Winnipeg-born Bob Nolan wrote Cool Water as a poem while he was in high school in Tucson, Arizona, where he had moved with his father. He added the music years later when he founded The Sons of the Pioneers, who became much loved for their smooth close harmonies. The group popularized the song through their radio show; they issued the sheet music in 1936 but didn’t record the song until later. It was a hit through 1940 and 1941.
Cool Water quickly became a country-western standard, its lyrics, tempo and instrumentation evoking a cowboy’s lonely ride across the arid desert. The thirsty cowboy eagerly asks his mule, “Don’t you see that big green tree where the water’s running free?” But he realizes it’s the siren call of a mirage: “Don’t you listen to him, Dan / He’s a devil, not a man.” A solo voice intermittently echoes a desperate “Water.” The picture is completed by the slow tempo matching the mule’s walking pace.
Nolan said later: “I was strictly trying to paint a picture of the desert. After I was through, you couldn’t help but know that I was talking about a mirage.”
With its vivid badlands imagery, Cool Water remained popular year after year. The Sons of the Pioneers released it again (Decca 46027A), with Tumbling Tumbleweeds on the B side, in 1947; it became a Top Ten hit. They recorded it again with Vaughn Monroe and orchestra, reaching No. 9.
Later versions can be found on Nolan’s 1954 EP and his album “The Sound of a Pioneer.”
The BMI award-winning Cool Water was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1986.
Across the decades Cool Water has also been a hit for country stars Eddy Arnold, The Browns, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Marty Robbins, Tex Ridder and the Dinning Sisters, Sons of the San Joaquin, Slim Whitman, Hank Williams, and Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inductees Jack Scott and Hank Snow.
Folk and easy-listening cover artists include top names like Bob Dylan, Burl Ives, Frankie Laine, Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Tom Jones, the Melachrino Strings, the Boston Pops Orchestra, Odetta, the Rooftop Singers, Sleepy La Beef, and pianist Roger Williams. It’s been recorded as rock (Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac) and even funk (The Blue Belles).
Joni Mitchell (with Willie Nelson) sang revised lyrics pleading for the environment: “Some devils had a plan/Buried poison in the sand/ Don’t drink it man/ It’s in the water.”
Cool Water featured in films such as “Along the Navajo Trail” (1945) and television variety shows such as “Ranch Party” and “Nashville Palace.”
Cool Water has influenced Canadian country musicians starting with the legendary Ian Tyson, who saw the Sons of the Pioneers perform live when he was a boy in Victoria. Tyson says in his memoirs, “I’ve carried the memory of the experience with me into adulthood….Their harmonies resonated strongly in my twelve-year-old ears….I don’t think anybody can do harmonies better than those guys did.”
Bob Nolan, 1908-1980, was born in Winnipeg. In 1933 he formed a country-western singing group The Pioneer Trio, which became The Sons of the Pioneers, with Leonard Slye [Roy Rogers] and Tim Spencer. The internationally successful group had a radio show and movie deal and also recorded Stan Jones’s Ghost Riders in the Sky. Nolan was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and Canadian Country Music Hall of Honour.