From Old Paint To Old Town Road: Tracing The History Of Black Cowboys In Western Music And Film

Sep 6, 2019

During the settlement of the West, one in four cowboys were black. But their contributions have long been overlooked by the mainstream historical record.

One need only look at the backlash over 2019's biggest single, Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road," to see how overlooked black cowboys have become.

When Wrangler jeans teamed with the rapper, the company faced criticism over what some claimed was cultural appropriation—that the cowboy image was the province of white America.

Lil Nas X
Credit Wikimedia Commons

"Old Town Road" became the longest-running, number-one single in the history of the Billboard charts and spawned a wider interest in the tradition of black cowboys.

Dr. Robert Weems is the Distinguished Professor of Business History at Wichita State University.

"Even though we've been led to believe that all the cowboys were white and that if there were any blacks around, they were servants to the white cowboys," Weems said, "you had a significant number of black cowboys who did all of the things that white cowboys did in the late nineteenth century in the development of the American West."

Those, of course, are the historical black cowboys. Black cowboys were also represented in popular culture.

Musician Dom Flemons released a 2018 album dedicated to the tradition of black cowboys.

"The very first black cowboy in his own film was Bill Pickett, the famous rodeo rider who's most well-known for creating the art of bulldogging, which is a rodeo event," he said.

"What Bill Pickett would do is he would jump on a cow, from his horse, and then he would kind of hook down to the side of the cow and then bite the cow on its bottom lip, rendering it sort of senseless, then he would tip the cow right over. This was a trick that he learned early on in his cowboy days."

Pickett starred in the film The Bulldogger and although there were occasional representations of black cowboys in film, the next true star of black Westerns was Herb Jeffries, the Bronze Buckaroo.

Jeffries, who was born in Detroit, had made a name for himself singing jazz before adopting the persona of the Bronze Buckaroo, a so-called "sepia-toned" cowboy who could give black audiences the Western hero they had longed for.

"As I heard it, Herb Jeffries was singing with Duke Ellington up in Harlem," Flemons said. "He happened to see some young boys outside of the theater. It was a couple of young white boys as well as a young black boy. They were playing cowboys and Indians.

"The black boy had wanted to change to become one of the cowboys during the next turn. The white boys said, ‘No, there were no black cowboys, so you can't be a cowboy.'

"Herb Jeffries happened to see this scene outside the theater and thought to himself, ‘We really have to recognize the history of the black cowboys.'

"At this time, we're talking about segregated movie theater houses. So, he tried to fill the gap where there had not been a sepia-toned—which was the term at that time—a sepia-toned singing cowboy movie star."

Black western star Herb Jeffries

Jeffries, who spent the later years of his life living in Wichita, starred in films such as Harlem on the Prairie and Harlem Rides the Range. With his matinee-idol good looks and crooning voice, Jeffries was everything a cinema star could hope to be.

"He went off the model of Gene Autry: Movie-star looks, real clean, urbane sort of look for a cowboy. He's never looking dusty … himself," Flemons said. "That was a big part of what made these movies so popular and for a black audience to see a black cowboy on the screen… it's still, even like just to this day, some people can't believe it until they see it on TV.

"You have to think of a time when people are going to a movie theater and for the first time ever you're seeing your hero, the Bronze Buckaroo, on the movie theater screen. You can walk away with that image and come out with a little bit more empowerment for yourself. "That was something that was so brilliant about how Herb Jeffries made these movies, and he was always trying to push that history."

Eventually, country music and images of cowboys became almost solely the purview of white performers. Some of this may be attributed to the country's racial segregation.

Diane Pecknold is the editor of Hidden In The Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music.

"The record companies took musical traditions that were very intermingled if not unified and separated them because those were the marketing channels," she said. "You didn't want an advertisement for a black artist in the window of a white furniture in the South because that would mix the codes of Jim Crow segregation. It would be an invitation for black customers to shop there when in fact that was not allowed."

African Americans have continued to contribute to country music and the cowboy tradition. But the backlash over Lil Nas X suggests that Nashville may not be ready to fully embrace the story of how black audiences have interacted with country and Western themes across the decades.

"Everything I have seen about Nashville suggests that they are desperate to cultivate a black audience and, on the other hand, that community has always been super tight-knit and white," Pecknold said. "At this point, Nashville just isn't sure how to do this. Again, I would argue because all the people making the decisions are white."

Lil Nas X may be the reminder that America needed about the contributions of the black cowboys.

" 'Old Town Road' has been funny to me because I've been so deeply immersed in this idea of black cowboys and the questions around why most people have not heard of black cowboys that this young man's song … it's throwing gasoline on a fire," Flemons said.

With the present popularity of Lil Nas X and other so-called Yeehaw artists, as well as the work of musicians and historians such as Flemons, maybe the black cowboys will no longer be part of America's invisible history.

This story is part of the KMUW series "Gravel Roads and Lost Highways," which is made possible in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. KMUW is partnering with PBS to promote the Ken Burns documentary "Country Music."

Dom Flemons, "The American Songster," is a Grammy-Award-winning musician who is based in Washington, D.C. He also received a Grammy nomination for his 2018 album, Dom Flemons Presents Black Cowboys, issued on Smithsonian Folkways Records.

Diane Pecknold is editor of Hidden In The Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music and several other books, including Country Boys and Redneck Women: New Essays in Gender and Country Music.

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Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.