Campfire Songs: Learn to Play ‘Ragtime Cowboy Joe’

Back in 1912, when ragtime was still a part of the musical zeitgeist, the second best-selling song of the year was “Ragtime Cowboy Joe,” a bouncy Western tune recorded by Bob Roberts. Telling a whimsical tale of a cowboy who sings ragtime music to his herd, the song’s lyrics were written by Grant Clarke and the music was composed by Lewis F. Muir and Maurice Abrahams—who in fact had no meaningful experience with the West.

Check out more Campfire Songs here.


The song is naturally a playful one, as it was inspired by the sight of Abrahams’ four-year-old Brooklyn nephew dressed up in a cowboy costume. Born into pop culture, “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” persisted in different iterations throughout the 20th century. Perhaps its most famous cover is the 1959 single by the fictitious Chipmunks of children’s television fame. It’s also been adopted as a fight song by the University of Wyoming and the University of California, Davis.

“Ragtime Cowboy Joe” is a bit more sophisticated than the other songs in this series. It has a longer form and uses more chords—eight in all—F, Dm, G7, C7, C, Am, E, and A7. But the chords fall in straightforward cowboy territory. On the video here, Maurice Tani forms the F by wrapping his thumb around to fret the sixth-string F. You might find this shape easier to play than the traditional fingering, with the first finger barring across all six frets; go with whatever works best for you. 

As for the picking hand, Tani plays the song with a classic boom-chuck pattern—bass notes on beats one and three and strums on two and four—which I recommend you try before delving into the song. Note that though boom-chuck is generally played with a pick, Tani opts to do it fingerstyle, which proves just as effective in capturing the good old spirited tune that is “Ragtime Cowboy Joe.”


This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Kate Koenig
Kate Koenig

Kate Koenig is a singer-songwriter, music teacher, and music journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. They have been a regular contributor to Acoustic Guitar since 2017.

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