LB - House City of Prescott (Recreation)

Home | Classifieds | Place an Ad | Public Notices | Subscriber Services | 928 Media Lab | Real Estate Search | Galleries | Obits | Yellow Pages | TV Listings | Contact Us
The Prescott Daily Courier | Prescott, Arizona

home : features : features October 03, 2015

6/23/2012 10:00:00 PM
Days Past: The saga of "Powder River" Jack and Kitty Lee
Courtesy photo“Powder River” 
Jack H. Lee, c.1930s.
Courtesy photo
“Powder River” Jack H. Lee, c.1930s.
By Parker Anderson
Special to the Courier

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, Ill., 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 March 4 to 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 March 27 to 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, Ariz., 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.

Related Stories:
• Days Past: 1890s trio paved way for Arizona women's right to vote
• Days Past: Louis C. Miller: Blind miner, outlaw, orator - Part II

    Most Viewed     Recently Commented
•   AG: Con artists becoming more aggressive, send driver to 'help' victims get money (1969 views)

•   Out on bond, child porn defendant caught allegedly leaving U.S. (1921 views)

•   Official: At least 7 dead, 20 hurt in Oregon shooting (1452 views)

•   It's FAIR time! Here's what's happening at the Yavapai Fair today (1173 views)

•   Montezuma St. construction schedule eases Prescott traffic issues (1052 views)

Article Comment Submission Form
Comments are not posted immediately. Submissions must adhere to our Use of Service Terms of Use agreement. Rambling or nonsensical comments may not be posted. Comments are limited to Facebook character limits. In order for us to reasonably manage this feature we may limit excessive comment entries.
Submit an Article Comment
First Name:
Last Name:
Anti-SPAM Passcode Click here to see a new mix of characters.
This is an anti-SPAM device. It is not case sensitive.

Advanced Search

HSE - We want to hear from you
HSE - dCourier App
HSE- Rants&Raves

Quick Links
 •  Submit site feedback or questions

 •  Submit your milestone notice

 •  Submit your letter to the editor

 •  Submit a news tip or story idea

 •  Place a classified ad online now

 •  Browse the Yellow Pages

Find It Features Blogs Milestones Extras Submit Other Publications Links
Classifieds | Subscriber Services | Real Estate Search | Galleries | Find Prescott Jobs | e-News | RSS | Site Map | Contact Us
LB - House dCourier App

© Copyright 2015 Western News&Info, Inc.® The Daily Courier is the information source for Prescott area communities in Northern Arizona. Original content may not be reprinted or distributed without the written permission of Prescott Newspapers, Inc. Prescott Newspapers Online is a service of Prescott Newspapers Inc. By using the Site, ®, you agree to abide and be bound by the Site's terms of use and Privacy Policy, which prohibit commercial use of any information on the Site. Click here to submit your questions, comments or suggestions. Prescott Newspapers Online is a proud publication of Western News&Info, Inc.® All Rights Reserved.

Software © 1998-2015 1up! Software, All Rights Reserved