Introduction to Delta Pieces: Northeast Louisiana Folklife

Map: Cultural Micro-Regions of the Delta, Northeast Louisiana

Working in the Delta

Making Music in the Delta

Telling Stories in the Delta

Delta Archival Materials

Brownie Ford: Lifelines of a Woods Cowboy

By Nicholas R. Spitzer


"Ford is Alive!"

Brownie Ford album cover.

In late Spring of 1981, I interviewed an eighty-year-old Louisiana Choctaw Indian man named Jim Toby living near Ebarb in the wooded northwestern hills along the Texas border. We sat in the kitchen while he spoke of his early years as a bow and arrow hunter, and then his bronc-riding days during the Depression. Toby drew deeply on a cigarette and blew slowly, expanding smoke rings into the dimly lit room, while his eyes remained focused out the window to a far off garden. I had been told that it was characteristic of such Choctaw elders to not look directly at a young person, particularly an outsider. The conversation turned to legendary men of the regional rodeo circuit and I asked Toby if he had ever met Brownie Ford. "Oh yes, he was a fine fellow, fine rider. . . . Part Comanche I believe," came the reply. "But it's sad how he died. His face was stepped on by a horse. It was in Texas, mid-forties. Port Arthur. They took him off to the hospital, he was in bad shape, but the show had to go on to another town. I guess he lingered and died. It was in the papers." I interrupted gingerly, "I just saw Brownie Ford two weeks ago in North Louisiana, about 150 miles from here. . . . We recorded some of his music." There was a moment of silence as Toby's last smoke ring grew and dispersed. He turned slowly and looked hard into my eyes. "Ford is alive?!" he quietly exclaimed.

"In the Brush, Only the Fit Survive"

Thomas Edison Ford was born in 1904 in the Indian Territory near what is now Gum Springs, Oklahoma. Of Comanche and British American ancestry, "Brownie," as he was called by his White playmates, learned elements of both cultures. English and American ballads were sung in his family and Native American medicines were used to treat ailing kinfolk. He jests whimsically about his dual cultural and ancestral inheritances, "Half my people came over on the Mayflower. . . and the other half was here to greet 'em when they got off the boat!" In spite of such good natured reflections on his personal history, he also recalls, "When a kid was one part Indian, well the Indians didn't want nothin' to do with him. The White folks didn't want nothin' to do with him, that's for sure. So he kinda grew up with a chip on his shoulder, got angry about everything. It was a thing you had to learn to live with and it took a while." Brownie's cowboy gentleman manner, seasoned by the years, conceals the personal pain of inequities and racial epithets endured in the frontier society of his upbringing.

Eighty-six years of travel, rodeoing, cowboy work, and showmanship in Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma--a region where the southeast meets the southwest--form the reflective arc of his life narrative. "I've literally watched transportation go from oxcart to jet propulsion in my short years." says Brownie. As a "yearling" (as he calls himself) in those oxcart days, Brownie first left the Indian Territory when the Ford family returned to the lumber camps of work. It was from his Anglo father that he learned guitar and some of his earliest ballads. However, the Calvinist social sensibilities of the era and this side of the family placed limits on Brownie's pursuit of music.

My father . . . didn't want me to fritter my time away with the guitar. It used to be understood that if a sharecropper moved from one place to another, when you drove up in front of the landlord's place, he would look that wagon over and if he seen a coon dog tied under that wagon, he might let you stay and rent land to you. But if he seen a fishing pole and a coon dog, he figured right then you wasn't about to do much work. You was goin' to hunt and fish a good deal. And if he seen a guitar, just drive on because you wasn't fixin' to get on land rented there. Now that's about the way a guitar picker rated when I was small.

Still the young Ford persisted with music, playing guitar, and singing at house parties and local jamborees.

