Blood on the Saddle: The Big Al Story

There are certain moments that will live forever in the history of popular music—the Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan, Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, and Freddy Mercury at Live Aid spring to mind. The moment the spotlight first struck Big Al on the stage of the Country Bear Jamboree also belongs on that list. 

Ok. Obviously, I’m being a bit silly. Big Al’s debut was a much bigger deal than all of that other nonsense. It marked the appearance of a singular talent who continues to entertain and delight countless fans over half a century after he burst upon the scene.

Critics may scoff that he only sings one song and that his guitar is grossly out of tune during the performance, but true connoisseurs of music recognize that this is part of his greatness, and only lends to his charm. 

Adding to his intrigue, his signature song, “Blood on the Saddle,” comes complete with a bit of mystery. Traditionally, the song is credited to Everett Cheatham, but there’s at least a little room for doubt on that front. 

Woodward Maurice “Tex” Ritter

American country music singer, songwriter and actor Tex Ritter (1905 – 1974), 1940s. (Photo by Frank Driggs Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Before we venture into the murky waters of authorship, let’s get some fundamentals out of the way. 

Big Al gave his first performance as part of The Country Bear Jamboree on October 1, 1971, the opening day of Walt Disney World. His voice was provided by Country Hall of Fame member Tex Ritter (who is the father of actor John Ritter, who made his film debut in Disney’s The Barefoot Executive, and grandfather of Jason Ritter, who supplied the voice of Dipper Pines in Disney’s Gravity Falls). 

Born in Panola County, Texas in 1905, Ritter grew up immersed in western music. His love and knowledge of the genre grew under the tutelage of such luminaries as J. Frank Dobie, Oscar J. Fox, and John Lomax when he attended the University of Texas.

By the late 1920s, he had relocated to New York, where he began performing on Broadway, even appearing in productions like Green Grow the Lilacs (a show which would inspire the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!).

According to the Country Music Hall of Fame, “By mid-decade, the enormous success of Gene Autry’s westerns led other film studios to look for their own singing cowboys. One of the first producers to recognize Ritter’s potential was Edward Finney, who signed him and released his first starring film, Song of the Gringo, in 1936. Ritter was well suited to the role of singing cowboy. He looked and acted the part and was singing the type of songs he loved best.”

In 1942, Ritter became one of the first artists to sign with the newly formed Capitol Records, a move that would lead to the most successful portion of his career. He recorded a string of hits, including, “I’m Wastin’ My Tears on You,” “You Two-Timed Me One Time to Often,” and “You Will Have to Pay,” all of which reached number one on the country charts. Other songs, like “Rye Whiskey,” “Jealous Heart,” “There’s a New Moon Over My Shoulder,” “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?” “I Dreamed of a Hillbilly Heaven,” and “When You Leave, Don’t Slam the Door,” were also highly successful.

In 1960, he released the album Blood on the Saddle, which featured the song that would become synonymous with Big Al, as well as country & western classics such as “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” “Boll Weevil,” and “Streets of Laredo.” 

Five years later, he relocated to Nashville, where he began performing with the Grand Ole Opry and on WSM Radio. An unsuccessful bid for the United States Senate followed in 1970. Fortunately for Ritter, he would soon be immortalized as the greatest singing bear in history (sorry Teddi Barra). 

Everett Cheetham

Everett Cheetham

Curiously, Green Grow the Lilacs would introduce another character in the Big Al saga. Everett Cheatham, born in 1902 in Wyoming, also played a role in the show. His IMDB biography notes, “Everett Cheetham’s genuine cowboy background included years of entertaining the guests at Dude Ranches, leading trail rides, and competing in rodeos in Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho with his long-time friend, Hank Worden. He is best remembered for composing “Blood on the Saddle” and “The Lavender Cowboy”, and for his appearance with Tex Ritter in Lynn Rigg’s folk musical “Green Grow the Lilacs”…Cheetham and his friend Worden were contestants in the annual Madison Square Garden rodeo, and answered a casting call for cowboy singers, musician and yodelers and both were cast in the play, with Cheetham singing “The Strawberry Roan” and “Red River Valley.” After the play closed, Cheetham worked in New York radio with Ritter, then gave up show business to return to Wyoming.”

The entrance of Cheetham into the story is where things become murky. Most accounts credit him as the author of “Blood on the Saddle,” but it may not be as clear cut as all that. As noted on the webpage Mudcat, “Blood on the Saddle may have been written by Everett Cheetham, of Taos, New Mexico, sometime in the 1920s, as he told interviewer Jerry Herndon in 1974….However…Arizona cowpuncher and radio singin’ cowboy Romy Lowdermilk told Katie Lee in 1969 that *he* was the author and had traded the song to Cheetham around 1929 for one of Cheetham’s called “Jose Cuervo’s Daughter” (Lowdermilk called that song “a good one”.) Lowdermilk recalled that he and cartoonist J. W. Williams had cooked up the first stanza, apparently without music, which Williams later used in one of his cartoons. Lowdermilk made the song “longer and goryer [sic].”

And that’s not the end of the confusion, as, “…someone else told Katie Lee that he’d heard a cowboy named Oklahoma Pete singin’ it in Alberta in 1905….” Of course, this type of confusion is nothing new to the world of folk and cowboy music, which often functions in the same manner as an oral storytelling tradition, with songs being passed from musician to musician, growing organically, and changing over the years. 

As for the song’s inspiration, it seems to have come from a real-life event. At least, if one assumes Cheetham as the actual author. According to an article in the Journal of American Folklore, Cheetham, “wrote the song about a rodeo rider who was injured at the Wickenburg, Arizona, rodeo. [Ritter] maintains that the song was meant to be a serious one about a genuinely tragic event, but, when Everett Cheetham sang it at the dude ranches where he worked, the people laughed. Thus it became a comedy song…”

The lyrics, for those folks who may want a full taste of the hilarity are:

There was blood on the saddle and blood all around

And a great big puddle of blood on the ground

A cowboy lay in it all covered with gore

And he never will ride any broncos no more

Oh, pity the cowboy, all bloody and red

For the bronco fell on him and bashed in his head

There was blood on the saddle and blood all around

And a great big puddle of blood on the ground

Now that’s comedy! 

Regardless of the song’s true authorship, we can all agree that NO ONE has performed it with the same panache as Big Al. The greatest performer of our (or any) time. 

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