Cowboy Poetry Week: “I Ride an Old Paint”

An American Paint Horse at a horse show in the Czech Republic, from Wikipedia, photo by Karakal

The Death of the Old West

Depending on who you talk to, rumors of the death of the Old West, may be somewhat exaggerated. Some say it died when the railroads started carrying beef on the hoof to places like Kansas City and Chicago. Others say it died when barbed wire was invented. Even today, there are those that infer that the Old West lasted until the automobile and paved roads became the norm for transportation. And finally, there are those that believe that the Old West may still exist in small pockets, where a few determined herders somehow manage to work what’s left of the open range.

The Search

Back during the Roaring Twenties, when speakeasies and Jazz music were the rage, Carl Sandburg went on a search. He was looking for genuine cowboy songs from the Old West. To do this properly, the young Midwesterner dropped out of college, crisscrossed the western mountains and prairies, looking for old remnants of years gone by. Somewhere in the high desert of New Mexico, he came across this beauty of a song.

What’s an Old Paint

First of all, an Old Paint is a type of horse common to the American West. Basically, it is a stock horse with a “pinto” pattern of color. The splotched color separates this breed from the solid, American quarter horse. Except for the color pattern, the two types of horses are similar in size, build and stock. Nonetheless, they are considered two separate breeds, which are both quite popular among American horsemen.

About the Song

Too many, “I Ride an Old Paint”, embodies the spirit of the Old West, as well as any folk song. There are many wonderful elements to the horseman’s tale, but perhaps the unusual method of burial is most telling about the special appeal for this Western lament. I seriously doubt that many (if any) cowhands were treated this way after leaving the world of the living. Yet still, there is a communion with the outdoor range, rarely expressed in Western music,when the corpse of the main character is tied to the back of his horse and then set loose into the bush.

Carl Sandburg at age 77

Who Was Carl Sandburg?

Carl Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois in 1878. After serving in the military in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War, Carl returned to the Midwest, where he worked a variety jobs before he began publishing his own poetry in 1916. As an offshoot of his poetry, he put out a recording of folk songs (1927), gathered from traditional sources. This landmark album included such noted American classics, as the “Sloop John B” and “I Ride an Old Paint”. Over the years, the Old Paint song has one of the most recorded songs in American music.