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Lyr Req: 'Top Screw' / 'Top Hand'

GUEST,Lighter at work 04 Mar 05 - 08:50 PM
Peace 04 Mar 05 - 08:57 PM
Joe Offer 04 Mar 05 - 09:37 PM
Amos 04 Mar 05 - 09:47 PM
Amos 04 Mar 05 - 09:50 PM
Artful Codger 16 Feb 09 - 09:30 PM
Lighter 16 Feb 09 - 09:52 PM
Artful Codger 17 Feb 09 - 12:21 AM
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Subject: Lyr Req: 'Top Screw' / 'Top Hand'
From: GUEST,Lighter at work
Date: 04 Mar 05 - 08:50 PM

I bet this is hopeless. Prove me wrong!

Song collector Jack Thorp twice published a cleaned-up version of this song. He said the original would scorch the page it was printed on.

That was 80-odd years ago when paper scorched a lot more readily. Has anyone ever heard a genuine version of this cowboy song - and written down the words and tune?

The "top screw" or "top hand" was, IIRC, the strawboss on a trail drive, and not what you'd like to think.

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Subject: RE: Lyr Req: 'Top Screw' / 'Top Hand'
From: Peace
Date: 04 Mar 05 - 08:57 PM

N Howard 'Jack' Thorp.

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Subject: ADD: Top Hand
From: Joe Offer
Date: 04 Mar 05 - 09:37 PM

I thought I had a Thorp songbook, but couldn't find it - and I couldn't find the lyrics to "Top Hand" posted here or anywhere. Here's the version from John A. Lomax, Cowboy Songs, 1916 (no tune in the Lomax book)

Top Hand

While you're all so frisky I'll sing a little song,—
Think a little horn of whiskey will help the thing along?
It's all about the Top Hand, when he busted flat
Bummin' round the town, in his Mexican hat.
He's laid up all winter, and his pocket book is flat,
His clothes are all tatters, but he don't mind that.

See him in town with a crowd that he knows,
Rollin' cigarettes and smokin' through his nose.
First thing he tells you, he owns a certain brand,—
Leads you to think he is a daisy hand;
Next thing he tells you 'bout his trip up the trail,
All the way to Kansas, to finish out his tale.

Put him on a hoss, he's a handy hand to work;
Put him in the brandin'-pen, he's dead sure to shirk.
With his natural leaf tobacco in the pockets of his vest
He'll tell you his California pants are the best.
He's handled lots of cattle, hasn't any fears,
Can draw his sixty dollars for the balance of his years.

'Put him on herd, he's a-cussin' all day;
Anything he tries, it's sure to get away.
When you have a round-up, he tells it all about
He's goin' to do the cuttin' an' you can't keep him out.
If anything goes wrong, he lays it on the screws,
Says the lazy devils were tryin' to take a snooze.

When he meets a greener he ain't afraid to rig,
Stands him on a chuck box and makes him dance a jig,—
Waves a loaded cutter, makes him sing and shout,—
He's a regular Ben Thompson when the boss ain't about.
When the boss ain't about he leaves his leggins in camp,
He swears a man who wears them is worse than a tramp.

Says he's not carin' for the wages he earns,
For Dad's rich in Texas,— got wagon loads to burn;
But when he goes to town, he's sure to take it in,
He's always been dreaded wherever he's been.
He rides a fancy horse, he's a favorite man,
Can get more credit than a common waddie can.

When you ship the cattle he's bound to go along
To keep the boss from drinking and see that nothing's wrong.
Wherever he goes, catch on to his name,
He likes to be called with a handle to his name.
He's always primping with a pocket looking-glass,
From the top to the bottom he's a bold Jackass.

Here's the entry on this song from the Traditional Ballad Index. The Thorp/Fife book is Songs of the Cowboys.

Top Hand

DESCRIPTION: "While you're all so frisky I'll sing a little song... It's all about the Top Hand when he's busted flat." The Top Hand/top screw boasts of his prowess as a cowhandler, but it's all boasting and lies. The cowboys try to expose him, and label him a Jackass
AUTHOR: (Credited by Thorp to Frank Rooney, c. 1877)

KEYWORDS: cowboy bragging lie trick
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Thorp/Fife V, pp. 61-65 (17-18), "Top Hand" (2 texts)
Roud #8050

Top Screw
Waddie Cowboy
File: TF05

Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions

The Ballad Index Copyright 2004 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.

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Subject: RE: Lyr Req: 'Top Screw' / 'Top Hand'
From: Amos
Date: 04 Mar 05 - 09:47 PM


I dunno what you would like to think I'd like to think, but I think you're right -- top rope was the best twirler, and the top horse was the best at knowing what to do when the dally was on the horn.

Whle searcxhing for an answer to your quest ion, I was led astray by the following wonderful recoolllection.


TALES: We had a little excitement, chasing some Mexican thieves...

    ...[W]ho robbed Mr. Pitcher of everything he had in his little Jim Crow store. John [Robinson] and I were absent from our camp, six days on this trip. There were nine of us in the pursuing party, headed by Mr. Moore, our boss. We caught the outfit, which consisted of five men, all well armed and three women, two of them being pretty maidens, on the staked plains, headed for Mexico. It was on this trip that I swore off getting drunk, and I have stuck to it -- with the exception of once and that was over the election of President Cleveland -- it happened thus:

    We rode into Tascosa about an hour after dark, having been in the saddle and on a hot trail all day without food or water. Supper being ordered we passed off the time waiting, by sampling Howard and Reinheart's [saloon] bug juice.

