The Herdsman’s Labors
The herdsman’s life is labor
His cattle never sleep
His wage is in the sunrise
And the earth beneath his feet
His song is to the midnight stars
It’s there he lays his head to rest
His motto is to help and heal
His work is never done.
It’s difficult to say who works hardest, the cows or the herds person. I’m biased in favor of bi-pedals. I’m giving it to herds people; I once was one. My first herdsman job was in Georgia where I’d rise at 2 a.m. to start the morning milking on a Jersey operation at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. It wasn’t unusual for me to go until 6 p.m. before clocking out.
I believe one of the most telling attributes of a herdsperson is his or her cattle call. For the herdsperson it’s an opportunity to sing publicly. And it happens twice each day.
A folk song originates from the people of a country or area. It’s passed by oral tradition from one singer or generation to the next.
The concept of a cattle call as a form of folk singing is completely plausible to me. I’ve been struck by it ever since I heard my ancestors call their Guernsey cows home for milking. And because of my occupation as a herdsman in locales from Georgia to Wisconsin, and other places between, I’ve heard a variety of folks call their cows home.
Kulning is a haunting melodic singing style that Swedish herdswomen have practiced for hundreds of years. It’s a way of bringing cows in from vast mountain pastures for the evening. Imagine Sweden’s remote mountain pastures filling with eerily beautiful song each summer at dusk, as herds are called home in the lyric-less melodic manner. Kulning has received a bit of attention on YouTube; it’s worth a visit.
I’ve noticed a regional feel to cattle calls I’ve heard along the way. But more than that I’ve been struck by the songs of farmers from whom I wouldn’t normally expect such vocal incantations. Often they were performed with such natural fluidity and uninhibitedness that I was awestruck. It came from the farmer core; it was part of who he or she was. It was in the blood.
The northern cattle call I’m most familiar with is a version of “come boss-come boss-come boss.” I’ve heard a few locals abbreviate it to “boss-boss-boss’ or ‘bossie-bossie-bossie.” In all those bossie examples one uses a short-o sound as in “ahhh” to pronounce the o.
The Georgia cattle call I remember was a distinct “sah boss sah boss sah boss.’ I’m not sure of the reason for the “sah” sound. It carried over into a calming tone used by the southern herds folks I was acquainted with. When cutting a cow out of the herd for any reason they’d lowly chant “sah babe-sah babe” in a low-keyed tone to keep her calm. It seemed to work – a tribute to the power of language.
The cattle call is becoming a lost art. I’m happy our farming methods lent themselves to the need for developing a fine cattle call – one that comes from the diaphragm, that could be heard across the countryside even in winter. The fact that we used it in winter was unique in itself because outwintering wasn’t common. Winter was when I really let out a songlike call to bring the cows off the protected windbreak area they stayed in when the winds whipped out of the west. A few times in rough weather I drove the tractor out halfway. I then opened the cab door to do my calling. A drawn-out “cooooooome booooooooss!” with intermittent “yoooo-ohhhhhs” drawn out long enough to do a Dwight Yoakam-inspired octave drop. That was all while being pelted by wind-driven snow.
There is something therapeutic about the act of cow-calling. I’m sure endorphins are involved. Those lucky enough to be herds people should invite town friends to try it. It might be a marketable idea.