Monday, January 14, 2013

Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail

[1] March 26, 1932. The singing cowboy of the rodeo, “Powder River” Jack Lee and his wife Kitty Lee entertaining children in a courtyard of Bellevue Hospital, New York City.

Wilf Carter (1904-96), also known as “Montana Slim,” is regarded as the father of Canadian Country Music. In 1932 he recorded ‘My Swiss Moonlight Lullaby’ and ‘The Capture of Albert Johnson’ for RCA Victor in Montreal. Clarence Eugene “Hank” Snow (1914-99) signed with the same company in 1934. His first recordings were ‘Lonesome Blue Yodel’ which Snow recalled as a “Jimmie Rodgers blues song” and ‘The Prisoned Cowboy’, a “story song.” These were released on RCA Canada’s Bluebird label. Both blue yodelers were natives of Nova Scotia.

Wilf Carter had a predecessor who I believe may qualify as the real father of Canadian country music, although you won’t find his name in the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.

JOHN L. “POWDER RIVER JACK” LEE, was his name, who is not identified as Canadian in the available literature of the singing cowboy. Jack Lee (1874-1946) made his first recordings in 1930, also for Victor’s Bluebird label (probably the American branch), and, like Carter and Snow, played widely north and south of the 49th parallel. Like Wilf Carter he made numerous appearances at the Calgary Stampede, indeed, he performed at the inaugural Stampede on Labor Day, September 2,  1912. The Calgary Herald’s magazine editor wrote
Calgary was bursting at the seams with visitors. They’d come from all over the continent with special trains from Cheyenne, Wyoming, from Pendleton, Oregon, and from Spokane.
The Pendleton Round-up Cowboys’ Band was brought in to head the opening parade. George Drumheller of Washington brought in his compete crew of cowboys by special car. Waddies checked in from Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and a dozen other states.

Vaqueros came all the way from Mexico with Pancho Villa sending up his best steer roper.

Hundreds of cowboys were on hand from British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan cattle country.

Indian tribes moved en masse to Calgary and some 2,000 Indians took part in the parade.
Some American newspaper sources said Lee was born in Montana, some said Cheyenne, Wyoming. Lee and Kitty had a residence in Deer Lodge, Montana. According to an article in the Calgary Daily Herald on June 27, 1932, ‘Canadian Cowboy Singer Arrives for the Stampede’, Powder River Jack Lee was born on Prince Edward Island in Canada. According to his tombstone he was born October 1, 1874. One newspaper article is not proof, however, and Jack Lee was widely known as a teller of tall tales.

“Powder River” Jack Lee recorded four songs in 1930 (Country Music Records; A Discography) when he was already 56 years old. Two songs were on the Bluebird label (also released on Electradisk and Sunrise): ‘The Old Black Steer (Old Cowboy Song)’ and ‘My Love is a Cowboy (Old Cowboy Song).’ For Victor he recorded ‘Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail’ and ‘Powder River, Let ‘Er Buck.’ Lee vocalized and played guitar and harmonica accompanied by his wife Kitty Lee on guitar. In 1936 he recorded two songs in Chicago, ‘The Santa Fe Trail’ and ‘The Cowboy’s Farewell,’ both unissued. He was said to have recorded ‘Strawberry Roan’ but these are his only known recordings. In 1966 the Library of Congress Archive of American Folksong acquired “songs and stories of “Powder River” Jack, recorded over 20 years ago in Virginia City, Nevada.”

[3] November 26, 1935.
Powder River Jack drew the ire of cowboy poets Gail Gairdner (‘Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail’ composer) and Curly Fletcher (‘StrawberryRoan’ composer) for claiming those songs as his own compositions. Lee would say anything to a reporter and once laid claim to authorship of ‘Red River Valley.’ Every reporter he met had a quote meant to establish Lee as the only “authentic” cowboy in show business. In Salt Lake City the “poet laureate of Montana … cowboy author and composer” told a reporter that modern melodies were “just a lot of drugstore cowboy singin’ ”
Nope, I’m again those whiny songs they sing so much. They’re not real cowboy songs. Why the feller who writes most of ’em has never been west of State Street in Chicago.
To a different Salt Lake Reporter he said
Cowboy singing is being ruined and lost through the radio singers who never saw a ranch. Such innovations as yodeling, which came from the Swiss Alps, and crooning which were never heard by the real cowboys are being introduced until the public thinks them a part of cowboy music.
On October 18, 1932 Lee was working for Colonel Bill Johnson’s rodeo at the Seventh Annual World Series Rodeo in New York. Colonel Johnson told a reporter
Powder River Jack isn’t so keen on radio singers who try to revive the old songs of the west.
They’ve tried to revive interest in the cowboys, but they get their words and tunes from Victrola records.
Lee was probably referencing Ken Maynard, the first singing cowboy of the movies, who recorded ‘TheLone Star Trail,’ a ‘Talkie Hit’ from Universal Pictures The Wagon Master for Columbia Records in 1930. Maynard, an alumnus of the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch, yodeled and sang to guitar accompaniment. The song can be heard on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. With no hint of irony Smith noted “This passionate description of life is one of the very few recordings of authentic “cowboy” singing.”

[4] June 27, 1932, Calgary Herald.
Carl T. Sprague (1895-1979) recorded the first cowboy songs for Columbia in 1925 titled ‘When the Work’s all Done this Fall’ and ‘Bad Companions.’ He was inspired by Vernon Dalhart’s success with ‘The Prisoner’s Song’ and ‘Wreck of the Old ’97’ recorded in 1924. The best was Jules Verne Allen (1883-1945) another well-known cowboy singer who recorded for RCA. He was a man who worked in law enforcement before taking up the vaudeville stage. He was a sergeant in World War I and put on shows where he performed Negro melodies, and his own compositions, in blackface. He made a large number of recordings in April 1928 including ‘Little Joe the Wrangler,’ ‘Jack O’ Diamonds,’ ‘Po Mourner,’ ‘The Days of ’49’ and ‘Zebra Dun.’

