Charley Willis, the singing cowboy

The 1940 Kingsport, Tennessee Kingsport Times headline read “For Carefree Fun, Sing Cowboy Ditties” and offered copes of Popular Cowboy Songs in exchange for ten cents in coin.  It led off with “Goodbye, Old Paint” and included several other songs of the era along with the guitar chords for each melody.


(Image credit: Kinsgsport Times)

The song, “Goodbye Old Paint” was written by Texas cowboy Charley Willis who was born a slave around 1847 in Milam County, Texas.  He became a free man after the Civil War and started working as a cowboy in Bell County, Texas.  He was good at everything, including breaking wild horses.  He also married his wife Laura, who is thought to be part Seminole and descended from the Black Seminole tribe that migrated to Texas from Mexico.

Charley was still a young man when he participated in his first trail drive in 1871 up the old Chisholm Trail from Texas to Wyoming.  Willis became known for singing to quiet the easily spooked herds while on the trail.  Cattle responded to church hymns and other songs, sometimes composed on the trail by the cowboys and in addition, singing helped the cowboys to pass the time during long hours in the saddle.

After one trip, Charley came home singing “Goodbye Old Paint,” though no one knows if Old Paint referred to his horse or just a name he selected for convenience.  In his article in the book Black Cowboys of Texas, author Jim Chilcote says the song was documented by a college professor named John Lomax (John Avery Lomax, Sr.) recording a cowboy named Jess Morris (the son of  the ranch owner, E. J. Morris for whom Willis worked) accompanying himself on the fiddle and singing the tune for the Library of Congress.  Morris said he learned it from the composer, Charley Willis.  Here is a link to Jess Morris singing Charley Willis’ song for Lomax, recorded in Dallas in 1942.  Below is a representative version of the lyrics, though Morris’ vary somewhat from this:

Old Paint, Old Paint, I’m a-leavin’ Cheyenne;
Good-bye, Old Paint, I’m a-leavin’ Cheyenne.

My foot’s in the stirrup, my pony won’t stand,
Good-bye, Old Paint, I’m off to Montan’

Old Paint’s a good pony, he paces when he can,
Good-bye, little donkey, I ‘m off to Montan’

Go hitch up your horses and feed ‘em some hay,
An’ set yourself by me as long as you’ll stay.

We spread down the blanket on the green grassy ground,
While the horses and cattle were a-grazin’ around.

My horses ain’t hungry, they won’t eat your hay,
My wagon is loaded and rollin’ away.

My foot’s in the stirrup, my bridle’s in hand,
Good-bye, little Annie, my horses won’t stand.

The last time I saw her was late in the fall,
She was ridin’ Old Paint and a-leaden’ Old Ball.

Classical composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is considered to be one of the finest American composers and is well known for having woven folk tunes into his compositions.  In 1938, he completed a score commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein for the ballet Billy the Kid.  In it, Copland incorporates a number of cowboy tunes.  The ballet premiered on October 16, 1938 in Chicago by the Ballet Caravan Company, with pianists Arthur Gold and Walter Hendl playing the score on two pianos.  Intertwined with Copland’s original work, the cowboy tunes “The Dying Cowboy,” “Git Along, Little Dogies,” “The Old Chisholm Trail,” and Willis’ melody “Goodbye Old Paint” appear both in the ballet score.  They also appear in the orchestral suite that Copland composed featuring some of the major musical themes from the ballet.  Here is a link to the suite.  If you don’t have twenty minutes to listen to the entire work, Willis’ melody first appears  played by the strings at about 7:30 into the piece.  Then you will hear it repeated periodically throughout to the conclusion of the piece.  You will hear some of the same melodies that Jess Morris sings and plays in his recording of the song.

Current genealogy records do not reveal Charley’s date of death or place of burial, but he is thought to have predeceased his wife Laura around 1930 and to have been buried in Texas.  Perhaps the next time you hear this old song, you will think of the old cowboy Charley Willis on horseback, singing it to a herd of longhorns under a Texas sky.

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