Coffee in the Gourd, ed. J. Frank Dobie , at sacred-texts.com
Turning back to the west of some ten years ago, before the automobiles and phonographs became numerous, before the country became too thickly populated, we find an honest, hospitable people who worked with a will and played with a zest. It was then truly the land of the open door, where the stranger was always welcome and a man's word was his bond. Here people lived a simple life of contentment, untroubled by driving ambition and free from all convention. Their "gatherings" were few, and at them the individuals felt themselves under no obligation to conform. Hence, the picnics, the "meetings," the "sociables," the dances, were all highly flavored with the individuality of the locality,--but none more than the cowboy dance.
An old-time cowboy dance was not announced in any specified manner. The news was given out and scattered by means of the "grapevine telegraph." At the beginning, several weeks before the dance was to "come off," several men were deputized to "ride it up." These men made a tour of the country and invited every person they happened to meet, regardless of who it might be. The invitation usually contained the phrase, "Everybody invited and nobody slighted."
Following the invitation to the dance, there was always a noticeable bustle about the community. Even the steadiest working ranch-hands "knocked off" early, dressed in their "Sunday go-to-meeting" clothes, and rode away in a mysterious manner. A cowboy often put himself to a great deal of trouble to take his girl to a dance. Buggies were always scarce in the ranching country, and sometimes it was necessary for the "puncher" who contemplated taking his "lady friend" to a dance to hire a buggy from a livery stable at the nearest town. A typical case of the trouble a cowboy will put himself to on an occasion like this is that of Bill , who had a girl living twelve miles from the ranch where he worked. To make arrangements with the girl, he rode twenty-four miles. To procure a buggy he rode sixteen miles to town and drove the same distance coming back, making thirty-two miles. Then he drove to the girl's home, covering, the twelve miles, and thence to the dance, covering eight miles. After the dance Bill drove the eight miles back to the girl's house, the twelve miles to the ranch, and made the thirty-two mile round trip to return the buggy. In all, till covered a distance of one hundred and twenty-eight miles, in order to take his "best girl" to the dance.
Some time during the day on which the dance was to "come off," several of the neighbors "dropped in" to help prepare for it. The furniture was all moved into one room or into the yard. The home stock were fed early and turned into the "starve out," to make room for the visitors' horses in the corral. Pictures and ornaments were usually left in their places, these forming the only decorations for the rooms. The pictures for the most part were enlargements of the members of the family or of near relations; the other ornaments, decorated cards upon which were printed such maxims as "Welcome," "God bless our home," "What is a home without a mother," and "God bless mother and father."
The people began to arrive about sundown. Each group was hailed with loud and merry greetings. Gossip occupied the time until the arrival of the fiddler, but when he put in his appearance, all concern and attention were bestowed upon him. The fiddler was usually a unique character. He was in most cases a lazy, shiftless individual who never was known to refuse a drink. He had an "improvised" vocabulary, he "opined" and "calculated" and considered his own judgment as final and infallible on all subjects. For a long time he would tune his fiddle before the admiring crowd. With startling skill he would fasten his knife to the bridge of it to intensify the sound. He had a rattlesnake rattler always on the inside of his fiddle as a charm against dampness. When the fiddler started playing, all signs of his habitual laziness vanished, and he became strangely animated. He "kept time" with his head and his foot simultaneously, moving and tilting his head to the variation of his music while he patted his foot. The fiddlers all learned to play without instruction; therefore each of them had a different interpretation for the tunes they knew.
When a sufficient crowd had gathered, the dancing began. The girls were lined up on one side of the room and given chairs. If there were not enough chairs to "go round," trunks and boxes were used. When a man wished to dance with a young lady, he went over to her and said, "Pardner for the next dance?", and if she had none, he added, "May I have the next?" If she gave her consent, the bargain was closed. If a man was refused a dance by a girl he was "stung" or "stood up" by her, and should he be "stung" twice in one night he was considered "slighted" by the lady, and he customarily would not ask her for another dance.
Each man who danced made a donation to the fiddler. The dance usually started with a waltz, which was very beautiful. The cowboy held the lady's right hand in his left and put his right arm about her. He was always considerate and held a large handkerchief in his right hand to keep from soiling the lady's dress.
After the dance had been "going on" for some time, those who came from a distance began to arrive. When these late corners got close enough that they could hear the music of the fiddle, they would "pour the quirt" to their horses and ride yelling up to the very door. The men often came as far as forty miles to attend a dance, and it always seemed that the farther they came the more popular they were with the girls.
When the square dance started, a "caller" was selected, who automatically became the center of all attraction. The caller was always some person who was forward and "loud-mouthed." He had a care-free way about him that was evident even in dress. His boots were apt to be of the fanciest pattern that could be had; he would likely wear his "lock-rowelled" spurs. He would have a rattlesnake skin slipped over his belt, which he buckled on the side instead of in the center. His shirt was of a fancy pattern and a flaming color; he wore a "stamped leather, collar" with a gaudy tie, having a small section of cow's horn slipped over it to serve in place of a knot. A pair of new buckskin gloves hung from the pocket of his "peg-topped" trousers and a "Bull Durham" tag hung from a sack in his shirt pocket. He assumed an indifferent air and seemed utterly unaware of the importance attached to him. The caller sometimes led in the dance and called for it at the same time. Sometimes calling from memory, filling in forgotten parts with new words, and often inventing entirely new calls, he chanted the calls in a rhythmic monotone that fitted well with the music of the fiddle. The performance of the dancers varied with the calls of the caller.