"Someone would drag along a guitar, and someone would go get a fiddle. And about time it got a little after dark-thirty, we'd start dancing out in the yard. I was 15 or 16 then. Then when I was a little older they started having house dances. . . . Every once in a while someone'd get too much to drink, there'd be scraps, there'd be some old boy that wanted to be tough, and if he was in a man's house, well, three or four of us big old boys we'd say, "We think it's about time you go." Some of them got where they was totin' them old pistols and stuff--me among 'em. . . . It worked out pretty good mostly, but I've seen it get pretty salty.

In his youth, Ford also sang ringplay songs at community socials where boys and girls would move to the caller's commands:

Happy was the miller man who lived by himself, everyday he gained his wealth.
One hand on the hopper and the other in the sack.
Every time the mill turned, you turned right back.
We're sailing East, we're sailing West, sailing over the ocean.
Come along boys, if you want a pretty girl, you better be quick in motion.

During the workday, Brownie tended his family's few cattle, learning the skills of riding and roping in the free range brush country. He began to break horses at age eight starting with a "green pony" he rode to school. At age eleven he went back to Oklahoma to stay with his uncle, a rodeo promoter and horse trader who supplied local ranchers as well as the U.S. Army. By the following year, 1917, Army demand for horses had slackened due to the end of World War I. As a result, Brownie joined his uncle and a friend, Indian Joe Keith, on a Wild West show out of Alexandria, Louisiana, called the M. L. Clark Great Combined Wagon Show.

Young Brownie cared for the show's horses and mules and later graduated to trick riding and acting in "Buffalo Bill" type skits. These routines such as "The Hangin' of the Horse Thief," "Robbin' of the Stage Coach," and "Chase for the Bride" were satirical comments on frontier life and had great appeal to rural farm sensibilities. Over the course of the next two decades, Brownie performed as a bronc rider, musician, clown, escape artist, sharpshooter, and pitchman with outfits like the Montana Belle Wild West Show, Slim Jackson's Wild West, and Dr. Tate's Medicine Show.

The shows traveled by wagon to a succession of small towns across the South and Southwest. "We'd come to a little crossroad village and all the farmhands would be gathered around the local store and the post office, grist mill, cotton gin, or whatever it was. We'd stop and put them on a show. Pass a hat around." On circus shows, elephants were in tow. Brownie recalls trying to drive them across the Atchafalaya River in central Louisiana.

Those elephants hadn't been in a big strange water they could play in. They love water and they can wade in water and breathe through their trunk. They waded off in there and a man got a little boat to go across with them. And they reached out and turned the boat over with the fella, playing! And nobody got them out. You'd come up to them in a boat and you know they got pretty good pressure blowing that water. Turn around and blow that water in your face and knock your head off. They didn't get through with their playing until late that evening about feeding time. The circus was a day late.

Tales of animal and human hijinks abound in Brownie's memories from this period.

I'd get into a cage with an old lion called Barney. I knew that he couldn't hurt me no worse than possibly a wild calf. He weighed 400 pounds but he didn't have any killing teeth and his claws had been extracted. The story was that he had killed a trainer in his young days in Germany before he ever came to this country He was an old, old cat and he was a great showman, and when you took the sideboard off his cage, he knew the show was on and he'd roar. One time my boss said, "Well you like to ride in the cage with the lion, I'll fix it!" And he took a big old lock and locked me in there. And I had to ride all the way into town in a wagon . . . slow on a rough road. And that meat stuff they feed them, it gets in the cracks and crevices and rots and besides a lion does stink. I tell you that was the longest ride I think I ever made in my life.

Medicine show work was also part of Ford's experience in the 1920s. Such shows sold elixirs and "cure-all" tonics to rural audiences primarily in the fall of the year when families were flush with harvest monies. Brownie served as pitchman on occasion, but more often provided entertainment of the crowd between pitches with music, rope tricks, and escapes from locked cabinets with his hands tied. Songs in his repertoire like "County Fair," and "Jehoshaphat" have medicine show or minstrel origins.

During the Depression Brownie left wagon shows, medicine, and circuses to work on the rodeo circuit. This meant striking out on one's own, no longer under the watch (or financial protection) of the circus boss or show producer.

