The Cowboy Fireman; or, The Trusty Lariat

Originally recorded in 1929 by Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock, this is a mock-heroic shaggy dog response to the incursion of steel rails on the open range.

In her book, Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle, Katie Lee recalls that Mac had been a cowboy, railroad man, hard-rock miner, and hobo before becoming a recording artist and radio star on San Francisco’s KFRC station. Best known as composer of “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (featured in an earlier post with attention to its expurgation), he sang a varied repertoire of cowboy, hobo, and IWW union songs, as well as oddities like “Circus Days,” “When It’s Time to Shear the Sheep (I’m Coming Ba-a-a-ack to You),” and this little masterpiece.

Lee prints a considerably longer lyric for “The Trusty Lariat,” apparently copied from Mac’s Songs of the Road and Range, a song folio published in 1932, but I sing it roughly as he did it on that earlier record.

Like another favorite cowboy singer, Glen Ohrlin, Haywire Mac enjoyed the romance of the cowboy legend but also understood that it was a romantic myth — as an IWW man, he was well aware of the lousy working conditions on most ranches. Like “Pat Works on the Railway,” this is an example of the kind of wry humor that often spiced western folklore, and working class folklore in general.

Incidentally, for the young folks (myself included) a “fireman” was the guy who shoveled coal into the firebox of a steam engine to heat the water, making the steam that powered the damn thing. It was the worst job on the railroad, and often done by African Americans — so if anyone wants to think of this as a song about black cowboys, there’s some evidence to support that reading.

Even more incidentally, “lariat” is an English corruption of la reata, Spanish for the lasso. “Lasso,” in turn is an English corruption of lazo, a Spanish cognate of “lace” — as in shoelace, not lace doily.  Atar is the verb “to tie,” reatar is to retie, so the reata has been doubly tied. I’m not sure exactly how, but that’s the etymology.