!

Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle (Alan Lomax’s Version)

Book cover features the words Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle: A History of the American Cowboy in Song, Story and Verse by Katie Lee, Illustrated by William Moyers
“Shelfie” of my copy of Katie Lee’s Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle: A History of the American Cowboy in Song, Story and Verse.


Ten thousand goddam cattle
A-roamin’ far and wide.
I wish I had my honey
A-layin’ by my side,
Lone man.

My gal, she left this morning
I expect she’s gone to stay.
‘Cause she lit outta here a-runnin’
With a son-of-a-bitch from Ioway
Lone man, lone man
Dead broke

“Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle” has become an iconic cowboy song, partly due to its being used as the title of Katie Lee’s excellent book about cowboy culture, which has become one of the standard reference works on the topic of cowboy songs and verse. Her book gives a version of the song that she learned from the cowboy “Shorty Mac” McGinnis, which as we’ll see appears to be based on Lomax’s.

Lee also delves into the song’s history a bit. She points out that it seems to be a folk adaptation of the western song “Ten Thousand Cattle Straying,” written by Owen Wister. Wister was a novelist considered by many to be the father of Western fiction. Wister’s best known book, The Virginian (1902) (online at this link), had an enormous literary influence, uncovering a vast market for Western fiction that would later be served by Zane Gray, Louis L’Amour, and scores of other writers. The Virginian has been adapted for theatrical movies four times, for TV movies twice, for a drama series on TV, and for the stage twice. It was for the first stage production of The Virginian, in 1904, that Wister published his song, “Ten Thousand Cattle Straying.”

This naturally brings up some questions for those of us interested in folksong history: did Wister base his song on a pre-existing folksong, or did his song enter oral tradition to be collected from cowboys? Also, did Wister bowdlerize the song to remove the word “goddam,” or did someone add that to the song later? In her book, Katie Lee raises just these questions when she comments:

“This author wonders if Wister might not have heard some Wyoming Cowboy make reference to, or sing, the Goddam version, which he could not use? Just as probable is the reverse: some cowboy falling upon Wister’s sheet music, decides to tell it after his experience, and with a much less complicated melody.”

Luckily, we have other evidence: Lee’s speculation that Wister adapted and bowdlerized a traditional song, in fact, was denied by Wister himself. In his book Git Along, Little Dogies, John I. White reproduced a letter from Wister explaining the song’s history:

“After several visits to Wyoming I wrote it in camp there in the summer of 1888. No song resembling it in the least, that I ever heard, existed at that time. I set it to the air of an old French opera. Sixteen years afterward, when it came to producing a dramatization of my book The Virginian, it struck me that the song would make a good point in the play, if used in the way of what is now called a theme song. I did not want to use the tune of the French opera and I composed one of my own. I taught the song to [the actor] Frank Campeau, who sang it at various points in the play. […]”

If Wister is to be believed, then, “Ten Thousand Cattle Straying” was not based on any traditional cowboy song. This makes it virtually certain that the later versions collected from oral tradition were based on Owen Wister’s song.  Wister’s words are below.

Ten Thousand Cattle Straying (Owen Wister’s Original)

Sheet music cover for Owen Wister’s “Ten Thousand Cattle Straying,” published in 1904 and now in the public domain. You can consult the music online at the Duke University Libraries.

Ten thousand cattle straying,
They quit my range and travell’d away,
And it’s ‘sons-of-guns’ is what I say,
I am dead broke, dead broke this day.
Dead broke.

In gambling hells delaying
Ten thousand cattle straying
And it’s ‘sons-of-guns’ is what I say
They’ve rustled my pile, my pile away.

My girl she has went straying,
She quit me, too, and travell’d away,
With a ‘son-of-a-gun’ from Ioway,
I’m a lone man, lone man this day.
Dead broke.

So I’ve took to card playing,
I deal the decks but it don’t seem to pay,
And it’s ‘son-of-a-gunner’ I get each day,
And nothing will come, will come my way.
Dead broke.

My luck has gone straying,
I make no strike by night or day,
But it’s ‘sons-of-guns’ I still will say,
For I’m in the game, the game to stay.
Dead broke.

