From time to time, I have commented in these pages on songs that pertain to Colorado – songs like “Get Out of Denver” and “Colorado Christmas” and “On the Natural.” As you know, there are hundreds of songs written and recorded about our state, and seemingly hundreds of people have compiled lists of the best or worst of those songs. I have decided to join them, and spend the next several weeks looking at what I consider some of the quintessential Colorado Songs. This post is the first installment, and I will begin with “Colorado Trail.”
Some of you may know the Colorado Trail as a 486 mile long hiking trail extending from Denver to Durango, at average elevation of over 10,000 feet; but that wasn’t completed
until 1987, and this song is much older. It seems that the trail referred to in the song was a spur of the Great Western Trail that ran from near San Antonio, Texas to Ogallala, Nebraska, and which ran roughly parallel to the more famous Chisolm Trail. The Colorado Trail was not well known or much used, but it extended all the way to Montana. All of these trails were used to move cattle to towns located on major rail lines, and all fell into disuse as railroads expanded their service into cattle country. The Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad (C.B.&Q.R.R.) essentially followed the Colorado Trail as it brought rail service to Greeley and Northeastern Colorado in 1887.
An interesting thing about this song is that its composers are usually listed as Carl Sandburg and Lee Hays. Today, we think of Carl Sandburg as the biographer of Abraham Lincoln and the poet who gave us “Chicago” as the “hog butcher for the world.” However, long before he ever published any book, Sandburg was a traveling salesman and political organizer who traveled across much of the country. Somewhere around 1910, he acquired a guitar and found that he could attract larger crowds by singing folk songs in addition to reciting poetry and plying his wares.
As he visited different parts of the country he wrote down songs that he heard
along the way, eventually publishing the collected songs as The American Songbag in 1927. He described the book as “a ragbag of strips, stripes, and streaks of color from nearly all ends of the earth. The melodies and verses presented here are from diverse regions, from varied human characters and communities, and each is sung differently in different places. … It is an All-American affair, marshaling the genius of thousands of original singing Americans.” Included in the book were standards such as “Midnight Special,” “Barbara Allen,” Frankie and Johnny,” “Old Gray Mare,” “John B Sails” (which the Beach Boys recorded as “Sloop John B”) – and, of course, “Colorado Trail,” or at least the first verse thereof.
In describing this song, Sandburg wrote simply:
A boss wrangler brought a car of ponies to Duluth, Minnesota. The next day, after brave stunt riding, he was laid in a hospital bed with “ruptures on both sides.” He told the surgeon Dr. T. L. Chapman, in a soft, forgiving voice, “That was a terribly bad hoss not only throwed me, but he trompled me.” Out of past years this rider had, Dr. Chapman’s examination disclosed, “bones of both upper and lower legs broken, fractures of collar bone on both sides, numerous fractures of both arms and wrists, and many scars from lacerations and tramplings, the bones knit any way that God and Nature let them heal.” As his strength came back he sang across the hospital ward in a mellowed tenor voice. And they always called for more. One song was The Colorado Trail remembered by Dr. Chapman as here set down.
The only lyrics he mentioned were:
Eyes like the morning star,
Cheeks like a rose,
Laura was a pretty girl,
God Almighty knows.
Weep, all ye little rains,
Wail, winds, wail,
All along, along. along
The Colorado Trail.
The other “composer” of “Colorado Trail” is Lee Hays, a singer and songwriter who was also a social activist. His activism and compassion for the common man was said to have begun when in 1919 or 1920, at about the age of five, he witnessed the lynching of African-American men in Arkansas; and his interest in folk music was fostered by his uncle, the eminent folklorist, Vance Randolph.
There were two major folk music “revivals” in the United States – in the early 1940s and in the late 50s and early 60s, and Hays was actively involved in both. In 1940, he joined with Pete Seeger and Millard Lampell to form the Almanac Singers, a group which rather fluidly included, from time to time, the likes of Woody Guthrie, Josh White and Bess Lomax Hawes. That group disbanded during World War II, and after the War, Hays formed the Weavers with Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. Hays either wrote or co-wrote many well known songs, including, “If I Had a Hammer,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and “Wasn’t That a Time.”
I cannot tell you exactly how Hays and Sandburg may have worked together, but Hays certainly knew of American Songbag, which had become a classic, and Sandburg has written that folklorist Alan Lomax took Sandburg to see the Weavers in Greenwich Village, after which Sandburg wrote: “The Weavers are out of the grass roots of America. I salute them…. When I hear America singing, the Weavers are there.”
Although “Colorado Trail” was not a well known folk song, it was recorded in the 1940s by Burl Ives (whose rendition can be heard here) and others. The Weavers recorded it during their sessions with Decca Records between 1949 and 1952. These recordings, as well as others, have added material to that collected in Sandburg’s book. It seems that the added verses sung by the Weavers are those attributed to Hays. You can hear the Weavers version, with Hays handling lead vocals and Pete Seeger playing recorder (rather than his usual banjo) on YouTube by clicking here.
The most commercially successful – and one of the nicest – version of the song was done by the Kingston Trio in 1960. Here is that recording:
By Carl Sandburg and Lee Hays
Weep, all ye little rains. Wail, winds, wail. All along, along, along the Colorado Trail.
Eyes like the morning star, cheeks like the rose, Laura was a pretty girl everybody knows.
Laura was a laughin’ girl, joyful in the day. Laura was my darling girl. Now she’s gone away.
Sixteen years she graced the Earth and all of life was good. Now my life lies buried ‘neath a cross of wood.
All along, along, along the Colorado Trail.
Traditional and © WALTON MUSIC CORPORATION
For an index of the Colorado Songs in this series, please click here.