“I’m dressed as a cow puncher from the 1880s or 1890s who’s just got paid and been in town for about thirty minutes,” laughed Rex Rideout, in reference to his unusual costume at Friday’s concert in the library. Throughout the night, Rideout presented Mines with poems and songs sung by the cowboys more than a hundred years ago.
Rideout himself is an historical singer who plays fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and several other instruments. All of the instruments played by Rideout are actual antique instruments from the time period his music represents. His guitar, for example, is from the 1890’s and is known as a parlor guitar, due to its small size and its regular appearances in the parlor during social events. Rideout also explained that, despite the current popularity of the instrument, the guitar was not preferred among cow punchers until after the turn of the twentieth century. Instead, the primary instrument in the late nineteenth century was the banjo. Rideout’s personal banjo, a classical banjo known as “The Universal Favorite,” also originates from about 1890 and was designed to be played in banjo orchestras, which “were what started before mandolin orchestras, which is what started before glee clubs.”
In addition to his banjo and guitar, Rideout brought a decorated fiddle made in Germany from about the same time period. This particular fiddle was notable for its unusual tuning knobs. He acquired the fiddle from a friend who had had it sitting in a closet collecting dust for nearly forty years. Fiddles need to be played regularly to maintain sound quality, so Rideout had to play the fiddle a lot before its original sound was restored.
Many of Rideout’s songs are poems set to common music of the corresponding era, as the poems were not initially set to music or the original tunes have been lost. One of the writers Rideout drew from heavily was Badger Clark. Clark began writing poetry upon moving to Tombstone, Arizona, for his health and later submitted his work to his step-mother in the Dakotas, who published it in “Pacific Monthly” (now “Sunset”) magazine. The poems were extremely successful and encouraged Clark to begin a career writing poetry. One of Clark’s poems that Rideout read was entitle “Bacon,” and was a simple ode to the breakfast meat.
Jack Thorp, a New Mexican cowhand, was another source Rideout used. Thorp’s love for poetry originated around the turn of the twentieth century, when he first began compiling cowboy poems and writing a few of his own. By 1908, he had printed 2,000 copies of his first collection of cowboy poems and songs, featuring about twenty-five original pieces. The second, expanded edition featured about a hundred pieces and was published in 1921 by Houghton Mifflin. As a tribute, Rideout performed one of the Thorp pieces, entitled “Frijole Beanses,” celebrating both the writer and, as the title suggests, beans.
Most recently, Rideout had the opportunity to share his love for old western songs with the cinematic world as he appeared in the film “Cowboys vs. Aliens” as a rustic fiddler. He says he greatly enjoyed working on the film and was impressed by the level of historical accuracy in the production.