The closest Mark Gardner's ever come to rustlin' cattle is pulling the gate closed to keep a friend's cows in the pasture. But Gardner, a public historian with a penchant for all things Western, knows his cowboy songs.
His new book and CD, Jack Thorp's Songs of the Cowboys, published by the Museum of New Mexico Press in Santa Fe, celebrate the traditional songs of the Western range, collected around the turn of the last century by Thorp. A New Yorker transplanted to New Mexico, Thorp also penned one of the most famous cowboy songs of all time, "Little Joe, the Wrangler."
"Jack Thorp is really the father of this musical tradition that we call cowboy, or western, music," says Gardner. "Not only was he collecting authentic cowboy songs, he was writing and publishing this music at the same time."
With his friend Rex Rideout, Gardner loves to perform the old songs as authentically as possible -- dressed in period gear and playing instruments indigenous to the late 1800s and early 1900s. On Thursday, Dec. 1, the duo will perform cowboy songs in a benefit concert for the Cascade Volunteer Fire Department and the Ute Pass branch library.
"Every instrument on the CD dates before 1908," Gardner says. "You learn a lot of things by playing the instruments. For instance, on a historic banjo, they have leather heads that swell in humid air. If I'm playing in the evening on a humid night, it swells, and the sound changes."
Among the instruments Gardner and Rideout play on the CD and in concert are a circa 1890 "Silver Bell" pony banjo, a 1906 Gibson mandolin, a copy of a German violin sold through Sears, Roebuck & Co. in 1900, an open-backed banjo and a German-made concertina.
In 1908, Thorp published his first collection of cowboy songs, culled from cattle drives, campfires, immigrant camps, saloons and ranches across the West. From a wealthy eastern family, he'd come west in the 1880s, wandered the wild country on horseback and hung out with cowboys, collecting their songs. His book sold for 50 cents.
"Little Joe, the Wrangler" was written on a trail drive in 1908, but was not attributed to Thorp and was widely published and recorded in the 1920s and 1930s. He never saw a penny of profit from the song, though many other musicians did.
Gardner hopes to restore and reaffirm Thorp's due fame by introducing his songs to a new audience. Songs of the Cowboys is a slim paperback with illustrations by Santa Fe artist Ronald Kil, best known for illustrating a University of New Mexico Press series of children's books, "Children of the West," written by historian Marc Simmons. The CD, recorded at the Western Jubilee Recording Company Warehouse Theater here in the Springs, is tucked into a sleeve in the back.
"I never present myself as a dyed-in-the-wool cowboy," says Gardner, "but I'm proud to be a Westerner, and I hope by digging into this early music I can convey my love of the West and its history, or at least make sure [this music] is around a little longer."
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Mark Gardner and Rex Rideout perform and sign Jack Thorp's Songs of the Cowboys
A benefit concert for the Cascade Volunteer Fire Department and Ute Pass branch library
Cascade Fire House, Cascade
Thursday, Dec. 1, 7 p.m.
Donation: $5; call 684-9342 or visit songofthewest.com.