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Songs of the West

Four Cords 

Sierra Peaks

     I learned "Sierra Peaks," also known as "Tying a Knot in the Devil's Tail," in 1947 from a record I purchased that year in a small record store near the campus of U.C. Berkeley. The song was sung by Cisco Houston, an associate of Woody Guthrie. I also found a version of it on pages 406-409 in "American Ballads and Folk Songs," by John A. and Alan Lomax, first published in 1934 by The Macmillan Company. My friend Barry Olivier passed on to me a copy of the original words by Gail I. Gardner, written as a poem in 1935, from a 1967 issue of Sing Out Magazine. Although I use "Sierra Peaks," the Lomaxes used "Syree Peaks," and the original used "Sierry Petes." I don't intend to change the name I learned, I've spent many months in the Sierra east of the San Joaquin Valley and observed literally hundreds of beef cattle. In my view what I viewed justified my continued use of "Sierra."

Way high up in the Sierra peaks
Where the yellow pines grow tall,
Sandy Bob and Buster Jiggs
Had a round up camp last fall.

They took their horses and their running irons,
Maybe a dog or two,
Swore they'd brand all them long eared calves
That come within their view.

Well, many a long eared dogie
That wouldn't hush up by day
Had their long ears whittled and their old hides scorched
In a most artistic way.

Then one fine day says Buster Jiggs
As he throwed his ceego down,
'I'm tired of cow pyrography,
And allows I'm a-goin' to town.'

So they saddles 'em up 'n they hits 'em a lope
'Cause it weren't no sight of a ride
Them was the days that an ol' cow hand
Could oil up his old insides.

They starts 'er out at Kentucky Bar
At the head of the whiskey row,
They winds 'er up at the Depot House
Some forty drinks below.

Then they sets her up and they turns her around
And they goes her the other way,
To tell the lord forsaken truth
Them boys got drunk that day.

As they was a-ridin' back to camp
Packin' a mighty good load,
Who should they meet but the Devil himself
Come prancin' down the road.

Well, the Devil he said, 'You cowboy skunks,
You better go hunt your hole.
I come up from Hell's rimrock
Just to gather in your souls.'

Says Buster Jiggs, 'We're just in town
And we're feelin' kind of tight.
You ain't gonna get no cowboy souls
Without some kind of a fight.'

So he punched a hole in his old throw rope
He throws her straight and true,
He ropes the Devil right around the horns
And he takes his dallies through.

Now Sandy Bob was a riata man
With his gut line coiled up neat,
He shakes her out and he builds him a loop
And he ropes the Devil's hind feet.

They throwed him down on the desert ground
And while the iron was a-gettin' hot,
They crops and swallow-forks his ears
Then they branded him up a lot.

They pruned him up with a de-hornin' saw,
And they knotted his tail as a joke,
Rode off and left him a-bellowin' there
Roped him up to a lilac jack oak.

So if you ever travel in the Sierra peaks
And you hear an awful wail,
You'll known it ain't nothing but the Devil himself
A-raisin' hell about the knots in his tail.