A cowboy key – how the west was sung

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze,
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees,
Send me off forever but I ask you please,
Don’t fence me in.
Cole Porter and lyrics by Robert Fletcher and Cole Porter.

Outlaw songs and cowboy gothic

“An old cowpoke went riding by one dark and windy day …”

In his informative and entertaining Way Out West series, in The Immortal Jukebox, British blogger and music chronicler Thom Hickey reminds us that the Western Writers of America declared Ghost Riders In The Sky the greatest of all Western songs.  I’m totally with Thom  here. Written and recorded in 1948 by Sons of The Pioneers alumni Stan Jones, it is probably the best of a glorious herd. The lyrics echo the Seer of Patmos’ four horsemen of the apocalypse …

Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel
Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel
A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky
For he saw the riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cry

It’s as far way from “Whoopee ti yi yo, get along little dogies” as Kansas is from Oz.

Stan Jones also wrote the haunting and evocative theme for John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece, The Searchers. It is a quixotically existential song

What makes a man to wander?
What makes a man to roam?
What makes a man leave bed and board
And turn his back on home?
Ride away, ride away, ride away

The Searchers is regarded by many to be the best ever western, and many modern filmmakers pay visual homage to it – recall Kill Bill and Westworld. I would argue that it is the second best, after Clint Eastwood’s redemptive avenger saga The Outlaw Josie Wales –  which also had a memorable song, the corny Rose of Alabama, which would not be in Thom’s or anyone’s else’s cowboy song pantheon.

The Searchers and Kill Bill

And there’s Marty Robbins’ fatal fight for the affections of flirtatious Feleena at Rosa’s cantina in the West Texas town of El Paso. Yes, El Paso of 1959 is up there near the summit. It’s a crowded peak, with these songs tussling for space alongside a swag of worthy contenders.

Western movies provided irresistible opportunities for city songwriters to try their hands at moralistic cowboy carols. These included the Tin Pan Alley ring-in written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and sung so well by Gene Pitney: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Those who tamed the wild west had cleaved to an ambivalent moral code …

But the point of a gun
Was the only law that Liberty understood
When the final showdown came at last
A law book was no good

From the moment a girl gets to be full grown
The very first thing she learns
When two men go out to face each other
Only one returns

The cowboy hero faced many challenges in his lonesome quest – none more so than Marshall Will Kane in Stanley Kramer’s showdown classic High Noon (1952) with its iconic theme song written by Ukrainian-born Dimitri Tiomkin and sung by the Chicago son of Sicilian immigrants Francesco Paolo LoVecchio – known to us as crooner Frankie Laine.

Oh, to be torn ‘tweenst love and duty
Supposin’ I lose my fair-haired beauty
Look at that big hand move along
Nearin’ high noon

The song is iconic. But rather than platy it here, here is something completely different – the Ukrainian version performed by a shadowy, iconoclastic Australian combo:

Frankie Laine became a master of the genre with a swag of hits, including Gunfight at the OK Corral, Mule Train, The Hanging Tree, Cool Water, and Rawhide.

And on the subject of films, let’s never  forget the luminous, numinous, pulchritudinous Jane Fonda as Cat Balou on that “hangin’ day in Wolf City, Wyoming”, serenaded outside her death cell by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kayes as celluloid Earl Flatt and Lester Scruggs.

 Pancho was a bandit, boys –  outlaw chic

There is a multitude of latter day tributes to the genre. Many have tried their hand, and many have given us songs that endure. One is most certainly the mysteriously poignant, mariachi fever-dream Pancho and Lefty by the doomed Texan troubadour Townes Van Zandt, a song that has been covered by Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan. Townes later said that when writing the song, he had in mind President Nixon – figure that one out (as Neil Young did when he declaimed in The Old Campaigner that “even Richard Nixon has got soul …”).

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel,
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel

“Dying outlaw’ ballads are a breed of their own, ranging from the maudlin and admonitory “take a warning from me” Streets of Laredo, to the syrupy Seven Spanish Angels sung so beautifully by Ray Charles and Willie Nelson:

There were seven Spanish angels at the altar of the sun
They were praying for the lovers in the valley of the gun
When the battle stopped and the smoke cleared
There was thunder from the throne
And seven Spanish angels took another angel home.
Troy Seals and Eddie Setser

Bob Dylan gave us an outlaw Romeo and Juliet on with Romance in Durango, not one of Desire’s outstanding tracks, but what a grand chorus.

No llores, mi querida, Dios nos vigila
Soon the horse will take us to Durango
Agarrame, mi vida, Soon the desert will be gone
Soon you will be dancing the fandango

El Paso, Pancho, Durango, those attendant Spanish angels it is passing paradox that notwithstanding America’s ambivalent relationship with its Latino demographic, a Hispanic mystic permeates so many gorgeous songs!

Cocaine canyon bad-boy Warren Zevon, never lost for a cowboy and rebel riff in his outstanding gothic oeuvre (think, his ingenue Frank and Jessie James and his ruinous Play It All Night Long), and his ballad of how two-timing Jeannie needed “a shooter, a shooter on her side”.

