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Jukebox Is Vital To The Soundtrack of the American West  

By Orin Friesen


A soundtrack for the history of the American West would have to include the songs the cowboys composed along the trail like “Whoopee Ti Yi Yo (Git Along Little Dogies)” and “The Old Chisholm Trail.” It would also include the songs the cowboy learned as they were growing up. Many of those songs were ones they learned in church. Later songs, which are now classics, such as “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”and “Cool Water,” became popular because they were used in western movies. These songs gained further popularity by being exposed on the radio, by both live performances and recordings. One often-overlooked outlet for cowboy songs is the jukebox. As a child, I remember going into small town café and hearing Gene Autry or the Sons of the Pioneers coming from the “bubbling” Wurlitzer jukebox in the corner.

Louis Glass invented the jukebox in 1889, only 12 years after Thomas Edison had made the first phonograph. Of course, that first jukebox didn’t look much like the ones we have today, or even the classic ones from the 1940s. The music machine wasn’t even called a jukebox until years later. The name “jukebox” was derived from the name of the dance halls of the early 20th century. They were known as juke joints. The word “juke,” itself was a term used by African Americans to describe dancing.


The popularity of the jukebox began to take off in the 1920s, after the 78rpm record and electrical amplification were invented. The ‘30s and ‘40s were great years for the jukebox, and helped increase the popularity of country and western music, especially the honky tonk sound of people like Floyd Tillman, Ted Daffan, Ernest Tubb and, of course, the western swing sounds of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys. Jukeboxes were especially popular in clubs and roadhouses because, not only were they cheaper than bands, they were usually more reliable. Plus, they gave you the music of the most popular artists of the time. 

During the time the jukebox was becoming popular, country music was also undergoing major changes. The barn dances in the hills, with their fiddles and banjos, were giving

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way to songs about drinking and cheating that were performed in bars. In order to be heard, the musicians started using amplification, string basses, electric guitars, pianos and drums. The added bottom of the bass and drums, plus new styles of rhythm playing, made the music more conducive to dancing, especially for couple dancing, as opposed to group dancing as in the old square dances. The jukebox, with its big, bass sound fit right in with this trend. And it’s never stopped.


The jukebox has come a long way in the last 130 years. It went from playing one song on a wax cylinder in 1889, to a dozen 78s in the 1920s, to a hundred or more45s in the 1950s, to 100 CD albums a hundred years after the jukebox was invented. When most of us think about the jukebox, we think of those Wurlitzers, Seeburgs, and Rockolas from the 1940s. But jukeboxes these days have become a part of the digital age. The music is no longer played from a vinyl disc, or even a CD. These days they use computer technology and can store hundreds of songs and take up very little space. Hopefully, the good ones still find room for cowboy songs.

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