By about 25 years after its appearance in the play, “Ten Thousand Cattle Straying” had entered the oral tradition to be collected from Westerners, sometimes under its original title, and sometimes under the shortened title “Ten Thousand Cattle.” For example, the version below appeared with the title “Ten Thousand Cattle” in Margaret Larkin’s 1931 collection Singing Cowboy. Larkin said the song was given to her by Emile Mardfin, who had it from a Colorado friend.

Ten Thousand Cattle (Margaret Larkin’s Version)

A book with the title Singing Cowboy: a Book of Western Songs Collected and Edited by Margaret Larkin
“Shelfie” of Margaret Larkin’s 1931 book “Singing Cowboy.”

Ten thousand cattle, gone astray,
Left my range and traveled away,
And the sons-of-guns, I’m here to say,
Have left me dead broke, dead broke today.
In gambling hells delaying,
Ten thousand cattle straying, straying.

And my gal, she has gone away,
Left my shack and traveled away
With a son-of-a-gun from Ioway:
And left me a lone man, a lone man today.
In gambling hells delaying,
Ten thousand cattle straying, straying.

She was awful sweet and loved me so
But the Ioway fellow made her go;
Now my heart is broke, and I’m weak and low,
And to drink my life away is all I know.
In gambling hells delaying,
Ten thousand cattle straying, straying.

I had a ranch and cattle on the plains
And every year my business showed a gain
But when she left me, it caused me ache and pain
And I’ll never try to build a home again.
In gambling hells delaying,
Ten thousand cattle straying, straying.

Wister knew Larkin’s version, and commented on it in his letter to White, saying:

“The fact that [“Ten Thousand Cattle”] was published in a collection of cowpunchers’ songs in a version which bore only very faint traces of the original is a very pretty demonstration of the way many a popular ballad was gradually developed.”

(Our old friend and Homegrown artist Wylie Gustafson has recorded a version of “Ten Thousand Cattle” based on Larkin’s first two verses. Hear it in this licensed YouTube video!)

Half length portrait of Owen Wister.
Owen Wister in a Bain News Service photo. See the archival scan here.

This still leaves us with the question of where the expletive in the song’s title came from. It might be possible to learn something more from our archive, by trying to trace Lomax’s sources. Going back to disc AFS 1000, we find that after singing the song, Lomax says, quite matter-of-factly:

“I learned this song in…1932, from Daca, who keeps a bookstore on Washington Square in New York City. Daca says that he learned the song out west, a long time ago.”

Thinking it might lead to more insight into the song, I sought to find out more about the mysterious Daca. I didn’t know the name, and most importantly didn’t know how to spell it. English orthography and Alan Lomax’s Texas accent make the name highly ambiguous; he could be saying Docker, Docca, Dacca, Dokka, or any number of other spellings. Without a spelling, I couldn’t do a name search of our collections or files, but starting with the fact that he sang cowboy songs and owned a Greenwich Village bookshop, I soon found a few references in newspapers, which showed his name was spelled “Daca.”

Armed with this information, I consulted Tony Russell and Bob Pinson’s Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942, which reveals that Daca recorded two unissued songs for the Decca label on Monday, October 15, 1934: the well known cowboy songs “Hell in Texas” and “The Little Mohee.” More importantly for me, Russel and Pinson had a lead on Daca’s real name, reporting:

“The US Catalogue of Copyright Entries lists several compositions, including one of those above, associated with ‘Daca, the cowsongboy, of U.S.’ All were published by Harry Payne Reeves, whose identity the soubriquet may conceal.”

Once I had both the spelling of Daca’s nickname and a possible full name for him, I was able to find a wealth of collections and files about Daca right here at the American Folklife Center. Daca was recorded by Herbert Halpert in 1939 in New York City, and those recordings are in the archive, credited simply to “Daca.” In the 1990s Daca’s daughter Lucy, known then as L.R. Pettus, wrote to AFC requesting copies of these recordings, and sent us some photos and brochures, allowing us to establish a subject file on her father. The correspondence confirmed that Daca was a nickname for Harry Payne Reeves, and the biographical material is filed under that name.