To go with rodeoin' was a touchy business They would advertise it as a contest rodeo and when you got here, traveling at your own expense, the man would look up in the grandstand and say, "Well we don't have enough people to pay for this show, so we're gonna make it a contract show and we're gonna give you boys two dollars a head to ride them saddle broncs, and a dollar to ride the bareback horses, and a dollar to ride the bulls, and if a couple of you want to, we'll pay as much as five dollars if they'll bulldog two steers."

We traveled a lot . . . and the rough string people didn't have any money and we depended on makin' a livin' from one spot to another and a lot of us rode freight trains from one rodeo town to another, and when you got well enough off to own a saddle, you throwed your saddle into that empty boxcar door. Then you had to get on, make no difference if the train was runnin' a little fast . . 'cause there goes your meal ticket. Oh, it was somethin.' I wouldn't take a million dollars for what I've seen and what I've learned; and I wouldn't do it over again for two million!

Danger is an everyday aspect of rodeo work. As Jim Toby's story reveals. Ford's recovery from apparently fatal injuries is part of his own legendary status. The scar from a steer-horn wound on Brownie's face also provides silent testimony to close shaves. Ford was reported dead in the local press on two occasions.

Some things that don't seem reasonable to walk away from have happened to me. I think it was in 1944, best I remember, I hung to a bucking horse at Port Arthur, Texas, and he drug me, stepped on me, kicked all my hair out. I mean he just like to not left me enough hair to comb. And I didn't remember anything about it all from the time my head hit the ground. What happened was the noseband on the halter had broke and this horse had a bad habit of running and when he'd blow up, he'd usually catch you with your feet in an odd position and stick your head in the ground. He broke a friend of mine's neck that way. You don't just take a 175 lb. man and whip him like a wet rope and expect him to get up and walk off unless he's in awfully good physical condition.

Rodeos, like medicine shows, also gave Ford a chance to play music in public. Indeed the content of rodeos, Wild West, and medicine shows often overlapped in the areas of musical performance and comedy skits. Brownie made his first dollars as a performer singing at a rodeo in Oklahoma. The producer overheard him singing with a friend in the parking lot and asked them up to the announcing platform to entertain. They each got five dollars for playing at intermission. Brownie also worked as a rodeo clown helping ensure the safety of bronc riders and doing horse tricks of his own.

Throughout Brownie's travels on the circus and rodeo circuits, he relied on cowboy work during the off-season. In particular, he worked with range cattle in the brush and thicket country of East Texas and North Louisiana. The wildness of such untended cattle, the difficulty of working in the woods and the challenge of wining cattle through swamps, have led to a pride in being a "woods cowboy" that supersedes even the usual rugged individualism attributed to cowboy labor. Regarding this swamp country work, which finds cowboys wearing rubber boots with spurs and working with Indian-bred Catahoula herding dogs, Brownie notes:

A woods cowboy is a man that can go in these thickets here. . . . They take these range cattle, most people say "wild cattle," they're not used to bein' handled. They live in these woods. . . . You don't put them up in a pasture and feed 'em. And they can make it, 'cause if the grass gets short, I have seen them old cows rare up just like a goat and get that moss down out of them trees and eat it. . . . They got to be tough to keep away the coyotes, cats, and wolves, and stuff. They are fierce, vicious mothers, them ol' cows are. . . . They never handle 'em anymore than they have to, that way they stay about half wild. Well they take those cattle, just him and his dogs, and put 'em in these pens. . . . I worked in Texas where they got a lot of brush country there too and I never did work on the open plains much, seemed to me there wasn't any challenge there. In the brush, only the fit survive!

