"The Colorado Trail" is one of those folk songs in the American tradition that appears as a genuine surprise, like maybe "Shenandoah" and "The Streets Of Laredo" and "Coffee Grows On White Oak Trees." American frontier culture has given rise to rough-hewn ballads like "Jesse James" and fiddle and dance tunes like "Old Joe Clark" and "Turkey In The Straw" and topical/historical pieces like the hundreds of Civil War songs and railroad songs and sea chanteys. We're not generally known, though, for the lyrical beauty of the Celtic songs of Ireland, Scotland, and Brittainy or the stately and often melancholy classics of England (think "Greensleeves" or "Barbara Allen").
Every so often, though, some anonymous American worker came up with a melody and some words of genuinely aching beauty, real polished diamonds set sparkling against the rough and grainy backdrop of American folk tunes. Such a song is the very real cowboy ballad, "The Colorado Trail."
We owe our knowledge of this obscure ballad to classic American poet Carl Sandburg and Weaver Lee Hays, the same pair who gave us "The Wreck of the John B" and dozens of other traditional songs that found their ways into public consciousness through the books of Alan Lomax and the records of Burl Ives and The Weavers. The story goes that Sandburg "collected" (as they say in the folk music biz) the song in 1927 (about the same time as "John B") from Dr. T.L. Chapman, an old surgeon in Duluth, Minnesota who maintained that some decades earlier he had treated an anonymous cowboy for "bones of both upper and lower legs broken, fractures of the collar bone on both sides, numerous fractures of both arms and wrists, and many scars from lacerations." According to Chapman (from Sandburg), the cowboy spent several weeks convalescing, singing "The Colorado Trail" several times daily to other patients who just couldn't get enough of it.
And no wonder. The song is pure (if a bit schmaltzy) genius and includes one especially fine technical point - the rise in the melody of the chorus where the meaning of the words rises - "wail, winds, wail" - with the subsequent gradual stepping down of the melody as the words return to earth - "all along, along, along - The Colorado trail." [Lomax's published musical setting gives you the option to sing the word "wail" at either the high end of an octave as the Kingstons do below or the lower as with the Bar D Wranglers - Ives did the high octave.] You generally don't hear that kind of sophisticated gambit in any kind of music outside of the really serious pop and classical stuff. That ol' cowpoke knew what he was doing.
I first heard it on what may have been the earliest commercial recording by Ives, who put out literally hundreds of 45rpms and 78rpms before the mid-Fifties debut of LPs. The Weavers may also have waxed it in the Gordon Jenkins sessions with Decca, though I can't say for sure or find direct evidence of it.*
It's safe to say, though, that the awesome commercial punch of the Kingston Trio in 1960 brought the song its widest attention to date, appearing as it did on their album String Along, the fifth consecutive (and final) album of the original trio's to go to #1 on the Billboard charts, where it stayed according to The Kingston Trio On Record for an impressive ten weeks. The Trio's reading stands after nearly fifty years as one of the loveliest cuts that they ever recorded:
Given the single source for the song from Sandburg, there are still major variations in the lyrics because a)Lee Hays added two verses of his own to Sandburg's find, including the last verse that the KT sings, and b) most of the other artists who have recorded it (Johnny Cash, Don Williams, Tex Ritter, and more) have felt free to write their own verses as well.
We have some fine performances of the song from amateurs and professionals alike. For a pure and simple folk arrangement featuring only vocal, guitar and recorder, I would like to start with one of my favorite singers of all time, Cisco Houston, who died at 42 years old in 1961 just as his career was taking off in the folk boom. Houston had the best baritone voice in roots music, one that some traditionalists felt was "too good" for the simple tunes he sang. I disagree most emphatically:
Rick Devin is a multi-faceted and thoroughgoing professional who has had different incarnations as a rock, folk, and blues performer. Since 1985, though, he has focused on cowboy songs, teaming up with Michael Martin Murphey, among others. This video is a bit of a commercial but still a fine performance:
Marshal Bailey and The Silver Bullets put a definite and very melodic country spin to the song - this was recorded last June at the Colorado Bluegrass Festival:
Mike Iverson gives a genuine and authentic-sounding reading at last year's Western music Alliance meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico - the mouth harp makes you nearly smell the campfire smoke:
A lovely, understated melody, melancholy tone, haunting lost love theme - "The Colorado Trail" includes for me just about everything there is to love about traditional music.
Well, here's some pretty direct evidence - The Weavers with Lee Hays on lead. Seeger is playing the recorder, but the brush drums and strings are the work of Gordon Jenkins, so this is indeed from the 1949-52 Decca era of the group.
Updates, April 2013
In the nearly four years since this post first appeared, the number of videos of all kinds posted to YouTube has more than tripled, and despite the occasionally problematic actions by record companies to enforce copyright restrictions (as has happened with the Kingston Trio video above), this has been good news for music lovers of all stripes. In May of 2009 when I wrote this, I had a hard time coming up with YT renditions of "The Colorado Trail" that I liked enough to include in an article such as this. The ones in the original posting above are of genuine excellence - but they were all that I could find. Recently, though, especially in the last year, a substantial number of outstanding versions of the song have been uploaded to YouTube. Here are several of the best of those, all by major artists whose work was not available in video form four years ago.
The Norman Luboff Choir - 1955
Noël Wan, Harp - 2007