Jack Thorp, cowboy poet, songwriter, and folklorist, was born Nathan Howard Thorp in New York City on June 10, 1867, the son of Albert Gallatin Thorp and Mary (Leland) Thorp. Nathan Howard “Jack” Thorp is best-known for his work collecting and transcribing songs and poems from Texas cowboy camps during the late 1800s.
Through his publications of cowboy songs, Thorp introduced the American public to the music of the working cowboy. Thorp transcribed and published such songs as “A Home on the Range,” “The Dying Cowboy (Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie),” and “The Cowboy’s Lament (Streets of Laredo),” which became a part of popular culture by the 1930s. Thorp’s pioneering efforts in collecting cowboy songs and his work as a cowboy poet himself inspired others, including musicologist blues singer–songwriter Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter.
Jack Thorp became interested in the folklore and musical culture of the cowboy at an early age. Since Texas cowboys came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, including Anglo, Mexican, African American, German, Czech, and Native American, their music reflected a diverse range of influences. For a relatively short period, from the close of the Civil War in 1865 until the 1880s, the cowboy played a crucial role in the long cattle drives that transported beef northward from Texas into the Midwest to help feed the growing Industrial Revolution in the northeastern United States. However, by the late 1880s railroad companies had extended their rail lines down into Texas, ending the need for the massive cattle drives. Although the cowboy’s importance to the national economy began to decline by the late nineteenth century, his songs remained popular on ranches and in cow camps well into the twentieth century.
By collecting and preserving this newly-emerging genre, Jack Thorp helped fuel a public fascination for cowboys and their frontier lifestyle. Many of these songs would help inspire the “singing cowboy” movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Such songs as “A Home on the Range” did much to promote and perpetuate the romantic image of the cowboy as a mythical figure in the history of the American West.
Born into a prominent family in New York City, Jack Thorp originally sought a degree in civil engineering from Princeton University. However, he soon bored of his academic pursuits and moved west in 1886 at the age of nineteen to try his hand at mining in Kingswood, New Mexico. For a few years, Thorp bought and traded ponies and shipped them back East as polo horses. He also served as superintendent of the Enterprise Mining Company. However, he eventually became involved in the cattle business, as both a rancher and a cowboy. In 1903 Thorp married Annette “Blarney” Hesch, whose father was a sheep rancher from Palma, New Mexico.
Thorp worked at a variety of jobs during his life, including a stint as State Cattle Inspector. In fact, he once proclaimed that he had “been everything but a telegraph operator or a preacher.” He spent the majority of his life in the cattle business, working as a cowhand and running his own herd until the Great Depression of the 1930s. With profits from the cattle business falling, Thorp and his wife moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they lived until his sudden death on June 4, 1940.
Throughout his life, Thorp maintained an interest in documenting the songs sung by genuine working cowboys, because he believed that most academics lacked experience “in the saddle” and, therefore, were less qualified to capture the true character of the cowboy. He began collecting songs in earnest in 1889, after hearing a group of black cowboys singing range songs near Roswell, New Mexico, and traveled through New Mexico and Texas. In 1908 Thorp self-published his most famous book, Songs of the Cowboys, the original version of which was not sold in newsstands. Instead, Thorp sold it at cow camps, roundups, and fairs. An expanded version of Songs of the Cowboys was republished by Houghton Mifflin in 1921 and included more than 100 songs, twenty-five of which were written by Thorp himself. Thorp’s best-known composition, “Little Joe the Wrangler,” followed the melody of the popular folk tune “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane.”
Other works by Thorp include Tales of the Chuck Wagon (1926), the posthumous Pardner of the Wind (1945), as well as various articles written for the Cattleman, the New Mexico Magazine, and Atlantic Monthly. Thorp’s work was vital in helping preserve the music of the American Cowboy. Largely because of Thorp, dozens of cowboy songs remain prominent in popular culture. Thorp’s effort to document cowboy music has played an important role in both the fact and fiction surrounding the mythical figure of the Texas cowboy.