In the 1940s and 1950s, rodeos, ranch work, and music carried Brownie throughout Texas, often working for a cattleman he refers to as "the old Colonel." He lived for short stretches in San Antonio, Beeville, Victoria, Cuero, Palestine, Jacksonville, Dallas, Houston, and Navasota, Texas, among other places. "I had an address, but mostly, if folks wanted to reach me, I'd tell 'em just to write 'Brownie Ford, Texas' and I'll get it." Despite owning his own herd at various times, Brownie didn't find business success with cattle. He notes today, "The smart cowman is the one with oil derricks for his cows to scratch on."

In 1960 Ford moved to Baton Rouge where he worked construction, drove trucks, and played music. For the next twelve years he sang three nights a week in the Cut-Rate Lounge, and also at clubs such as Waves and The Pirates' Den, on the northside, oil patch part of town. At The Pirates' Den he met his wife of 30 years, Cody Ford. In 1972 Brownie and Cody left the urban oilfield, honky-tonk scene and moved up to the tiny hamlet of Hebert, Louisiana, in the delta farm country south of Monroe. Again, Brownie sold and tended cattle, but successive floods in 1973-75 convinced him to get out of "woods cowboy" work for good. He opened a bait and food store on North Louisiana's Bayou LaFourche, where, until recently, he dispensed groceries, fishing tackle, beer, ice, and good advice, while keeping a hand in the cowboy crafts of his earlier days. "These days I bottom chairs (with cowhide), repair saddles, make somebody a bridle every once in a while, make saddle girds, stuff like that. I don't make a livin.' I live on what I make."

"Brownie Ford Headed for Washington D.C."

In 1980 Brownie Ford appeared at the Louisiana Arts and Folk Festival in nearby Columbia where he performed and presented cowboy crafts. Through the efforts of local arts supporters, Greg and Jorenda Stone and Jenny Crump, Brownie became part of the state's "Artist in School" program, and also began to travel around the state to other folk festivals. I recorded him at his home in Hebert in 1981. By 1983 Brownie's renown had widened and he was asked to sing and contribute cowboy lore for "The American Cowboy" exhibit at the Library of Congress. "Brownie Ford Headed for Washington D.C." was the front page headline in the local Caldwell Parish Watchman. Later that year Brownie joined eight other senior cowboy performers on the "Old Puncher's Reunion," also known as "The Cowboy Tour," produced by the National Council for the Traditional Arts. The tour traveled to towns throughout the Western states and Hawai'i and later to New England. In 1985 and 1986, Ford was invited to the Festival of American Folklife at the Smithsonian, and in 1987 he received a National Heritage Award from the Folk Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts. In the audience at the awards ceremony was Rick Massumi, a Washington lawyer who became determined to record Brownie. Massumi went on to produce the 1989 studio session made in Lafayette, Louisiana, which are heard on this recording.

Ballads and Honky-Tonk Songs

Audio Player
Barbara Allen performed by Brownie Ford from the CD Brownie Ford: Stories from Mountains, Swamps, & Honky-Tonks . ® © Flying Fish Records, 1990. Used by Permission.

The recordings combined here represent the range of Brownie Ford's life work, performance styles, and regional sensibilities. Ancient ballads and old cowboy songs are juxtaposed with comedy minstrel songs, ribaldry, and honky-tonk country music. It may shock some to hear a man sing a British ballad like "Barbara Allen" and a country standard like "Satisfied Mind" on the same recording. However, the differences in sources and styles are diminished if one considers Fords's own appreciation of the stories and sentiments involved. The emotional core of "Barbara Allen" rests on the pre-Enlightenment idea of dying for romantic love. It is what Brownie Ford as oral literacy critic calls "One of those all time love affairs." In addition to giving a thorough plot summary, he also suggests the ballad is essentially a commentary about jealousy: "Jealousy is a form of insanity. It'll ruin the lives of all the people it touches." He concludes that the ballad shows "a sincerity we lack now. . . and give us an insight to be enslaved by any such a predicament." As a storyteller and teacher through song, Brownie hears and gives voice to parallel values in "Satisfied Mind," where wealth is no palliative for a life of jealousy and self-aggrandizement, without love or contentment.

