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This Week in Texas Music History: A. O. Babel

Art&Seek presents This Week in Texas Music History. Every week, we’ll spotlight a different moment and the musician who made it. This Week in Texas Music History, we’ll meet a piano playing cowboy who was not really a cowboy at all.

You can also hear This Week in Texas Music History on Sunday at precisely 6:04 p.m. on KERA radio. But subscribe to the podcast so you won’t miss an episode. And our thanks to KUT public radio in Austin for helping us bring this segment to you. And if you’re a music lover, be sure to check out Track by Track, the bi-weekly podcast from Paul Slavens, host of KXT’s The Paul Slavens Show, heard Sunday night’s at 8.

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A. O. Babel died in Randolph, N.Y., on Jan. 19, 1896. The son of a music professor, Babel was born in 1858 in Seguin, Texas. He got his start playing piano in Houston-area saloons. In 1885, Babel took his talents north, performing in Chicago as the “cowboy pianist.” Despite his classical training, Babel promoted himself as a genuine Texas cowboy who only played by ear. His clever marketing paid off in 1890, when a popular novel celebrating both his piano playing and his supposed heroic adventures in the Wild West made him a national sensation.

Several people who had known A. O. Babel back in Texas disputed his claims of being a heroic Wild West figure. Nevertheless, by the time of his death in 1896, Babel’s reputation as a piano playing cowboy had spread throughout North America and across Europe.

Next time on This Week in Texas Music History, we’ll visit a place that puts the official state seal on the sounds of Texas.