By Eryn Brothers, Staff Writer
America’s ideas, teenage nation that it is, have changed rather drastically over time. Its weird, gestating melting pot holds on to certain tenants as strictly “American,” from hamburgers to cherry pie, lover’s lanes and cars. However, no icon is more “American” than the cowboy.
This hyper-masculine representation of the American dream has been inspected and dissected many a time: a lone man searching for either peace or a dream, the stability of freedom guided by an unshakable set of morals, all bedecked in leather and grit. It’s pretty sexy stuff when you put all the hard work aside.
As cowboy culture flexes its muscular hand over the heart of pop culture and the American idiom once again, it’s hard not to see the homoeroticism that pervades its history. It’s not a stretch, what with all the tight clothes and fringe.
When I was growing up, I spent some time going to school in a small town that had a population of about 2,000. It was a farm town. Homecoming queens were all 4H club and FFA princesses. Kids usually woke up around four or five in the morning to help around the house and farm before being bussed to school. It was here that I first heard the term, “goat roper.”
“Goat roper” is a most “country” insult. It suggests that you are so inept that you’re only smart enough to take care of goats. It also connotes boots without a stacked heel or pointed toe – goat-roper boots – that were usually covered in a slurry of goat crap and mud.
It also, I found out later, carried the connotation of being, and I quote, “a faggot.”
Why? Part of this could be the fact that in my home state, Arkansas, there weren’t many anti-animal abuse laws at the time, so if someone got caught for “horse theft” one had to assume that it wasn’t just the stalls getting nasty. Being a goat roper not only meant you were stupid, it meant that you liked to fuck goats – and other dudes.
I shit you not.
Point being, as long as there have been cowboys, there have been people making fun of queer ones, and while a lasso and a “yee doggie!” have a lot to do with that, it also has a great deal to do with the work required of the job. What could be considered one of the first queer country songs, “The Lavender Cowboy,” very much started out this way.
To give a cultural context, by the early 1900’s, America had started creating its first cities after many years of being wild. Twenty years later, the ideas of the West were reemerging into the country’s heart quite nostalgically, and with nostalgia comes humor.
“The Lavender Cowboy”
Enter Harold Hersey, author of the poem that would later become the first queer country song in 1923. “The Lavender Cowboy” is a poem about an unmanly cowboy who ends up being a hero:
He was only a lavender cowboy
And the hairs on his chest were but two
He wanted to be a real hero
And do as the real heroes do
Erbecini’s and other hair lotions
He would rub on his chest every night
But when he awoke in the morning
Not a new hair was in sight
He fought for Nellie, your honor
And he cleaned out a whole robber’s nest
He died with his six guns a smokin’
But with only two hairs on his chest
Well they buried him out on the prairie
Where the coyotes howl every night
And in the place where his bones lay
Two cacti have grown into sight
It doesn’t seem that queer at first, right? Just a cowboy with only two hairs on his chest that saves the girl and gets the honor of being buried in the prairie with cacti commemorating his passing. Much like the goat ropers, the only thing queer here is the connotation. The connotation being, of course, that a dearth of masculinity equates to being gay. So, according to this formulation, what makes “The Lavender Cowboy” gay are three things: his affection for self care, as a suggestion that he isn’t as physically capable as the other cowpokes; his inability to grow chest hair; and the use of the word “lavender.” (Also, just maybe, “two cacti” has a gay phallic connotation.)
The history of the word lavender in the LGBTQ+ community dates all the way back to Sappho and her love of young women with “violet tiaras.” After lavender color dye was made readily available in the 19th century, it was worn more pronouncedly with the rise of Aestheticism. Aestheticism battled the constraints of perceived Victorian wholesomeness and the smog of the Industrial revolution through its very European ideology of the pursuit of beauty, fashion, and art for art’s sake. Newspapers didn’t take too kindly to this philosophy, as it probably didn’t sell papers, and deemed the color “effeminate.” Victorian-era bad boy Oscar Wilde took to the color with a vengeance.
It was around the 1920’s that this color became a slur against homosexuality. Carl Sandburg wrote in his 1926 Lincoln biography that his male friendships had “a streak of lavender,” and the term took hold. Back in 1923, pre-Sandburg, the poem “Lavender Cowboy,” was perhaps simply a novelty, an obscure joke at queer people’s expense. But by the time the poem was put into song and sung by Ewen Hail for the 1927 movie musical, “Oklahoma Cyclone,” everyone knew what the word suggested. While it was a slur, it was also still a gag (pun intended) against homosexuality.
The song never became a popular hit, even with the burgeoning film industry’s love affair with the chiseling of the American Cowboy.