Brownie Ford's repertoire and performance style, including English ballads carried west, challenges the image of ballad singing being limited to remote mountain hollows. Yet even his cowboy songs were not learned exclusively over the range campfire, but in a wide array of contexts at home and on the road. In all this material, from British ballad to cowboy song, the storytelling aspect is central--whether they are performed at medicine shows, rural rodeos, or urban honky-tonks. Since the ballads form a narrative foundation for Ford's repertoire as a whole, it is worth noting a few of his specialities.

The murder of the "Knoxville Girl" has English and American sources and "variants" such as the "Wexfield Girl," "The Oxford Girl," and "The Lexington Murder." In each, a man is distracted by another woman, or inexplicably decides to break off his engagement. The result is that murder is committed and then covered up; after a night of remorse and guilt, it is revealed and usually punished.

"Barbara Allen," one of the most famous of all English ballads, shows the "leaping and lingering" quality that is characteristic of orally transmitted songs in ths tradition. At the outset we learn of the wealthy Williams' love for Barbara. Her rejection of him due to an unintended slight is apparently based on a misunderstanding of manners between people of different social class. Her motives however are left obscure, as is Williams' death from lovesickness. The song leaps to and lingers upon Barbara's guilt, her suffering, and her preparation for death and burial, complete with the "rose and briar" ending, which is emblematic of both eternal true love and jealousy.

The ribald "Cuckoo's Nest" and adventure of "Black Jack David" suggest sexuality and outlaw romance in both humourous and serious modes. The narration that precedes "Cuckoo's Nest" places the song into the experience of Brownie as a young rascal out on the edge of his own frontiers. "Black Jack David" is introduced by an historical note of reverence for the song's age, and skepticism about morality among the elite.

While many cowboy songs depict women ambivalently as love objects or fickle betrayers, two songs here--"When the Work's All Done This Fall" and "Only a Message from Home Sweet Home"--present the most important lady in a cowboy's life as his mother, with the "loved ones back on the farm." The one cowboy song here about a sweetheart is "Banks of the Old Pontchartrain." Brownie's version of the song--sometimes also called "The Lakes of Pontchartrain"or "Creole Girl"--is unique in that the cowboy protagonist is an outlaw fleeing prison in Texas.

The best known of the traditional cowboy ballads is "Streets of Laredo"--also called "Cowboy's Lament-- with its salute to the dying cowboy who falls prey to the attractions of gambling and the bawdy house. It closes with the succinct statement of the value laced on loyalty among men. "We all loved our comrade, although he'd done wrong." The song has antecedents in "The Unfortunate Rake," a British broadside about a soldier dying of venereal disease who asks for the pomp of a military funeral.

The recording sessions represented here are quite different as to performance setting. My 1981 field recordings were made in a screen patio area between Brownie's store and mobile home--surrounded by friends, his wife Cody, and the birds and crickets. At my urging, he focused on storytelling, old ballads, and cowboy songs. He also sang "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby"--although a studio version is used here--learned from a Louvin Brothers record, along with a variety of other country numbers. I was amazed to hear him sing "Barbara Allen" and "Knoxville Girl" with all the vocal nuances and interior understanding of arcane ballad language--and then play rockabilly and honky-tonk numbers like "Rock N Roll Ruby" and "Roughneck's Blues." It reminded me that to see Brownie's artistry solely in terms of oral tradition materials was to exclude his love of and experience with country music--particularly western swing, honky-tonk, and rockabilly. Further, country music in large part is built on a transformed ballad tradition with its depiction of scarlet lovers, murdered maidens, dying cowboys, and righteous outlaws. The distance on life's highway from "Black Jack David" to the man who washed his hand in muddy water is another great one. These sentiments were echoed by country musician and songwriter Rodney Crowell, who contributed notes to this recording and feels a kinship with Brownie Ford's music. "When I was eleven," Crowell said, "I played drums with my dad. He had a little group that played beer joints and honk-tonks in Houston where I grew up. . . . Brownie's music reminds me of my dad's band. We even played some of the same songs like "Don't Let the Deal Go Down."

