Most histories credit a cowboy from Bartlett, Texas, named Jess Morris with writing the song despite the fact that Morris didn’t write it and never claimed he did. He was born in 1878, in the middle of the cattle drive era, but the only cattle drive he went on happened after he’d learned “Goodbye Old Paint” from a black cowboy named Charley Willis who worked on the family’s ranch.
“Charley played a Jews-harp and taught me how to play it,” Morris said. “It was on this Jew’s-harp that I learned to play ‘Old Paint’ at the age of 7. In later years, I learned to play ‘Old Paint’ on the fiddle in my own special arrangement — tuning the fiddle accordingly.”
Jess Morris’ own “special arrangement” for fiddle caught the ears of other fiddlers, who recognized it as sophisticated and intricate. Morris always claimed to be nothing more than a cowboy fiddler, but he studied in Bartlett with a Professor Kuler, who had studied the instrument in Italy. He also took lessons in Austin, and at Valparaiso, Indiana, but he left of his own accord, claiming he was a fiddler with no desire to be a violinist.
Folk music collector John Lomax heard Morris’ version and wrote to him, saying it was the best version of the song he’d ever heard, and he wanted to record it as Morris performed it. The result is included on the classic folk album “Cowboy Songs, Ballads and Cattle Calls from Texas.”
Morris’ family moved to the Panhandle when he was 12. He was known as a merely good ranch hand on the sprawling XIT Ranch, but a great fiddler, drawing rave reviews from the local press.
“The audience forgot all dignity in a hearty yell on ‘Goodbye Old Paint,’” a reported noted.
Jess Morris remained a cowboy and a fiddler for the rest of his days.
But what happened to Willis, the man who taught the song to Jess Morris?
Willis was born a slave in Milam County and he learned the cowboy trade as a slave. He was especially good with horses, and in 1871 signed on with the Snyder Brothers out of Georgetown as a drover to take several thousand cattle up the Chisholm Trail to Wyoming.
Back in Milam County after the cattle drive, Willis went to work for Jess Morris’ father, E.J. Morris, breaking horses. Though he taught the 7-year-old Jess Morris how to play “Goodbye Old Paint,” Morris said another black cowboy, Jerry Neely, gave him his first fiddle lesson.
Willis married in 1870, and he and his wife, Laura, raised four sons and three daughters. He died in 1930 at the age of 80 after a long and musical life. Several years ago I chanced to talk to his grandson, Artie Morris (no relation to Jess Morris), who grew up in Temple with a strange desire to be a country singer.
“I wanted to be a country singer, and I couldn’t do it because there were no black country singers,” he said. “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 mess me up.”
So he went to Nashville in 1955, several years before Charley Pride would become the first black superstar of country music. Doors opened when executives heard his tapes, but closed that much faster when he showed up in person. Blacks wouldn’t buy the records, executives told him, because it was country, and whites wouldn’t buy it because he was black.
Artie went to California for the next 30 years where he worked as a television host, recorded some songs for Adkorp Records and spent seven years as a writer for Buck Owens’ publishing company. He returned home in the early 1990s and released a 10-song CD of traditional cowboy songs, including, of course, “Goodbye 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 said.
That leaves us with three Texans to credit for the enduring popularity of “Goodbye Old Paint” — a black cowboy, a white cowboy fiddler, and a college professor who recorded the song before it blew away on the wind.