Jess Morris, born June 12, 1878, in Williamson County, Texas, was a noted fiddler in the western Panhandle region. In 1890, his father moved the family to a ranch near old Tascosa, in the northwest panhandle. The family lived for a time in the Casimero Romero home, built in the 1870s by some of the earliest settlers of the area.
By 1894, at age sixteen, Jess formed his first musical group, which played for dances and balls throughout the region. Reportedly, it was not unusual for Morris’s group to receive one hundred dollars for an evening of music. He is said to have studied violin both in Austin, Texas, and at Valparaiso, Indiana, but he claimed he would never be anything but a cowboy fiddler.
Morris competed in Amarillo’s Tri-State Old Fiddlers’ Contest in 1928 and 1929 but did not place. The newspaper account of the 1928 contest, however, singled him out for his rendition of “Goodbye Ol’ Paint.” According to the article, “the audience forgot all dignity and joined in a hearty, lusty yell on the chorus.” In the 1931 contest, Morris placed second behind A. E. Rusk of Canyon, who won the event, and ahead of Eck Robertson, who took third.
Besides fiddling, Morris worked as a cowboy and a wolfer on the XIT, LS, and LIT ranches. In the early 1940s, Morris registered several of his original songs and fiddle tunes with the Library of Congress, including “El Rancho Grande XIT Schottische,” “XIT Ranch Cowboy Polka,” and “Ridin’ Ol’ Paint an’ Leadin’ Ol’ Ball.”
After receiving the certificate of registration for “XIT Ranch Cowboy Polka,” Morris sent copies of his works to the Fort Worth Star Telegram to promote his new composition. In a letter dated July 18, 1940, Morris commented, “I gave you folks, that Schottische & Polka–Manuscripts–and I wish you would get some real good musician, to play them over for you, and if they don’t sound right, then get another musician.”
In another letter to the paper, dated July 24, Morris added, “Please let the musician have the Manuscript to practice on some, before he plays it, because, that manuscript, is hard to read like all manuscript[s].” Morris’s best known work was the popular cowboy ballad “Goodbye Old Paint.”
In 1942, folk music collector John Lomax recorded Morris’s performance of that song for the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song. It was later released on the Archive of Folk Culture album Cowboy Songs, Ballads, and Cattle Calls from Texas.
According to Morris, he learned the song from Charley Willis, a black cowboy who in turn had learned the song on a cattle drive in 1871: “Charley played a jews-harp, and taught me to play it. It was on this jews-harp that I learned to play `Ol’ Paint,’ at the age of seven [about 1885]. In later years I learned to play the fiddle and played `Ol’ Paint’ on the fiddle, in my own special arrangement–tuning the fiddle accordingly.” Morris noted, “Many publishers swiped my song and had it published, and many old maverick `Paints’ were running wild and unbranded.”
[Left] Artie Morris’s CD tribute to his great-great grandfather, Charley Willis, the creator of “Good-bye Old Paint”!
Jess Morris died in 1953.