In Canada, the legend of the singing cowboy comes from real tradition, not some Hollywood vision of “the Old West,” and our singers and songwriters from this genre rank as some of the best in the world. The first Canadian singing cowboy on record was Wilf Carter, born in 1904, who sang about the strawberry roan in a yodeled narrative. Certainly, such songs made their way to the ears of Canada’s lauded songwriter, Ian Tyson, who says he has had two loves in his life – music and horses.
Tyson’s catalogue of buckaroo songs is deep, but none is quite as moving as his story about a herd dispersal auction in his song M.C. Horses. For Tyson, an honest-to-goodness Alberta horseman, this sort of song both laments the fading days of the west and glorifies a lifestyle heavily dependent on the horse. Of the big auction sale he sings: “One ol’ boy gave two grand for Banjo/Banjo took his trailer apart/When they tried to load him up for town.” It’s a vibrant image, and Tyson’s time on the ranch has infused all his works with similar vitality.
His songs are breathing narratives, such as in La Primera, written from the point of view of the first Spanish horses to arrive in North America, which includes the lyric: “The little mare beside me died/and was put into the sea, but I survived/I swam to shore, I am La Primera.”
Tyson is full of cowboy pride, and sings what is in his heart. “Ah, but there is magic in the horse’s feet/in the way they jump and the way they sweep,” is another of his lyrics, from Non-Pro Song, about a cutting horse, which is as much an homage to the magic of dancing hooves as to the obsession of a rodeo-addicted cowboy.
Passing the Singing Cowboy Baton
If you grew up a cowboy kid in Alberta, Tyson was the patriarchal singing cowboy. Now, good buddies with Tyson, Corb Lund is one such songwriter who grew up steeped in ranching tradition. Lund’s family first came to Alberta to ranch cattle in the late 1890s, from Utah and Nevada. Both of his grandfathers and his father were pro rodeo cowboys and horse trainers, and his mother was a barrel racer. But Lund gave up bulldogging in high school, “got into Iron Maiden and left rodeo behind.” Don’t let the heavy metal reference fool you, though, Lund is a singing cowboy through and through. “The whole thing is pretty wrapped up in my psyche,” he said.
There is a pride and affection that clearly shines in his country songwriting, with a nostalgic feel, where sometimes the horse is mentioned sorrowfully. After all, what use has the horse in modern life? After spending his youth on a ranch, Lund has a very practical view of horses’ place in his life. So, while he confesses his fondness for the personalities of horses and often honours them in song, his attachment remains practical.
Musically speaking, Lund also puts horses to good use, often in love songs such as You Ain’t A Cowboy If You Ain’t Been Bucked Off, from his 2013 album Cabin Fever. Here he sings: “There’s all kinds of horses/who’ll leave you grabbing the breeze/busted up, broken up, with scars you can’t see.” It’s possibly one of the best-ever analogies made between love and horses.
Further, his stellar 2007 album Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier! includes tributes to cavalry throughout the ages, fittingly so, as Lund’s grandfather supplied remounts during the war. Here Lund sings: “My saddle horse has died/and with him goes my pride.”
Devoted to Horses
It isn’t every day that you find an entire album dedicated to the horse, but Ontario’s own singer/songwriter Marie-Lynn Hammond has done just that with her 2013 album Hoofbeats.
Hammond began riding horses in England at the age of eight. Later, in Canada, when she became a touring folk musician with Stringband, she would see horses from the tour van window and try and arrange for equine encounters from stage, sometimes asking, “Does anybody have a horse for me to ride while we’re in town?”
Her songs are loving odes to the horse, as Hammond brings each one to life, singing fondly about the animal that has made its way into her heart and woven its spell on her. Horse lovers will enjoy, relate to and be touched by her lyrics, which include lines like: “Everybody said now you gotta beware/You’ll have nothing but trouble with a chestnut mare” from Chestnut Mare; “’Cause he loves to make trouble, he will not obey/He’s the naughtiest pony that ever ate hay” from The Naughtiest Pony; and “Wild…wild horses and mustangs/who can measure what a wild heart is worth/wild…wild horses and mustangs/they fly on the winds of freedom/they are the spirit of the earth” from Wild Horses and Mustangs.
Despite the pain she has suffered as the result of a serious injury received after falling from her Canadian horse, Hammond says being with horses has healed her, and her glowing gratitude and passion is felt in every song. Her song Emily Flies, for example, tells of how a girl overcomes her disability when she rides Cody, a therapy horse rescued from a feedlot: “Cody may be only walking/but Emily flies.” In this remarkably emotional song, both rider and horse have saved each other.
As modern Canadians, we may no longer rely upon the horse to plough our fields, clear our wood, or supply our armies, but the horse still has a place in our lives, in our hearts, and in our heart songs.
Alex Pangman has been riding horses in Ontario for 25 years. Early on, she competed in the hunter division and now spends her time hacking around the farm. Pangman has worked as a jazz singer for nearly 20 years, and is known as “Canada’s Sweetheart of Swing.” Recently, she opened for Willie Nelson at Massey Hall,and celebrated 22 years of horse ownership and friendship with her mare Gypsy. Her 2013 album Have A Little Fun is dedicated to Gypsy.