The Chisholm Trail, a path used for cattle drives from southern Texas into Kansas, ran straight through my hometown of Austin, TX. My aunt and uncle live in an amazing house that used to be a Chisholm Trail hotel in Belton, TX, about an hour north of Austin. So it felt appropriate to learn the classic ballad sung by cowboys riding that trail. “The Old Chisholm Trail” is LONG–Lomax says the song had a verse for every mile of the way between Texas and Montana. Only 9 verses here, but they show the range of subjects that a cowboy ballad might cover. Plenty of verses are about riding on the trail, but then a verse will amble away, the cowboy’s mind drifting back to a girl in the last town he rode through (“I know a girl who’s going to leave her mother…”) or drifting forward to his destination (“Oh, Abilene city is a dang fine town”). But no matter where his mind wanders, it always returns to the job at hand: the girl’s petticoats flop “like a pair of saddlebags”; in Abilene the boys “liquor up and twirl those heifers round.” He knows he’s chosen his fate; when he dies he’ll be “herding dogies up in Heaven in the sweet bye-and-bye.”
Doing a bit of research, I found several versions of “The Old Chisholm Trail” that share lyrics with this one, but I couldn’t find any with quite the same chord pattern. Tex Ritter does a hilariously chipper, yodeling version here; Lead Belly, an unlikely cattle herder, gives it a spin here. I think the somber tone and endless repetition of Lomax’s version are fitting, and strip away the glossy romance that the Tex Ritters and technicolor westerns play up.