The swinging formed the major part of the dance. One way of swinging was by grasping the hands as the couple passed, another was by the interlocking of the elbows as the dancers met, followed by a quick turn and a release. The dancers moved with a kind of shuffle that was timed to the music. The feet of the dancers as they pounded the floor in unison stirred up the dust from between the boards, and several times during the night the dance was halted until the dirt could be swept out into the yard. It was not an unusual thing for a girl to dance her shoe soles through in one night. The "punchers'" thick-soled boots of course lasted longer.
The "calls" of the cowboy dance were exceedingly picturesque. A few examples of these calls follow:
First swing six, then swing eight,
Swing 'em like swinging on a gate.
Ducks in the river, going to the ford,
Coffee in a little rag, sugar in a gourd.
Swing 'em once and let 'em go,
All hands left and do-ce-do.
You swing me, and I'll swing you,
And we'll all go to heaven, in the same old shoe.
Chase the possum, chase the coon,
Chase that pretty girl 'round the room.
How will you swap, and how'll you trade
This pretty girl for that old maid?
Wave the ocean, wave the sea,
Wave that pretty girl back to me.
Swing your partners, once in a while,
Swing them all in Indian style.
Rope the cow, and kill the calf,
Swing your partner, a round and a half.
Swing your partners before you trade,
Grab 'em back and promenade.
Grab your pardner and sail away,
Hurry up, it's breaking day.
Swing 'em round, and round an' round,
Pockets full of rocks to weigh 'em down.
There comes a girl I used to know,
Swing her once and let her go.
When you meet your pardner, pat her on the head,
If she don't like coffee, give her corn bread.
Three little sisters, all in a row,
Swing 'em once and let them go.
Old shoe sole is about wore out,
Grab a girl and walk about.
Swing 'em east and swing 'em west,
Swing the girl that you like best.
There was something about the cowboy dances that cast a spell over participants and onlookers alike. Those who were forbidden by the strict country church to dance came often to look upon the gaieties of their "sinner friends" with envy and hunger in their eyes. At first they might refuse stoutly the invitations to dance, but too often the tantalizing music of the fiddle, and the high nasal twang of the caller's voice caused even the most religious to join in the dance. When a church member took part in a dance he was said to have "danced himself out of the church" and he had to be "saved" at the next revival. With some persons it was a habit to "dance out of the church" in the winter and to be "saved" at the "camp meeting" the following summer when dancing was not in vogue.
Black coffee was served to the guests in the kitchen, where the children were put to sleep on the floor. As for the men, there was always a little whiskey on hand somewhere; between dances some man would wink at another and motion with his head. Following this mysterious procedure, several of the men would leave the room, and the bottle would be passed around, each man taking a swallow. In some instances, the boys would forget and take too much and get on a "high lonesome." As long as the men behaved they were not molested, but when a man got "tanked up" and showed it, he was frequently "cooled off" by a series of blows on the head, and then carried away to the harness shed and locked up or guarded until he was sober or until the dance "broke up."
The dancers as they moved about the room presented a pleasing spectacle. Singling them out, one would be impressed by the great variety that the gathering afforded. Style was not followed so closely then as now, and the girls would be dressed in many ways. The dresses were long, reaching almost to the ankle. White dresses with light pink or blue ribbons were the most popular. Between dances the girls would "fix up" in the dressing room. In those days a girl would not powder her nose in public. The boys were dressed in various ways; some wore shoes and common suits, while others wore fancy hand-made boots and all of the other regalia that make up a cowboy's "garb." The farmer boys would wear "hand-.me-down" boots in their effort to copy the cowboy's dress.
The dance was often varied by amusing or exciting incidents. When a "new beginner" wanted to learn to dance he was given a little extra attention. All care was taken to get him "balled up." Some of the girls were unusually strong, and when they swung the "new beginner," they would sometimes send him reeling against the wall; the dance was prolonged beyond its usual length for his special benefit, that he might get "blowed" or "winded."
The dances usually lasted all night and into the next day. Some of the "punchers" who had ridden forty or fifty miles to attend a dance might sometimes have to leave early in order to begin work in the morning. When a man left he announced his "farewell" dance, danced it, and departed. Sometimes, though, after he had mounted his horse and started away, his ears caught the strains of a favorite selection. When he heard these, he could not resist the temptation to return for another "farewell" dance. Then he danced in his "chaps" and his riding clothes. His return often arose from his desire to "show off" his new "chaps," quirt, or other trapping. As he reluctantly rode away, he would sometimes give the cowboy's call. This call is weird and melancholy; it is the call that the cowboy uses as he rides around a herd at night to solace himself and to quiet the restless cattle. This call is strange in that it cannot be imitated. It comes from the depths of the cowboy's soul, mellowed by loneliness and inspired by the spell of the prairies. It was a fitting and impressive farewell from the lonely rider as he started away on his long ride.
When the dance broke up, the people shouted to one another as they "hooked up." After many farewells, they drove away, shouting as they went. Each man "prided" himself on his "rig," and to show off he would try to "pass everything on the road." The departing crowd would often leave the gates open expecting the last corner to close them, arid the land owners habitually rode their fences and shut their gates on the morning following a dance. Some of the boys would ride over fences and leave them down, or play such pranks as taking the gates off the hinges and dragging them with their ropes. After the rattle of the last buggy had died away, the "blowout" became a part of the community history.