Written for Jeannie Brindley Barnett to perform in 1979, composer Libby Larsen (b. 1950) writes, “The Cowboy Songs are three character songs . . . The three poems made a nice set, suggesting a narrative without specifying one, giving me the opportunity to begin working with American English as a source of musical syntax and shape.” Not only do Larsen’s songs explore the unique characteristics of American English, but they also delve into the “cowboy song” as an American musical genre as well.
By the 1880’s, the American cattle industry had expanded, as ranchers pushed farther westward, seeking unsettled grassland for their cattle to graze upon. Cowboys were responsible for driving cattle, often hundreds of miles from ranches to railheads. These “cowboy songs” are essentially ballads, orally passed up and down the trail, narrating the triumphs and woes of the cowboy experience. Original authorship of these songs was usually lost, and many were adapted from the melodies of popular songs of the day. For this reason, endless variations of text abound, especially with such popular poems as “Bucking Bronco” and “Billy the Kid.”
Larsen attributes “Bucking Bronco” to a single author, Belle Starr (1848-1889), a notorious frontierswoman and outlaw. Throughout her tumultuous and violent life, Starr collaborated with her various husbands to steal cattle, horses, and money. Known as the “bandit queen,” she had a flair for the dramatic, riding with velvet skirts and a plumed hat. Despite serving jail time in 1881 for horse theft, Starr continued her illegal activities in the Oklahoma Indian Territory, where she was later gunned down by an unknown assailant. Her murder remains unsolved, though many theories exist, and the mystery of her death has only magnified her stature as a notorious legend of the Wild West. It is truly a testament to Starr’s larger-than-life historical presence that she remains so inextricably connected to the text of “Bucking Bronco.”