Introduced by Martha Burns
The night guard is truly the most romantic figure of cowboy lore. Imagine starry skies and a lone cowboy singing to his herd and the night guard invariably comes to mind. “Singing to quiet the cattle is important,” the writer Owen Wister reflected in his western journals near the end of the old trail days. “The more restless they are, the louder or more inarticulate is the singing, no words being used at all, but only a strange wailing. But as the cattle grow quiet, the music gathers form, and while the herd lies quietly at rest on the plain, the night herders are apt to sing long definite songs as they ride round and round the edges.”
This song captures that feeling better than any other I know. It comes from Jack Webb, who recorded it for Victor in 1930, one of only two sides he ever recorded. Born in 1902, Webb lived most of his life in Oklahoma, becoming one of the earliest and most celebrated rodeo stars in the country’s history. He could rope six horses abreast at a gallop and shoot articles from his head by pulling a string attached to a rifle trigger. Occasionally billed as the “Crooning Cowboy,” he also composed and sang cowboy songs. “The Night Guard” is apparently one of Webb’s own.
Listen to Martha singing “The Night Guard:”
Oh, the cowboys were gathered ’round the campfire
All tired from a long, hard day.
As they rolled their smokes, they told some jokes
To pass the time away.
The big trail herd was hard to hold,
The night guard sang a song,
To bed the cattle and keep them still,
Throughout the whole night long.
Well, the night guard was a handsome lad,
His face was tanned from the sun.
And his heart was lawfully wedded home,
Back to the only one.
She was a girl you’d surely love
If her you could but see.
Her eyes shown like the stars at night,
And a thousand charms had she.
As the dawn rose in the eastern sky,
The cattle began to stir.
The love light gleamed in the night guard’s eye,
For he’s on his way to her.
A longhorn steer came ambling by,
The blood was in his eye.
He caught the night guard unawares,
And charged as he rode by.
The night guard’s horse, in mighty leap,
Threw his rider on his head.
The steer then got him as he rose,
And there we found him dead.
The little girl has changed a lot,
She seems to have grown old.
I guess it was the news we brought,
And the story that we told.
Martha Burns specializes in songs from American old-time music and traditional songs from the great Southwest. She has performed throughout the United States, and in Canada, England, and Ireland. She has served on staff at CDSS’s American Music and Dance Week at Pinewoods, Youth Traditional Song Weekend, Wheatlands Traditional Arts Weekend, and the Bluff Country Gathering. Her 2014 solo album, Old-Time Songs, was dubbed “absolutely charming” by the folksong magazine Living Tradition. Martha offers workshops on topics ranging from Carter Family singing to the early history of cowboy songs. For more about Martha, visit her website.