This weeks TOTW is longtime personal favorite, having ranched and rodeoed years ago in my younger (way younger) days. Roscoe Holcomb (actually Rosko Halcomb) has been one of my banjo heroes for close to forty years. I always hesitate to sing one of his songs, or imitate his playing, because his voice and banjo are one of the greatest treasures of old-time music in my opinion.. His versions of “The Hills of Mexico” are masterpiece performances.
There are tons of versions of this song online, most agree that it is a variation or parody of the late 19th Century tune “The Buffalo Skinners” that appeared in John Lomax’s Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads in 1918. A variation titled “Boggus Creek” was also collected by W.P. Webb and first published in 1923. Woody Guthrie’s version is an all time favorite.
All of the songs concern a group of cowboys or buffalo hunters hired out to cowboy/hunt, and the trials and tribulations that they encounter on their journey.
Rosko’s is a very truncated three verse version of the song, which itself is most generally agreed to be variant of the English folk broadside ballad “Canada-I-O” dating to before 1839, in which a young women disguises herself as a man to find her lover out on the sea, is discovered and threatened with drowning by the crew, until the Captain of the ship saves her and marries her.
Here are a couple of my favorite versions of the song:
Chris Coole & The Lonesome Ace Stringband clawhammer version https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RDgdVGAYlo
Elizabeth LaPrelle (also clawhammer) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAwKeNUdQng
The Lomax version was recited by Bye Hutchins, so I have kind of mixed/matched the verses in my version...
When I’s inOld Fort Worth back in eighteen eighty three
Some old Mexican cowboy came stepping up to me,
Says now how you young fellow, how would you like to go
And spend another season on the Hills of Mexico
Its having no employment, back to him did say
It’s according to your wages, according to your pay.
Says I’ll pay you good wages, it’s up to you to go
If you spend another season on the Hills of Mexico
It’s when the time was over it’s back to home did go
How the bells they did ring, the whistles they did blow
How the bells they did ring, the whistles they did blow
In that God-forsaken country on the Hills of Mexico
Bye Hutchins via John Lomax
The Rio Grande was salty as brine-and alkali too,
Ben Johnson led the way, and you bet he put us through.
The way the mosquitoes and buffalo gnats did work, it was not slow,
There is no worse hell upon earth than the hills of New Mexico.
Well, now the trip is ended and we reached Ben Johnson's farm,
The first old bronco I tried to break, by God, he broke my arm.
While punchin' the damned old longhorns, our lives, we had no show,
There was Indians to pick us off in the hills of New Mexico.
Now the round-up's over and Ben Johnson would not pay,
He said we'd been so extravagant that he was in debt that day.
But we showed him about the punchers, that old bankrupt would not go,
So we left Ben Johnson's bones to bleach in the hills of New Mexico.
Now the summer's ended and homeward we are bound
And in this cursed country we will never more be found;
Go home to our wives and sweethearts and tell others not to go
To that God-forsaken country in the hills of New Mexico.
I tune the banjo a half step down from fDGCD and played in thumb lead. Rosko tuned the fifth string down to “f” to play this song, a nice variant of Sawmill tuning. The actual tuning is eC#F#BC#...
Jan Olov has a nice tab for the tune in the Hangout tab archives here: https://www.banjohangout.org/tab/browse.asp?m=detail&v=19899
Unlike a lot of old-time tunes, this one is best played utilizing an “F” chord shape with the middle finger on the fourth string third fret, the index finger on the third string second fret, and the ring finger on the first string third fret, where it pretty much stays for the entirety of the song. The song is played on those fretted notes, with one reach up to the first string fifth fret with the pinky (or a slide) in lines 2 & 3 of the verses, and a second string second fret note as well. It’s pretty easy to figure out… give it a try and sing out!
Per Janet's request, here's an old rodeo pic of me from Moscow Idaho 1983...
Edited by - RG on 08/16/2019 18:27:10
There's a nice recording of this tune on this album of music by the Renegades (on the Field Recorder's Collective), featuring Richie Stearns:
Adam Hurt called my attention to this album recently, although we were talking primarily of the fiddler, James Leva. Having Richie is a bonus, although his playing is fairly low in the mix.
