The early 20th century folk song "On the Trail of the Buffalo" tells the story of some cowboys employed by a drover to run buffalo. In Woody Guthrie's 1945 version (video / lyrics) we have this closing stanza:

Well, our working season ended and the drover would not pay
“You et and drunk too much; you’re all in debt to me!”
But the cowboys never had heard of such a thing as a bankrupt law
So we left that drover’s bones to bleach on the plains of the buffalo

I have no background in law, but here are the possible interpretations I have of that phrase:

  1. (My instinctive reading the first time I heard it.) A law that is morally bankrupt. The cowboys have so much good faith that they're shocked that the law would support the drover's claim. Indignant, they put a stop to it by killing him.

  2. A claim or contract that is legally bankrupt. The cowboys don't realize that the drover's claim is indefensible. Since they don't know that a legal challenge is possible, they take extralegal action.

  3. A law having to do with bankruptcy. The cowboys didn't know about a law for the settling of employee debts in this way. Similar to #1, except talking about their legal ignorance rather than expressing moral judgement on the law.

Which one does he probably mean?

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    I don't think it applies here, but "law" in colloquial/western speech can also refer to law enforcement. "The law is coming" means police are arriving, so "bankrupt law" can be synonymous with corrupt or immoral sheriff.
    – user71659
    Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 2:53
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    The reference to bankrupt law makes no sense from a legal standpoint. The verse does not imply there was an underlying law premising the drover's position. Mere default on, or denial of, payments does not trigger bankrupt law provisions. The verse does not support the premise that the drover or any of the cowboys was bankrupt. Most likely the author had no background in law and only wanted some term to rhyme with buffalo. Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 10:12
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    @IñakiViggers Not that it's a perfect rhyme :) But it sounds from your reasoning like you'd go with #1: the poetic sense of morally bankrupt, not a legal term. Worth noting that he seems to be referring to an actual arrangement, legal or not, similar to the one depicted in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath with the peach-pickers. They have to live on the peach plantation and buy everything from the company store, which costs them more than their wages, and they end up in debt. (Guthrie was certainly aware of and admired Grapes, which he adapted to the song "Tom Joad".) Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 12:07
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    "buy everything from the company store, which costs them more than their wages". That arrangement is not palpable in these lyrics. The drover might have breached the contract (i.e., violate the laws the parties agreed upon). Tat scenario is different from there being some "law" which a reasonable person would consider morally bankrupt. Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 12:50
  • @IñakiViggers I can't rule out that he's invoking some such law here, or even that it means that the law backs up an unjust contact. Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 13:50

1 Answer 1


There is no such thing as a legally bankrupt law. The reference is to a morally bankrupt legal regime.

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