Then it was recorded again in 1937 by another Texan, Bob Skyles and His Sky Rockets. Their version leans very much into the mocking aspect of this piece – there are slide whistles and kazoos to match the smooth clarinet. It also spices up the poem by calling our lavender hero a “cream puff.”
In 1939, however, the song gained notoriety when it was recorded by Vernon Dalhart, a man who is considered to be one of the very first country stars – back before it was “Country and Western,” when it was still called “Hillbilly.”
Vernon Dalhart was born Marion Try Slaughter II in Jefferson, Texas, to a ranching family. It may have been here that he gained an affinity for that hillbilly sound that the record executives would be clamoring for. Being a naturally musical person, Dalhart studied at the Dallas Conservatory of Music, and eventually moved his family to New York in the early 1900’s to be closer to the epicenter of the performing arts. It was here that he came up with his stage name by taking two Texas towns (Vernon and Dalhart, whaddya think?) and became involved in productions from Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West,” to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.”
Dalhart’s life is a fascinating one. He auditioned for Thomas Edison himself — by singing into his ear horn! In 1914, Dalhart recorded his audition song, “Can’t Yo Heah Me Callin’, Caroline?” With his articulate tenor and Texas accent, the song was charming enough to remain in the Edison catalog until 1929.
Dalhart’s first hit was “The Wreck of Old ‘97” in 1924, when “mountain” “hillbilly” (or “hill billy”) and “folk” records were just taking off in the South. (Yes, country was also once called “folk.” That’s a tale for another time.) Dalhart ultimately left Edison for Victor, and they gave him both the A and B side (a rarity for singles during this time period), and so Dalhart’s biggest hits took off: “The Wreck of Old ‘97” and “The Prisoner’s Song.”
These are just a drop in the bucket, because this one man music industry, from the years of 1914 to 1939, recorded over 1,600 songs. There’s a reason he’s in the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame: he did a hell of a lot of work to popularize country music.
“The Lavender Cowboy” changed that. In 1939, for some reason lost to history, Vernon Dalhart recorded his version of the poem-turned-song, singing it exactly as it was written.
Dalhart’s version keeps the song’s bounce, but since he refused other additions, it comes off as more sincere than Skyles’. Whether it was the lack of cruelty, the burgeoning of censored radio or the implications of the word “lavender,” the song was considered a “blue” record, and was subsequently banned from rotation.
This was the end of Dalhart’s career. After the song was booted off the airwaves in 1940, Vernon left the industry and became a security guard (and a sometimes music teacher.) It would be easy to speculate on Vernon Dalhart’s sexuality, or why a homophobic novelty song would launch him into musical obscurity. Honestly, a lot of that is “who the hell knows,” as many Dalhart biographers won’t even mention “The Lavender Cowboy.”
But the song survived, regardless of this history and notoriety. Honey-voiced Burl Ives did a popular rendition of it, though he trimmed it of its saucier parts and the chorus. This version is probably the best-known.
Paddy Roberts recorded his own version, spiking the story by omitting the heroism and killing The Lavender Cowboy not only because of his lack of chest hair and the fact that he rode side saddle (as was common for women to do) but because he ruffled a bartender by stealing unmasculine strawberry gin. Cute.
Tom Robinson, an openly queer musician, covered the song, leaning into the skid and ramping up the camp, turning it into a simple delight. His version mocks yodeling while praising it, singing, “It sounds rather silly/ but every hillbilly/spends half his life singing that way,” as a wink and nod to the old trope that the people angriest at homosexuality are hiding in the closet themselves. As an old mountain academic once told me, “The ol’ ‘He who smelt it dealt it,’ parable.”
If there is anything to be learned from the tale of “The Lavender Cowboy,” it’s this: for many of us that grow up queer, navigating how to fit in to an American idiom so gated by heteronormativity while exploring our own wildness and freedoms, there will be a bully. And what’s the best way to fight a bully? Take away their sting. This is the beauty of camp. A canny ability to take something ordained as OK by society and make it larger than life. The ability to reclaim the joke and make it a badge of honor and a declaration of self expression. To take the innuendo and transform it into the regalia that we honor in knowing our history.
In its purest form, “The Lavender Cowboy” is the story of a man who decided to prove the world wrong by becoming a hero. Yeah, he’s been beat up along the way, banned, called names, but no matter the lyrics, he is still very much one of our own, and therefore, part of that bold, brazen American notion that we are allowed to explore our worlds and ourselves. That we are allowed to recreate an idiom and consecrate it into broader pastures and prairies. Connotations, cream puffs, and goat roping be damned.
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