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Buffalo Bill's Cowboy Band
By Stephen Smith
May 20, 1997

Buffalo Bill's Cowboy Band

ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO this spring, Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show set out from Omaha, Nebraska on its annual tour of the United States. Cody's private train was packed with 500 performers, stage hands and musicians. The show stopped in cities across the Midwest and the East Coast. Audiences watched thrilling displays of trick riding and sharp-shooting, and the entire show was set to inspiring music by Buffalo Bill's cowboy band. Now, a college professor from Wyoming has created a compact disc that ­ for the first time in a hundred years ­ resurrects the music of the cowboy band.

Feature Story
Audio and transcript of Stephen Smith's story, "Buffalo Bill's Cowboy Band."

Musical Selections
Three selections from "Wild West Music of Buffalo Bill's Cowboy Band," performed by the Americus Brass Band. (RealAudio)


Click for audio Buffalo Bill's Cowboy Band, Stephen Smith
RealAudio 14.4, RealAudio 28.8

Buffalo Bill Cody Stephen Smith: Day after day, show after show, Buffalo Bill galloped into the arena on his steed accompanied by a familiar tune by George Frederick Handel called "See, the conquering hero comes."

(Handel Music rolls)

Now hang on. Is Baroque music the right soundtrack for a cowboy?

(Music up full)

Perhaps Baroque is OK when "improved" by snare drums and cymbals and is played by cowboys. Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show swelled with this stirring, patriotic music. The act debuted in 1883 and toured for three decades, capitalizing on America's romantic ideal of its freshly-tamed western frontier. And to audiences, Cody was more than a windblown guy who got his nickname shooting the American bison to near-extinction. According to historian Paul Fees, Cody was America's ideal man: a courtly, chivalrous, self-made fellow who could shoot a gun and charm a crowd.

Paul Fees: In Europe he was called "Nature's Nobleman" because he was someone who had grown up on the frontier yet represented all of those best aspects of civilization.

SS: Acts such as Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull were set to music by the 21 piece Cowboy Band. Each musician wore a wide-brimmed hat and studded gun holster…though few if any of the players had ever punched cattle, much less shot a bad guy. Music Professor Mike Masterson of Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming studied the cowboy band and its music.

Mike Masterson: My great-grandmother in 1896 when she was 14 years old saw the Wild West Show in Marion, Indiana. She talked about it the rest of her life. She died when she was 93 years old.

SS: In grandma's day, Cody was the kind of western icon that John Wayne is today and brass bands were equivalent to today's pop radio.

MM: Every one would have cared about bands a hundred years ago. There were popular songs of course and you could buy sheet music but there really weren't recordings. And so the traveling bands and community bands a hundred years ago brought the popular songs to the small towns and the large cities of America.

SS: Masterson lives near Buffalo Bill's namesake town of Cody, Wyoming. He studied the Cowboy Band for ten years, wanting to compile a program of Wild West sheet music for contemporary brass bands. But the show's original tune book had vanished.

MM: …so what I did is start with looking at old programs and seeing what tunes were mentioned there and then looking bat newspaper articles.. And fortunately the reporters would often write down the pieces that were played during parts of the show.

SS: Masterson rifled historical collections from the Library of Congress in Washington to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. He hired the Americus Brass Band, a nationally-known ensemble that plays in authentic period style to make an 18-track CD of Cowboy Band tunes. Historians say the Wild West show helped engrave a sentimental, heroic picture of the west into America's culture memory. The music left its own legacies.

(Music: Star Spangled Banner)

SS: Masterson says, for example, that the Wild West Show helped spread a popular song of the time called the Star Spangled Banner and the future use of that tune at big public events like baseball games.

MM: Buffalo Bill, for over 30 years, opened every show with the Star Spangled Banner. John Phillip Sousa also would begin to use that piece. And so with several bands out there traveling around, they really set the standard. Finally, when the Star Spangled Banner became national anthem in 1931, you can attribute it these touring acts like the Wild West Show for establishing the practice.

SS: The Cowboy Band played popular songs and tunes composed exclusively for the Wild West Show. One original was "The Passing of the Red Man." It probably helped create that caricature of Indian music that thumped through so many Hollywood westerns a generation later.

(Music: "Passing of the Red Man")

SS: In the 1890s, The Wild West show and it's Cowboy Band toured Europe and were a smash hit, performing for royalty and commoners alike. Historian Paul Fees of the Buffalo Bill Center says the band made music which evoked the sturdy, clever, and virtuous character of the American frontiersman. And, the band had great chops.

PF: By all accounts the cowboy band was really tight, really disciplined, a band with incredible stamina, even in Europe where military bands were all the rage in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

SS: The Wild West Show went bankrupt in 1913. What had been celebrated as an authentic slice of the old west grew to be seen as a threadbare, mawkish carnival. A show filled with live elk and buffalo, with Indian teepees and bronco bucks, no longer appealed to Americans.

PF: Indians were safely on the reservations, the Indian wars were long gone, and finally the whole nature of the outdoor show business was changing. At the time The Wild West Show got started in 1880, the outdoor show, the circus, the wild west show, the dog and pony show were in their hey day. It was the golden age of the circus. By 1913 those things were giving way to baseball games and football games.

SS: Bill Cody died four years after the show folded. Now, 80 years after that, this new CD based on the Cowboy Band's music revives the sense of genuine enthusiasm and old west hokum that fueled Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.


From the compact disc "Wild West Music of Buffalo Bill's Cowboy Band," selected by Music Professor Mike Masterson of Northwest College, Powell, Wyoming, and performed by the Americus Brass Band.

Click for audio Buffalo Bill's Equestrian March, William Paris Chambers
RealAudio 14.4, RealAudio 28.8
Click for audio Buffalo Bill's Farewell March and Two Step, William Sweeny
RealAudio 14.4, RealAudio 28.8
Click for audio Tenting tonight on the Old Campground, Walter Kittredge *
RealAudio 14.4, RealAudio 28.8

* A popular Civil War tune, said to by Cody's favorite song.

For compact discs, or for further infromation, contact: Museum Selections, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming 82414 or 1-800-533-3838.

About Stephen Smith