I’ll save a more detailed biography of Daca for another post, and continue for now along the trail with “Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle.” Daca’s session with Halpert is delightfully illuminating about Lomax’s rendition of the song. Daca also sang his own version for Halpert, and like Lomax told a fascinating little story about it. Hear the song and the story in the player below:

Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle (Daca’s Version)

Half-length portrait of a man in cowboy clothes
Publicity shot showing Daca (Harry Payne Reeves) in the radio show “High Wide and Handsome,” in which Daca portrayed the cowboy “High Wide.” Daca’s daughter didn’t know who had played “Handsome.”


“This will show how folksongs sometimes happen spontaneously, or at least variants of folksongs. An old friend of mine, Gary, a typographer, came in one evening, and he’d been reading a book in which allusion was made to “Ten Thousand Cattle Straying.” He asked me if I knew this song, and I was feeling pretty good, and I said of course I knew the song! So, on the spur of the moment, this is what came out. Now I had heard the song many many years ago. I didn’t remember the words, so I made up some words as I went along, and the tune as well.

A good many years afterwards, I gave this to young Lomax, Alan Lomax, when he and his father came to visit me once down on Washington Square. And I was just ornery enough not to tell him what had happened to the song. And when I saw him much later he told me he’d been singing the song all over the country, and he liked it very much! [Laughs.] He sang it just to show me he remembered it. And what he sang to me–here’s the point–was not at all like anything I had ever sung to him!

Ten thousand goddam cattle
A-strayin’ far and wide.
I wished I had my honey here
A-layin’ by my side
Lone man, lone man
Dead broke!

My honey’s gone a-strayin’
I think she’s gone to stay.
She lit outta here one evenin’
With a son-of-a-bitch from Ioway
Lone man, lone man
Dead broke!

Believe it or not, that song has made a tremendous hit wherever it’s been sung, and sometimes it’s been sung in very unexpected places. I hope that Alan will forgive me for making that comment about it, but that’s too good a joke on both of us to keep!”

Daca’s story, then, is that that “Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle” was “what came out” when he tried to remember the older song “Ten Thousand Cattle Straying,” and had to make up new words and a new melody loosely based on what he remembered. Since the song he was asked for was entitled “Ten Thousand Cattle Straying,” this suggests that Daca himself transformed that phrase into “Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle,” probably sometime in the 1920s.

Looking at the history of the various versions of “Ten Thousand Cattle Straying,” I can find no source listing any version of the song that features the word “goddam” predating Lomax’s 1937 recording. On that recording, as we’ve seen, Lomax attributes the song to Daca. This lends credence to Daca’s claim that he created this version of the song, which was then apparently popularized by Daca himself starting in the 1920s, and by Alan Lomax starting in 1932.

It’s also interesting to compare the two versions. Daca’s song includes the word “straying” twice, once in each verse. This accords with his story that he was trying to remember “Ten Thousand Cattle Straying,” which includes the word in the same two verses, and also serves to tie the two verses together thematically. Lomax, on the other hand, dropped the word “straying” both times, replacing the line “Straying far and wide” with “Roaming far and wide” and the line “My honey’s gone a-straying” with “My gal she left this morning.” Lomax also omitted the line “Dead broke” after the first verse, so that it only occurs once, at the very end of the song.

These changes, apparently made unconsciously by Lomax sometime between 1932 and 1937, make it possible to identify his influence on later versions of the song. For example, let’s look at the version published by Katie Lee in 1976. She says she learned the words  from “Shorty Mac” McGinnis, whom she called a “brush popper,” and that her other cowboy friend Buck Watson also sang a version. She got the tune from California folksinger Sam Hinton, making it clear the song was fairly common in the West.

The most obvious difference between McGinnis’s words and those of Daca and Lomax is that McGinnis had many more verses. His text, later also sung by Katie Lee, is below:

Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle (Katie Lee’s Version)

Half-length portrait of a woman with a guitar
Katie Lee, the popular folksinger and author of the book Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle, performed and recorded her own version of the song. She said she learned it from a cowboy named “Shorty Mac” McGinnis and folksinger Sam Hinton, and that she had also heard a version from cowboy Buck Watson. This photo is from AFC’s Ray M. Lawless collection; it’s a publicity photo sent to Lawless by Lee.

