would song writers do without being able to fall back on laments of
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.
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
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."
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
|"I'm not one
When I am in a tight,
I said, 'I'll have my angel
And not be put to flight."
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
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
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
- October 29, 2015 Column
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