by Parker Anderson
By the 1920s and 30s, rodeos had become very popular nationwide and had advanced from mere feats of bronc-riding and calf-tying to include halftime entertainment shows. During this period, one of the most popular of the entertainers and “singing cowboys” on the rodeo circuit was “Powder River” Jack H. Lee and his wife, Kitty. Interestingly, they are mostly forgotten today and are seldom talked about, even by rodeo historians. There is a reason for this.
Very little is known of the background of Jack Lee, except that his real name was Jackson Martin. He claimed to have been born and raised on a Montana ranch, breaking horses and riding on cattle drives from the time he could walk. At his rodeo appearances, he would regale his audience with a story of how he and his wife Kitty had been childhood sweethearts in Montana, were separated by circumstances and then, by sheer happenstance, met again when they were adults at a chuck wagon on a cattle drive. Lee told the story, ending with their marriage, so flamboyantly that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house by the time he finished.
For her part, “pretty Kitty Lee” (as Jack always introduced her) claimed to be a direct descendant of Andrew Jackson on her father’s side and that she had once toured in Buffalo Bill’s famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Wild West show – an unverifiable claim.
The few documented facts about the Lees belie these claims. Kitty Lee’s death certificate, now public record, lists her birthplace as Beardstown, Illinois, not Montana. Furthermore, in my own research I discovered a surviving record showing that Jack and Kitty Lee played the Elks Opera House in Prescott on March 4-6, 1916 as a Hawaiian musical act – surely no real cowman would have done that!
In the 1920s, nostalgia for the 19th century West was growing with western movies and novels becoming extremely popular. During this period, many would-be singers and entertainers who had failed in other genres started putting on cowboy hats and fraudulently passing themselves off as western cowmen. Some did find success with their new identity and Jack Lee (who adopted the moniker of “Powder River” when he decided to change his image) was one of them. Kitty Lee learned a few trick-riding skills and soon both of them hit the rodeo circuit.
At rodeo halftime shows and state fair engagements, the Lees sang cowboy songs, recited cowboy poetry and told wild stories, many of which he claimed to have written himself. They were a hit and soon were touring the rodeo circuit nationwide, hobnobbing with such important people as Will Rogers, Tom Mix, William S. Hart and famed cowboy artist Charles M. Russell. “Powder River” Jack Lee started publishing books containing the songs, prose, poems and stories that were allegedly his own writings. He started recording his songs on phonograph records as well. He and Kitty even returned to the Elks Opera House with their new cowboy image on March 27-29, 1929.
Historically, “Powder River” Jack Lee is not well-remembered today because historians are almost unanimous that Lee plagiarized, or stole, much of his material. The most notable case was his recording of a song called, “Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail”, an opus about two drunken cowboys who encounter the Devil on a road, tie him up and brand him like a cow. Jack Lee took authorship credit in his songbooks and on the record labels but Arizona residents were quick to realize that the song was a slightly revamped version of “Sierry Petes,” a famous poem written by Prescott’s legendary pioneer, Gail Gardner. Lee had tweaked a few tiny things – in Gardner’s original, the two cowboys were named Buster Jig and Sandy Bob, wherein Lee changed their names to Buster Giggs and Sagebrush Sam.
Gardner and the cowmen of Prescott were outraged by the theft. Stealing a cowman’s song was almost as bad as stealing his horse! There is an enduring, but unverified, local legend that Gail Gardner and some other cowman collared Jack Lee at a Whiskey Row bar one night, tarred and feathered him and ran him out of town. If true, it did not faze him, as he continued to insist he wrote, “Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail” until his death. Although some old-timers swore they heard Lee singing the song long before Gardner wrote his poem, it is certain that Gail Gardner is the author.
This leaves a question that lingers to this day. If “Powder River” Jack Lee stole this song, how much more did he steal from other unknown authors and pass off as his own? There are unconfirmed reports that, at his stage shows, Lee went so far as to claim he was the original author of the song, “Red River Valley” – certainly not true.
Lee’s reputation as a musical thief dogged him long after his death. He is one of the few old cowboy singers whose recordings have never been re-issued in the CD era. His recording of “Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail” has appeared on a small handful of anthology albums of old cowboy music, but most of his recordings (although they survive) have not seen the light of day in over 70 years.
“Powder River” Jack Lee was killed in a car accident in Chandler, Arizona in 1946. Soon after that, Kitty Lee entered the Pioneer Home in Prescott, blind and partially deaf, until her own death in 1955 at the age of 89. Both are interred at the City of Mesa Cemetery.