Ten thousand goddam cattle,
A-roamin’ far and wide
Shore wisht I had my sweetie here
A-layin’ by my side,
A-layin’ by my side.

M’ gal, she up and left me,
I spect she’s gone to stay.
She lit outta here a runnin’
With a sonofabitch from Io-way.
With a sonofabitch from Io-way.
I’m a lone man, a real lone man.

He wasn’t tall ner handsome,
Jist an ornery lookin’ cur,
Shucks, I dunno what she seen in him,
Or what he seen in her-r-r,
Or what he seen in her.

They took my pinto pony,
And they took my six-weeks pay;
The only thang they left here fer me
Was this damn gee-tar to play
This damn gee-tar to play.
I’m a lone man, a real lone man.

She never wrote no letter,
She never sent one line,
T’ tell me whar the hell she put
Them French postcards of mine,
Them French postcards of mine.

Ten thousand goddam cattle
They kin rot fer all of me,
Unless ‘n I finds me a purtier gal
T’ ease my misery-y-y
T’ ease my misery.
I’m a lone man, a real lone man

Although we might wonder where all those verses came from, Lee makes it clear that McGinnis wrote his own verses to this and other songs, changing the lyrics to fit various situations:

“Funniest song I ever heard came from the funniest man; but before Shorty Mac died he was singing it out of the other corner of his mouth as ‘ten thousand goddam people, or fences, or freeways, politicians, whatever.'”

Given Lee’s comments, it seems likely Shorty Mac wrote the additional verses himself. Looking at the verses that correspond to Daca’s and Lomax’s versions, though, we find that Shorty Mac’s version features Lomax’s signature changes: “straying” is absent, and in its place the cattle are “roaming” and the woman has “left.” The line “Dead broke” occurs only once at the end of the song. Since these elements of the song were contributed by Alan Lomax sometime between 1932 and 1937, we can say with relative certainty that Shorty Mac’s version was created by adding verses to a text based on Alan Lomax’s.

It’s my strong suspicion that most of the versions in oral tradition featuring the word “goddam” can be traced to Lomax. This doesn’t mean that people had access to the AFS 1000 recording, though. Instead, most singers likely got it from a book; Lomax published his version of the song the following year, in the updated 1938 edition of Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, his father’s classic book of cowboy songs. As a standard collection of cowboy songs among academics and cowboys alike, that book surely found its way into the hands of many singers like Shorty Mac, Buck Watson, Sam Hinton, and Katie Lee.

The Lomaxes’ book also provides a fun coda to this story. In the incident that Daca described to Halpert, when Lomax sang Daca’s song back to him, Daca must have told “young Lomax” that he’d failed to get it right. But Lomax stuck with his changes, printing them in the 1938 book. Acknowledging Daca’s dissatisfaction with his version, Lomax’s 1938 attribution ran:

“With apologies to Daca’s Bookstore, Greenwich Village, New York City.”

Thanks for sticking around for this 1000th post! I’ll be back soon with more songs, stories, and photos from the mysterious Daca, and my fellow bloggers have more in store as well. Why not stay with us for another thousand posts?



Comments (3)

  1. Brilliant research! Thank you! there was an LP with ed mccurdy singing this wonderful song 60 years ago; i had no idea of the wister (harvard grad!) and lomax connection. i had of course thought it was a folk song, not what the NYRB proposed 30 years ago to call “art song” (like lieder and chanson).

  2. Thank you for this excellent piece on this, to me, confusing sad ballad.
    I sing Katie Lee’s version and have Critchlow’s.
    You’ve dug out excellent issues I haven’t seen really examined thoroughly before.
    Thank you for clearing so many things up.

  3. Great piece Steve. I just found it. I wonder if the original Wister song might not be the first Broadway stage cowboy song. From the 1900 up through the early 30s, traditional and written for the stage, folk-like songs were a part of several stage plays, often performed by cowboys–think of the rodeo performers in Lynn Riggs’s Green Grow the Lilacs.

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