The Old-Time Herald Volume 12, Number 11

Feature
Retelling the West: Jules Verne Allen, The Singing Cowboy
By Tony Russell
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Jules Allen picture courtesy of the Country Music Foundation

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During the 1930s, music evocative of cowboys and the West gradually took on a major part in the unfolding drama of what was not yet called country music. Later, that expanded into a joint leading role when the brand name became “country & western.” But the cowboys, and occasionally cowgirls, who populated the songs of Gene Autry, The Sons of the Pioneers, The Girls of the Golden West, and Patsy Montana were figures of a developing myth, connected only by their title, and distantly by their dress, with the hard-bitten working men and women who had opened up the West in the nineteenth century, and the songs that celebrated them were romances rather than true stories. For a more documentary light on cowboy life, we must go back farther, to singers who knew at first hand what it was to ride the range and punch cattle: to men like Jules Verne Allen.

At the end of the 1920s, Allen recorded almost two dozen songs sung by cowboys. In a weatherbeaten voice, to the accompaniment of a clip-clopping guitar, he recounted trail tales like “Little Joe, the Wrangler,” “When the Work’s All Done This Fall,” “Chisholm Trail,” “Home on the Range,” “Cowboy’s Lament” (aka “Streets of Laredo”), as well as other songs that, although they did not spring from the life and work of a cowboy, nevertheless smelled of the smoke of long-gone pioneer fires, such as the early settler song “Little Old Sod Shanty” and the Gold Rush narrative “The Days of Forty-Nine.” If, by some ill chance, these had been the only cowboy songs to survive on records, they would still be an excellent and representative sampling.
Who, then, was this historian of the high country, this recorder of the range?

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Jules Verne Allen was born on April 1, 1883, in Waxahachie, Texas, a little south of Dallas in Ellis County. His father Luther, who had moved there from Missouri, would appear to have died or deserted his family, because when his wife died ten years later, “leaving . . . three younger children to his care, Jules assumed the responsibilities entrusted to him and, knowing nothing but cow work, naturally he turned to that pursuit, accepting a job on his uncle’s ranch.” Thus began a long story of working and wandering that Allen recounted to a journalist thirty-six years later.

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