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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Ol' Paint's Ride Started in Bartlett

by Clay Coppedge

Identifying who actually penned the classic trail drive song "Goodbye Old Paint" is about as easy as trying to figure out which horse on which cattle drive inspired the song. One thing we can say with certainty is that the song's journey from trail drive ditty to enduring American classic passed through here.

The man most often credited as composer of the song is Jess Morris, who was born in Bartlett in 1878. Jess Morris never claimed to have written the song; he said he learned it from a black cowboy named Charley Willis.

"Charley played a Jews-harp and taught me how to play it," Morris said. "It was on this Jews-harp that I learned to play 'Old' Paint' at the age of seven.

"In later years I learned to play 'Old Paint' on the fiddle, in my own special arrangement - tuning the fiddle accordingly."

Fiddlers recognize Morris' arrangement as sophisticated and difficult, adding credence to rumors that he studied violin in Austin and at Valparaiso, Indiana. But Jess Morris he always identified himself as a cowboy fiddler.

His unique "Old Paint" arrangement caught the attention of folk music collector John Lomax. Lomax wrote to Morris that he (Morris) had "the best tune that exists to Goodbye, Old Paint" and he wanted to record it as Morris performed it. That version is included on the album "Cowboy Songs, Ballads and Cattle Calls From Texas."

Jess Morris left Bartlett when he was 12 and settled on the Texas panhandle where he was known as a good ranch hand as well as a superb fiddler.

An Amarillo newspaper first identified Jess Morris with the song in 1928. Reporting on a tri-state fiddle contest, Morris is singled out for "Goodbye Old Paint." "The audience forgot all dignity and joined in a hearty yell on 'Goodbye Old Paint,'" the reporter wrote.

The song was probably credited to Jess Morris because of the unique way he tuned his fiddle for the song.

Other versions of the song invariably surfaced, all of them "original compositions." "Many publishers swiped my song and had it published, and many old maverick 'Paints' were running wild and unbranded," Morris later said.

Charley Willis' great-grandson, Artie Morris, grew up in Temple, the son of a railroad man. He says his great grandfather was born a slave in Milam County in 1850 and learned the cowboy trade as a slave.

The book "Black Cowboys of Texas," published by Texas A&M University Press, reports that in 1871 Willis was hired to help the Snyder brothers of Georgetown take several thousand cattle up the Chisholm Trail to Wyoming.

Willis returned to Milam County and settled in Davilla. He went to work for E.J. Morris on the Morris Ranch near Bartlett. Willis' specialty, both on the trail and on the Morris Ranch, is said to have been breaking horses.

Willis taught E.J. Morris' seven-year old son, Jesse, how to play "Goodbye Old Paint" in about 1885. Jess Morris' first fiddle lesson came from another black cowboy on the ranch, Jerry Neely.

Two generations later, Artie Morris grew up in Temple wanting to be a country singer. Hank Williams - not Charley Willis - inspired his passion. "I wanted to be a country singer and I couldn't do it because there were no black country singers," he says. "I'd go in clubs and the band didn't want to play for me. They would play off-key, they'd do all sorts of stuff just to make me mess up."

Artie Morris went to Nashville in 1955, a decade before Charley Pride became the first black superstar of country music. Doors opened for him when record executives heard his tapes, but closed just as quickly when he showed up in person.

"He said he was afraid 'blacks won't buy it because it's country and country won't buy it because you're black,'" he said of one record executive in a 2001 interview. Things weren't any better at home. "Even in Temple, you go into a club, one club had two stages and two bands," he said. "One stage was where the white musicians played and the other side was where the blacks played and they couldn't play on the same stage together."

He left Texas for California and stayed there 30 years, working as a television host, a recording artist for Adkorp Records and, for seven years, as a writer for Buck Owens' publishing company.

Ten years ago, Artie Morris left the Golden State for the Lone Star State. He released a 10-song CD featuring traditional cowboy songs, including "Good-bye Old Paint." He said he tried to put himself in the mindset of his great grandfather, on a 2,000-mile trail drive up the Chisholm Trail. "I always wanted to be a cowboy, but I was afraid of cows, so I thought it was best to sing about it," he says.

Western writer and singer Jim Bob Tinsley believes there is enough credit to go around for "Goodbye Old Paint." Credit for saving the song must be given to three Texans: a black cowboy (Willis) who sang it on cattle drives, a cowboy who remembered it (Jess Morris) and a college professor (Lomax) who put it down on paper," Tinsley wrote.

Leave it to a man named Jim Bob to get it right.


Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" October 15, 2004 Column


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