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"Brown-eyed Lee"

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
What would song writers do without being able to fall back on laments of love lost?

Love does not always endure, and neither do all songs. That certainly seems to be the case with a cowboy love song called "Brown-eyed Lee," a tune alternating chords D, G, D that a collection of cowboy songs published in 1932 notes should be played "Not too fast."

The six-stanza song, as the book notes, is "A love story from Bell County, Texas, and a true one - the story, not the love!"

Set in Central Texas in the twilight of the 19th century, the song about a cowpoke done wrong by a brown-eyed gal appears in "Cowboy Sings: Songs of the Ranch and Range," a 100-page softcover book published in New York during the Great Depression. Who wrote the song is not mentioned, nor is there any explanation as to its origin or connection to Bell County.

Interestingly, Belton had been a stop on the old Chisholm Trail, the 800-mile route from South Texas to the railhead in Kansas. But the eventual spread of better rail service to Texas had made the trail obsolete by 1884, a decade-and-a-half before the Bell County cowboy had his troubles.

"Kind friends," the ballad begins, "if you will listen, a story I will tell...About a final bust-up…that happened down in Bell."

The cowboy sang that he had courted "a gal named Lee" and "when I popped the question she said she'd marry me."

Of course, you have to have a license to get married. The singer obtained that document at the Bell County courthouse in March 1899, "expecting in a few days that darling would be mine."

Alas, the cowboy had not calculated on the reaction his future mother-in-law would have. Needless to say, his beloved's mother was not pleased at news of her daughter's pending nuptials.

In fact, the song continued, she "grew quite angry…And said it would not be. She said she had another man picked out for brown-eyed Lee." Lee's mother made it known to friends and neighbors that she intended to back up her "No" with "her old six-shooter" and "put old Red to flight."

In the next line, the songwriter really gets it right when it comes to the determination of love - or lust:
"But lovers laugh at [six-] shooters,
And the old she-devil, too
I said I'd have my darling,
If she didn't prove untrue."
Young Red borrowed his father's old buggy and "Jim's .41," bound to have his gal, one way or another.

The reference to a weapon firing a .41 caliber round is interesting and demonstrates the authenticy of the tale. Whoever wrote this song likely recalled the day when Remington produced such a cartridge, primarily for single-shot derringers. With only 13 grains of black powder pushing a 130-grain piece of lead, the ballistics were far from impressive. In fact, one source says the bullet fired at a tree from only 15 feet was likely to merely bounce off.

Anyway, thus armed, Red "started down to Kern's, thinking I would have some fun." The songster was not otherwise specific as to whether Kern's was a business establishment or someone's residence, perhaps that of his betrothed and her feisty mother.

Wherever he was headed, he intended to fight for his lady love if need be.
"I'm not one to craw-fish
When I am in a tight,
I said, 'I'll have my angel
And not be put to flight."
So on to Kern's he went, "with the devil in my head." His intention, he sang, was to have his darling, "or leave the old folks dead." (Lee's father is not mentioned in the song, but he must have disapproved of the planned union as well.)

But before lead filled the air, Red got a lucky, perhaps life-saving break. In confronting Lee's parents, particularly Mrs. Lee, the cowboy learned that the apple of his eye indeed, "had another man."

Red gave back the brown-eyed lass's love letters, "pressed her to my aching heart, kissed her a last farewell," and "bid her a fond adieu."

Of course, he was still annoyed at the turn of events. He "prayed a permanent prayer…to send her Ma to hell." (Even if she had actually done him a favor.)

Not only that…
"I sold my cows to J.M.G.,
My corn to K.M.P.
And cursed the day I first met
That darling angel, Lee."

Who knows if the writer of this song ever spent any time in Bell County, or if the people were real. But the use of proper names and initials is suggestive that the story was indeed based on someone's sad experience. For sure, even if the whole thing was made up, the universality of the circumstances rings in the song far truer than that gal "Brown-eyed Lee."



© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - October 29, 2015 Column

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