It is not surprising that when Brownie Ford, at age eighty-four, walked into a Lafayette studio, he sought the styles and production values of commercial country music. Yet, even in the studio-recorded music presented here, Brownie shows a predilection of those commercially-composed songs that tell a story. Some do so explicitly in ballad style--"Code of the Mountains," "Only a Hangman," and "Burn the Honky-Tonk Down"--others are songs associated with, and in some cases written by a range of recording artists that span country music history and styles: Karl and Harty, Bob Willis, Jimmie Davis, Wayne Walker, and George Jones. Such songs have become part of country music's own oral tradition, circulating from records, radio, and jukebox into the repertoires of honky-tonk bands, and cowboy singers, and then later being re-recorded. Of course many ballads, and particularly cowboy songs, have also moved back and forth between the print medium and oral tradition. Such is the case for "Only a Message from Home Sweet Home," written at the turn of the century by Edmond N. Florant and still well-known among cowboy singers.

While in the studio, Brownie also recorded long-established oral tradition material like "Black Jack David," "Streets of Laredo," and "Banks of the Old Pontchartrain"(the field or tour versions were used on this recording) as well as the uptempo blues-ballad "Frankie and Johnny" and the old frolic piece "Don't Let the Deal Go Down." The latter song is also widely heard as a fiddle tune and found in minstrel and hillbilly traditions. True to the Anglo folk balladeer's tradition of collecting and recalling songs, Brownie for years kept a thick book of verses. He believes that at one time he knew two thousand songs. Among these, Ford wrote about thirty songs himself, mostly in the honky-tonk country style. His song "The Next Heart You Break May Be Your Own" is included here.

The acoustic country/folk sound of Brownie's South Louisiana studio session is provided by two well-respected Cajun musicians. The lead guitarist and arranger is David Doucet from the cutting-edge Cajun band Beausoleil. Displaying virtuoso ability, Doucet had combined Doc Watson style flat- and finger-picking with Cajun music. His work with Brownie Ford shows both sensitive accompaniment and engaging, compact solos. The steady percussive rhythm guitar comes from the Cajun singer, guitarist, songwriter, and chairmaker D.L. Menard, also known as the "Cajun Hank Williams." Menard has long performed in a Cajun country and western style. In addition, the drummer on two cuts is New Orleans-based journalist and folklore researcher Ben Sandmel. Sandmel has been active in encouraging traditional Louisiana musicians to make recordings. He produced and played on the LP Boogie Bill Webb: Drinkin' and Stinkin' (co-released by Flying Fish Records and the Louisiana Folklife Recording Series), and helped coordinate this Brownie Ford album.

Rounding out the performances here are two live recordings from Brownie's appearance in 1983-84 with the "The Cowboy Tour." For Brownie, this traveling show was a tonic recalling his days on the Wild West and rodeo circuit. The intensity of the renditions here are living proof.

This combined effort to present the musical legacy of Brownie Ford comes at a deeply sad time. At this writing [in 1990,] he lies gravely ill in a Monroe, Louisiana, hospital. The recording is a sort of oral scrapbook. It contains the rough edges, polished surfaces, and soul of Thomas Edison "Brownie" Ford: bronc rider and craftsman, honky-tonk man and gentleman, raconteur and singer of songs-Indian cowboy of the woods.

This essay was originally published in 1990 as liner notes for the FF70559/FF90559 - Brownie Ford - Stories from Mountains, Swamps, and Honky-Tonks. It is posted here with permission. Nick Spitzer is a professor of anthropology at Tulane University and host/producer of American Routes on Public Radio International. He was the first Louisiana Folklife Program director from 1978-1985.

Interview material was drawn from Spitzer's 1981 sessions with Brownie Ford and interviews at the Smithsonian Institution in 1986. Additional interview material with Brownie Ford and Rodney Crowell by Ben Sandmel. Brownie Ford passed away August 27, 1996.