How did the cowbell go from a herdsman tool to a cultural icon? Modern Farmer has a brief post highlighting its entry into popular culture:
How did the humble cowbell end up on every drum kit of rock, hair and heavy metal band, its rhythmic beat infusing the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman” or feigning the tick-tock of a clock in the Chamber Brothers’“Time Has Come”?
Its path from serenity to the cult cry “I gotta have more cowbell!” from the famous Saturday Night Live skit in which Will Ferrell clangs along to Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” begins around 1904, according to David Ludwig, a composer and dean of creative programs at the Curtis Institute. That was the year two German composers got cowbell fever. Gustav Mahler used them to create a sense of the country for pastoral movements in his Symphony No. 6 and Richard Strauss used them in Alpine Symphony (see the percussionist jiggle them at 16:13).
Both men had spent time near country pastures in their youth, where locals celebrated the changing seasons with spring and fall cow parades called “Alpabzug” when herdsmen led the flocks through town to and from the mountain fields, their cowbells clanging in unison.