    Supper was called and the boys all rushed to the table -- a few sheepskins spread on the dirt floor. When about through they missed one of their crowd -- a fellow about my size. ON searching far and near he was found lying helplessly drunk under his horse, Whisky-peet -- who was tied to a rack in front of the store. A few glasses of salty water administered by Mr. Moore brought me to my right mind. Moore then after advising me to remain until morning, not being able to endure an all night ride as he thought, called, "come on, fellers!" And mounting their tired horses they dashed off at almost full speed.

    There I stood leaning against the rack not feeling able to move. Whisky-peet was rearing and prancing in his great anxiety to follow the crowd. I finally climbed into the saddle, the pony still tied to the rack. I had sense enough left to know that I couldn't get on him if loose, in the fix I was in. Then pulling out my Bowie knife I cut the rope and hugged the saddle-horn with both hands. I overtook and stayed with the crowd all night, but if ever a mortal suffered it was me. My stomach felt as though it was filled with scorpions, wild cats and lizards. I swore if God would forgive me for getting on that drunk I would never do so again. But the promise was broken, as I stated before, when I received the glorious news of Cleveland's election.

    -- Chas. A Siringo, A Texas Cow Boy , 1885/L

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Subject: RE: Lyr Req: 'Top Screw' / 'Top Hand'
From: Amos
Date: 04 Mar 05 - 09:50 PM

agriculture) alternate titles: lead rider; ramrod; top waddy

Career Type:  N/A
DOT:   410.137-014

Job Description for:  TOP SCREW

Supervises and coordinates activities of a group of COWPUNCHERS (agriculture) (colloquially called screws or waddies) riding after cattle on open range. Performs other duties as described under SUPERVISOR (any industry) Master Title.


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Subject: RE: Lyr Req: 'Top Screw' / 'Top Hand'
From: Artful Codger
Date: 16 Feb 09 - 09:30 PM

Lomax lifted most (all?) of Thorp's "Songs of the Cowboys" for his own compilation, without permission or recognition, and this is one example. The text is identical to Thorp's ignoring editorial changes, such as punctuation and contractions, with only two exceptions: Last verse, line 3 should read "Wherever he goes, catch on to his game" (not "name", which ends the following line). And Thorp finishes the song with an extra line: Waddie Cow boy.

You can view an OCR transcription of Thorp's (1910) version here.

This note appears in Thorp's 1921 edition (scan at Google Books):

From Jim Brownfield, Crow Flat, New Mexico, winter of 1899. Authorship credited to Frank Rooney; written about 1877. This song has been expurgated by me, as all the old-timers know that as originally sung around the cow-camps it could not have been printed, as it would have burned up the paper on which it was written. Jim, do you remember how you had to force those fresh eggs down and the jug said, "Goo-Goo"? I published this song under the title of "Top Hand" in my earlier edition. The old name, which all cow-punchers remember, did not sound good in print.

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Subject: RE: Lyr Req: 'Top Screw' / 'Top Hand'
From: Lighter
Date: 16 Feb 09 - 09:52 PM

Another fragment, from Dane Coolidge's novel "The Scalp-Lock" (1924):

        While you are all so frisky
        I will sing you a song.
        I will take a horn of whisky
        To help the song along.
        It is all about a top screw
        When he is busted flat,
        Sitting around town in his Mexicano hat.

The first quatrain suggests that the song (and lost melody?) was inspired by "Marching Through Georgia."

And that's all I've discovered in four years....

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Subject: RE: Lyr Req: 'Top Screw' / 'Top Hand'
From: Artful Codger
Date: 17 Feb 09 - 12:21 AM

I'm dubious of a relation to "Marching Through Georgia". Granted, MTG was hugely popular, and Thorp said Rooney wrote "Top Hand" in 1877, only 12 years after the Civil War ended. But other cowboy songs were derived from MTG, and they reflect this in their tune, meter and in having a chorus with a similar pattern of repeated phrases--I saw a couple just earlier today while thumbing through Lingenfelter's Songs of the American West. The only resemblance in the above fragment is the phrase "sing you a song" and the rhyming "along". Not even the meter is close enough to suggest a direct derivation, and the metrical patterns of both are ubiquitous.

Indeed, the catchiest, most distinctive part of MTG is its chorus; I don't recall a single song known to be derived from MTG which omits some variant of it. Even if the originator for some reason only used the verse tune, later cowhands would surely have supplied a chorus to complete it. The tune of MTG is not like "King of the Cannibal Islands", where the first part is most distinctive, and was often used by itself in the many derivations.

Also, a very common way to start a folk song in any genre is something like "[Come all you cow punchers] and I'll sing you a song, / [It's about my horse, Chopo] and it won't take me long..." Rhyming to "along" is also typical. In other words, the resemblance you detected is a formulaic one, and the lack of other similarities argues against derivation.

Still, it's a possibility, and why not derive a tune from MTG to use with these lyrics, if you feel so moved?

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