The Yodeling Cowboy

Name: Wilf Carter (Wilfred Alfred Charles Carter)
Nicknames: Father of Canadian Country Music, Montana Slim
Birth: December 18th, 1904 - Port Hilford, Nova Scotia
Death: December 5th, 1996 - Scottsdale, Arizona
Occupation: Yodeling Cowboy 

Some people might find it odd that a boy from Port Hilford, Nova Scotia wanted to be a cowboy, but for those who have been lucky enough to go after a dream and see it realized in the West, it doesn't seem so crazy. 

First inspired by a touring Swiss vaudeville artist known as 'The Yodeling Fool' when he was ten years old, Wilf made the decision to move to Alberta in the early 1920's. He began his career performing at dances, camps, bunkhouses, and house parties, eventually joining the Canadian rodeo circuit where he also competed. By 1929 he had moved to Calgary and was singing on a Calgary radio station, CFCN, as well as CFAC, and nationally on CRBC. 

By this point Wilf had also taught himself how to play guitar. In regards to his style of singing Wilf was heavily influenced by blues singer Jimmie Rodgers, who was famous for a unique set of songs featuring blues lyrics accompanied by guitar and yodeling called 'blue yodels'. Wilf became one of the most skilled yodelers in country and western music, developing a specialty speed yodel called 'three-in-one yodel' (as heard in his song My Swiss Moonlight Lullaby). 
Wilf Carter serenading a group on a
Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies trip, 1935

In 1931 Wilf was singing on trips with the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies. Established in 1923 with the support of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Trail Riders held annual summer trail rides and pow wows and attracted 1500 members by 1929. 

Looking at the photograph to the right, one can almost hear Wilf's yodeling rendition of "Springtime in the Rockies". Although Wilf did not write the song (it was written by Robert Sauer and Mary Hale Woolsey), his Swiss-influenced yodeling version seems to encompass the tradition of the Canadian Rockies, as the Swiss guides who first climbed these peaks influenced the mountaineering style of the area during the early days of conquering the 'Canadian Alps'. 

In his autobiography "The Yodelling Cowboy: Montana Slim from Nova Scotia", Wilf describes his time in the mountains with the Trail Riders:

"I'll never forget this first trail ride! Majestic mountains almost seemed to touch the deep blue of the sky. Trails led through rough, beautifully wild country across cold, clear streams and through colour-hued canyons. I often woke at night both chilled and thrilled at the scream of a cougar or the lumbering tread of a bear as it prowled near the camp." (p.40-41)

In his first year with the Trail Riders he spent most of his time doing the duties of a "camp flunky", hauling equipment and helping "the tenderfeet negotiate the steep trails and deep streams." But you can be sure he sang along with the cowboy who was hired to sing and entertain around the campfire. By his second year he was named the "official songster of the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies" and had a big button and a certificate making him an honorary member of the Trail Riders. 

The CPR was so impressed by his performances with the Trail Riders that they invited him to perform on the maiden voyage of the S.S. Empress of Britain in 1933. Before he left on this voyage he recorded two songs in Montreal: "My Swiss Moonlight Lullaby" and "The Capture of Albert Johnson". This first recording was a bestseller in 1934 and became the first hit record ever by a Canadian country performer.

V203/LC-5, Wilf Carter and Mrs. Pete Knight
with wax figures of Wilf Carter and Pete Knight.
From that point forward Wilf's success continued to grow as he headed South and earned his nickname "Montana Slim" from a secretary typing the lyrics to one of his songs who asked: "What name do I put on it?" to which Wilf replied: "Anyone'll do." 

He wrote hundreds of songs over the course of his career and toured Canada, the United States and even Australia. In 1953 he went on tour as The Family Show With the Folks You Know, with his daughters Sheila and Carol as back-up singers and dancers. 

In 1964 he finally fulfilled his dream of performing at the Calgary Stampede. In the late 1960's Wilf retired to Florida but continued to record and perform occasionally. He passed away just before his 92nd birthday from stomach cancer in 1996. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame, the Juno Awards Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. 

As one of his fans so aptly described him in a Calgary Herald article from 2007:

"No one praised Calgary and the Canadian West more than Wilf, especially during the darkest days of the Depression. He praised all things Canadian for 50 years - Calgary, Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper, and usually carried a Canadian flag when he rode in rodeos and took visitors on trail rides." 

Wilf's version of "Springtime in the Rockies" is currently echoing around the Founders Gallery at the Whyte Museum as part of the 'Musical Gems from Our Archives' playlist, enticing visitors and staff alike to pick a partner and dance the night away in the Rockies. 

Info Sources:
Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame
"The Yodelling Cowboy: Montana Slim from Nova Scotia", Wilf Carter, Ryerson Press (1961)
"Wilf Carter fan wants a memorial", Calgary Herald, January 24th, 2007


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