This is an excellent example of the kind of material that has always been popular in all-male environments — cattle drives, merchant and naval ships, army barracks — except a lot of that material is sexual or misogynist, while this is just brutally realistic, matching its language to the setting and circumstance. (Which is to say: WARNING! Raw language ahead.)
I heard this from Glenn Ohrlin, a legit cowboy and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and recall singing it for my traveling companion, Jasper Winn, as we rambled through Hungary in 1988. I’d known Jasper for ten years at that point and traveled with him over much of Europe, but as far as I recall he’d never horses, so it was startling to discover that he was an accomplished rider even by Hungarian standards, which are about as high as it gets. We were hoping to get horses and do some traveling that way, which didn’t work out, but we did visit a bunch of cowboys out on the puszta, the Hungarian prairies. They used a kind of saddle that was just a pad with stirrups, with no cinch under the horse’s belly. If you put your foot in one stirrup to mount, you pulled the saddle off the horse’s back — which meant I couldn’t mount, period. Jasper’s solution was to raise one leg and flow onto the horse, a technique he’d picked up for riding bareback. The Hungarians considered this to be cheating — their technique was to reach across the horse’s back and grab the opposite stirrup leather, balancing the weight of their foot in the near stirrup — but they were impressed.
So anyway, we were talking about horses a lot, which reminded me of this song, and I sang it for Jasper, and he declared it the most realistic cowboy song he’d ever heard, which was good enough for me. (He went on to spend years traveling to horse cultures around the world, riding and writing about them, and I wish he’d do a book about those adventures. Instead, he’s been doing books on paddling a kayak around Ireland and negotiating the English waterways.)
This song was written by Curley Fletcher as a parody of his own poem, “The Strawberry Roan.” Some Hollywood writers had added a chorus to the poem, which he hated, and he responded by writing this sequel using their chorus, which then got recorded as a “party record” by the Sons of the Pioneers. Their version is somewhat different from Ohrlin’s, and I have no idea which is closer to Fletcher’s original. In any case, the castration version quickly became popular in oral cowboy culture — the combination of raw humor, clinical detail, and the boss’s final comeuppance were irresistible.
In his anthology of cowboy lyrics, The Whorehouse Bells Were Ringing, Guy Logsdon explains that Fletcher wrote the original poem in 1914 and although he was known for writing dirty parodies of his own songs, no one recalls hearing this one until the 1940s. Before that he was apparently doing a different parody, a sixteen-verse saga that graphically reworked the original theme of a cowboy confronting a particularly vicious horse, ending:
I lays in the mud, its the end of the trail,
Old Strawberry turns and he lifts up his tail,
For I was the loser, went down in disgrace,
And now that it’s over, he shits in my face.
In case anyone finds this material offensive, I would note Jasper’s comment when I first sang it, which is that he knew an older horsewoman back in Ireland who was thoroughly respectable and would never tolerate bad language, but had supervised enough gelding operations that she would enjoy this song. Cowboys were romantic enough, in their way, but it was in their way… and Fletcher addressed that issue in another poem, variously called “The Open Book,” “The Open Ledger,” and other titles. You can find it online, but the opening verses kind of sum up the theme:
You’ve been tamped full of shit about cowboys,
They are known as a romantic band,
Bold knights of the saddle, who herd the wild cattle,
And roll cigarettes with one hand.
Now according to song and to story,
He’s a sheik in a ten-gallon hat.
All he knows of romance is the crotch of his pants.
What the hell do you think about that?
For other, less graphic, versions of the cowboy legend, check out my pages on “Zebra Dun” and “The Killer.” Or to dig deeper into the issue of folklore censorship, check out “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Meanwhile, here’s a picture Jasper took of me with my standard traveling rig during that trip through Hungary.
And, to finish up…
Several years later I went back to the Hortobagy and met the same horsemen…. The big changes in Hungary have brought big changes to the traditional life of the Hortobagy, and it’s getting harder and harder to interest youngsters – even the sons of herders and horsemen – in a life which mostly revolves around being too hot or too cold for long days and sitting around watching a bunch of animals eat grass. The shows of old horsemen skills liven up life for them a bit and bring in some money but the traditions are becoming pretty showbiz at that point. Then again, what showbiz. The Puszta Five – a whip-cracking guy standing on the back of two galloping horses whilst driving another three in front of him – the Roman riding of circuses – had grown into the Puszta Twelve when I was last out there doing stories on that kind of thing.