O’Neal, Waldo Lafayette (1908–1980)

By: Gary Hartman

Type: Biography

Published: June 23, 2015

Updated: August 4, 2020


O’NEAL, WALDO LAFAYETTE (1908–1980). Waldo Lafayette O’Neal, songwriter, was born in Jacksboro, Texas, on September 29, 1908, the son of William and Estella L. O’Neal. Waldo O’Neal is best-known for having written several songs that were recorded by legendary country singer Jimmie Rodgers.

Waldo O’Neal was born into a ranching family and grew up riding horses and working cattle. At the age of seven, he and his family relocated to a ranch just outside of Hedley, Texas. By the time he was fifteen, O’Neal began writing songs based on his experiences as a working cowboy. His first two compositions, “The Maverick” and “The Blue Roan,” were ballads celebrating the cowboy lifestyle. O’Neal was twenty years old when he wrote the song “Hobo Jim’s Last Ride,” about a dying “railroad bum.” O’Neal’s sister liked the song and encouraged her brother to submit it to Jimmie Rodgers, who was the most popular country singer of the late 1920s and early 1930s. O’Neal mailed the song to Rodgers in care of the Victor Talking Machine Company. Rogers was impressed with the young songwriter’s work and agreed to record the tune in 1929, after changing the title to “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride.”

“Hobo Bill’s Last Ride” was a hit for Rodgers, and he encouraged O’Neal to submit more of his compositions. Rodgers recorded several Waldo O’Neal songs, including “Pistol Packin’ Papa,” “My Time Ain’t Long,” and “Dreaming With Tears in My Eyes,” which Rodgers recorded shortly before he died of tuberculosis in 1933. Years later, such popular country singers as Hank Snow and Merle Haggard would record some of O’Neal’s tunes as part of their Jimmie Rodgers tribute albums.

Despite their successful musical collaboration, Waldo O’Neal never actually met Jimmie Rodgers, although he came close to doing so. On May 3, 1930, O’Neal’s parents encountered Rodgers by accident prior to his performance that evening in Clarendon, Texas. Rodgers expressed his enthusiasm for their son’s songwriting skills and asked that he attend his next concert in Panhandle, Texas. O’Neal, who was living in Amarillo at the time, drove to Panhandle to meet the popular “Blue Yodeler.” However, Rodgers had been called away on business, so he and O’Neal were unable to meet. Nevertheless, Rodgers wrote several letters to O’Neal expressing his gratitude and encouraging the young songwriter to submit more of his tunes for recording.

Waldo O’Neal moved to Pampa, Texas, in 1934, before permanently relocating to Clovis, New Mexico, in 1937, where his parents then lived. In Clovis, O’Neal worked as a carpenter and operated a used car dealership, along with two service stations. After Merle Haggard and others recorded some of his tunes in the 1960s and 1970s, O’Neal received additional songwriting royalties. O’Neal, who never married, died of cardiac arrest on August 22, 1980, in Clovis, New Mexico, and was buried alongside his parents in the Mission Garden of Memories Cemetery in Clovis. His brother, “Red,” inscribed the following words on Waldo O’Neal’s gravestone−“Songwriter: Hobo Bill’s Last Ride.”

 Don McAlavy, ed., “Those Who Made the Music” in Clovis and Outlying Areas, 1907-2004: Clovis Music History (Clovis, New Mexico: City Printing, Inc., 2005). Waldo O’Neal, Star Dust of the Plains (Clovis, New Mexico: Self-published, 1957). Nolan Porterfield, Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America's Blue Yodeler (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979, 1992; Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007). Jimmie Rodgers’s personal letters to Waldo O’Neal, photocopies provided by Don DeHay of Amarillo, Texas. Trenton Tribune (Trenton, Texas), July 13, 1978.

Categories:

  • Music
  • Genres (Country)

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Gary Hartman, “O’Neal, Waldo Lafayette,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 21, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/oneal-waldo-lafayette.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

June 23, 2015
August 4, 2020

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