Edited by - mjt0229 on 08/16/2019 11:50:34
Nice one, RG, really enjoyed every version posted. It also reminded me that I tend to forget about Chris Coole sometimes but he's a great player and I really like his Lonesome Ace String Band. Also nice to see some Two Finger, good job.
I hope someone will post the extra verses Elizabeth LaPrelle sings. I do the Buffalo Skinner version in Bm out of the key of D tuned dADF#A which is like playing Em out of G tuning. Gotta love the stark scene of those bones bleaching under the hot sun. Thanks! banjered
I think there's an old thread here that has Elizabeth's lyrics listed... but I couldn't find it!
Thanks all for the nice comments... appreciate it.
Great performance. And you avoided what we call "the Rosko trap" by not trying to imitate his voice(impossible)or syncopation(almost impossible). Your version is original with a nod to the master. Made my evening!
Thanks for another outstanding song and performance, RG. I like the rodeo photo -- what a good memory. High school rodeo? Glad you came through it all in one piece!
After listening to Roscoe Holcomb, Bruce Molsky, Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby, here's my try. I like the song enough to ask my husband to learn it and add to our repertoire. I never would have paid it much attention without TOTW. Lyrics are often hard for me to hear well without seeing them in writing, too.
I see in John Lomax's book that Teddy Roosevelt commended his song collecting work in 1910 because "the native ballad is speedily killed by competition with the music hall songs; the cowboys become ashamed to sing the crude homespun ballads...of far less interesting compositions to the music hall singers. It is therefore a work of real importance to preserve permanently this unwritten ballad literature of the back country and the frontier."
Hills of Mexico expresses the challenges of the cowboy's work and is as admirable and empathy-evoking to me as today's construction and farm workers, miners, and mechanics laboring in difficult conditions, extreme weather or for low pay.
Sure enjoyed your version Janet, as always very nice!
That was NIRA college rodeo, University of Idaho... rode two years in PRCA Columbia River and Sierra Circuit as well before joining the Corps.
Couldn't agree with you more about the song, it is a good one. Cowboys definitely work for short pay, but it is quite the life when you're a young man, not many things better than to see the world between the ears of a good horse...
Edited by - RG on 08/18/2019 00:32:48
I posted recording of this one a few weeks back I didn't absolutely hate. This is mostly based off Roscoe's version, played in a regular overhand/clawhammer style with a sneaky upstroke thing in there somewhere that I don't think has a name yet. Plus some ratty singing, will probably re-write/re-arrange some verses now that this thread has revealed so many versions to me. Reposting it in this thread at the suggestion of the lovely JanetB, whose playing always inspires. Cheers!
Edited by - Vetsorn on 08/19/2019 12:57:20
That's a real nice version Vetsorn, thanks for posting!
So many great tunes/songs to learn. A while back I made myself a list of songs & tunes to learn that are "cowboy." This one recently got on that list and I think I'm now going to move it up towards the top.
Love reading the history associated with the TOTW.
Thanks a lot, RG!
As I've now shamelessly promoted myself, let me shine the spotlight on another and add one more version to the list. Her name is Meredith Moon, and I think she deserves way more attention than she gets. Her whole youtube channel is gold.
I love Meredith Moon's version of this one!
I asked for LaPrelle's lyrics. They can be found on the Chris Coole YouTube above embedded in one of the reply's below the video. banjered
oh, wow! I absolutely love this song. It's so interesting to hear all these different versions. That Meredith Moon version is amazing. What an inspiration!
It was my understanding that Roscoe Holcomb's singing style comes from the lined-out hymn style of singing. Therefore I was thinking of it as a style of singing I could learn to do, as well as a style of banjo playing. Though I'll never have his exact voice (I'm a woman among other things), lined-out singing like that is meant to be accessible. Am I complete off base? Would it just come off as poor imitation?
Rosko's high lonesome sound is pretty unique, I say just develop your own style incorporating what you want to incorporate... Rosko was just being Rosko after all...
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