Powder River Jack Lee wrote West of Powder River, tales of the far West told in narrative verse (HERE) in 1933. A songbook was published by the McKee Printing and Engraving Company at Butte, Montana, with illustrations by cowboy artist Charley Russell. He wrote and illustrated another book, The Stampede, tales of the old west, which mentioned his experiences as a Rough Rider with Teddy Roosevelt, travels with Buffalo Bill Cody and friendship with Will Rogers. His wife Kitty was “one of the Miller girls of “101 Ranch” fame.”

[5] 1934 photograph.
Early in Powder River Jack’s rodeo career he may have worked as an extra on two of the earliest movies made in western Canada, Chip of the Flying U and His Destiny both starring Hoot Gibson and Virginia Brown Faire. Chip of the Flying U was first published as a novel by B.M. Bower in 1912 and first filmed in 1915 as a three reel comedy drama starring Kathlyn Williams. Both were filmed at the Stampede Ranch with the aid of rodeo cowboys. Gibson and Faire starred in an earlier film with the title The Calgary Stampede. Jack and Kitty followed the rodeo circuit until September when they would stay with friends at the Longview Ranch in Calgary before heading south for the winter.

Kitty Lee, born in Illinois, recalled meeting Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock as a child. She also met Powder River Jack while still a child. In 1893 she joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as a trick rider, hurdle jumper and sharpshooter. Jack Lee joined Buffalo Bill soon after and the couple wed in 1896 and toured the world with Buffalo Bill until 1906. The duo toured in vaudeville for 15 years, two years spent in Hawaii. The next 22 years were spent traveling the U.S. and Canada working on radio, rodeos, charity events and bookings at hotels, resorts and dude ranches. She recalled giving command performances for five presidents and friendship with Will Rogers, Charles M. Russell, William S. Hart and Tom Mix.

One newspaperman wrote that Powder River Jack and Kittie Lee were “known to every cow-waddie from the Rio Grande to the Canadian border.” It was said that Lee worked for Buffalo Bill and punched cows and herded beef for the XIT – “the last herd to leave Texas and travel north on the old Kansas Trail.
 In 1934 Frederick Schweigardt, noted sculptor, exhibited life sized busts of Powder River Jack, Charles M. Russell and Einstein at a Hollywood studio at 5517 Careton Way. Lee’s bust was inscribed “The American Cowboy” and “Der Meister Singer.”

[6] Okeh Phonograph Records advertisement, circa 1925.
One Calgarian who didn’t share in the enthusiasm wrote the editor of the Calgary Herald in 1932 using the name ‘Canuck.’
Next we must turn to another imported artist, in the person of “Powder River Jack” and his partner “Kitty Lee.” They may be wonderful, unbeatable, etc., but the only type of remarks I heard were something of this nature, “They are certainly a washout aren’t they?” “They are a flop,” etc. “Powder River Jack” knows a great many old time songs and his voice can be heard from a great distance, but wouldn’t he make a better announcer for the midway?
On February 24, 1946, Powder River Jack Lee, “rodeo singer and composer of cowboy songs, was almost instantly killed tonight in an automobile accident on the Phoenix road about 23 miles north of here (Casa Grande, Arizona) and 15 miles south of Chandler. He and his wife Kitty had appeared for many years at the Pendleton, Calgary, Cheyenne and other rodeos as a singing team.” – Spokesman Review.

Lee was alone in the car, returning from the Tucson rodeo to Phoenix. His automobile rolled three times. His wife Kitty Lee, nearly blind, had been admitted to a hospital in Phoenix that day and was not notified of his death until later. John L. “Powder River Jack” Lee’s remains are interred at City of Mesa cemetery in Mesa, county of Maricopa, Arizona.

Vintage photograph of Jack and Kitty Lee at the Calgary Stampede can be viewed HERE.

The couple can be seen serenading James Roosevelt HERE.

‘Sierra Peaks’ can be heard HERE.

[7] Image from Charles Furlong’s “Let ’Er Buck, a story of the passing of the old west,” 1921.
Further reading
— 1950, Kitty Lee Recalls Life of Adventure, in Prescott [Arizona] Evening Courier, June 12

— 1961, A Cowboy's Dream, Waddie From Wyoming Founded Calgary Stampede by Denny Layzell, The Calgary Herald, July 8

— 1961, The Yodeling Cowboy; Montana Slim from Nova Scotia, by Wilf Carter himself, Ryerson, Toronto

— 1994, The Hank Snow Story; Hank Snow, the Singing Ranger, with Jack Ownbey and Bob Burris, University of Illinois Press, Published in association with the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame

— 1998, Dixie Cowboys and Blue Yodels; the Strange History of the Singing Cowboy, by Peter Stanfield, in Back in the Saddles Again, New Essays on the Western, BFI Publishing

— 2002, Singing in the Saddle; the History of the Singing Cowboy, by Douglas B. Green, The Country Music Foundation Press and Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville. Doug Green is Ranger Doug from the Riders in the Sky band.

— 2002, Horse Opera; The Strange History of the 1930s Singing Cowboy, by Peter Stanfield, University of Illinois Press

— 2004, Country Music Records; A Discography, 1921-1942, by Tony Russell & Bob Pinson, Oxford University Press

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