Neither songs’ protagonist came out alive. But not all our trigger-happy troubadours end up with a bullet or a noose. The Everly Brothers sent a Message to Mary from a cold cell where the failed stage-coach robber was doing a long stretch, advising Mary that she ought to court a better beau; and Marty Robbins’ would be lucky enough to be spared at The Hanging Tree.

Bob Dylan’s wonderful Blood on the Tracks included the cowboy-noir ballad Rosemary, Lily and the Jack of Hearts, a characters-driven saloon story of payback and pay-dirt which would not be out of place in decadent Deadwood and wired Westworld.

And, of course, there are the songs to the cowboy’s best pal, his Four Legged Friend. Roy Rogers blazed this equine trail, with that very song about his photogenic palomino Trigger. St. Leonard of Montreal, who had aspirations once upon a time to join a cowboy band, has given us his lyrically gorgeous paean to the pony and its desolate rider with the Ballad of the Absent Mare:

Say a prayer for the cowboy
His mare’s run away
And he’ll walk til he finds her
His darling, his stray

And from the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s Lyle Lovett calling up both Roy and Trigger and singing of how “… we could all together go out on the ocean, me upon my pony on my boat”.

And Lee Hazelwood, “the wayward guru of cowboy psychedelia” and onetime mentor of Nancy Sinatra (yes, he wrote The Boots Were Made For Walking – all over you), with his Great Plains drawl and his hankering for the outlaw Bad Girl who’d “took my silver spurs, a dollar and a dime, and left me cravin’ for more Summer Wine” with its “strawberries, cherries and an angel’s kiss in spring”. He was the inspiration for a kind of cowboy gothic that saw urban roustabout cos-play with Wild West dress-ups and bad-boy cowboy noir that found its apotheosis in the cover of the Eagles’s Desperado.

Emmylou Harris’ beau, Carolina coast-born Gram Parsons, who brought the Byrds eight miles down to the Sweetheart of the Rodeo,  pioneered “country rock”, Hes went on to muster Keith Richards into the rockabilly ambiance of the Rolling Stones’s Devils Banquet, and on the brink of stardom, he exited on an overdose at the Jericho Tree Motel, close to the primeval vegetation that provided the title for Irish band U2’s excellent album – but that is not part of this story.

As big as all outdoors

Lost my heart in the Black Hills
The Black Hills of Dakota
Where the pines are so high
That they kiss the sky above
Sammy Fain, and Paul Francis Webster

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,
There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,
The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye,
An’ it looks like its climbin’ clear up to the sky.
Oh what a beautiful morning, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

It was inevitable that cowboys should infiltrate that most American of theatrical excess, the musical. And the contributions of the great musical songwriters – many of them urban Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe – have endured with countless outings on screen and stage. Oklahoma gave us songs  “as big as all outdoors” with the title song, its standout ballad Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’, and the hand-clappin’, foot-stompin’ The Farmer and the Cow Man  (“Territory Folks should stick together”). Seven Brides For Seven Brothers brought the backwoods to the city with its retelling of the old tale of “the sobbin’ women who lived in the Roman days (“… least that’s what Plutarch said!”) and songs like Wonderful, Wonderful Day, Bless Your Beautiful Hide, and Goin’ Courtin’. The rags to rodeo soapie Annie Get Your Gun gave us Doin’ What Comes Naturally and Anything You can Do. As they say, “there’s no business like show business”, and any excuse for a barn dance, shindig, hoedown or hootenanny.

My personal favourite is Calamity Jane. Doris Day could not be further from Robin Weigert’s foul-mouthed, drunk of Deadwood, but boy, could she “whip crack away” as she drove the Deadwood Stage into town. And didn’t we all yearn for “the Black Hills and the beautiful Indian country that I love” – notwithstanding the brutal irony that the seizure of that Indian country was the prelude to the annihilation of the Plains Indians.

Musical movies give film stars with terrible voices a chance to let it all hang out. Paint Your Wagon, was brought painfully and rib-ticklingly to life on the big screen by Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, who were not, to borrow Leonard Cohen’s word, “born with the gift of the golden voice”. Gruff Rod Steiger’s darkish Poor Judd is Daid  in Oklahoma gave Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris license to break out in dubious song in Man of La Mancha and Camelot. There is something evocative and timeless about Lee’s croaky I Was Born Under a Wondering Star: “wheels were mean for rollin’, mules were mad to pack; I never saw a sight that don’t look better lookin’ back”. One can’t help but like it.

And whilst we’re breaking out the corn that sometimes is “as high as an elephant’s eye”, I have to admit that I have also always had an inexplicable affection for Tony Orlando’s melodramatic, latter-day revenger tragedy and El Paso clone I Did What I Did For Maria, and the overblown, whip-crackin’ Legend of Xanadu by that peculiar British band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch (the video is below – very cowboy cosplay and “all a bit Zorro”). Which brings us ineluctably – to the irreverently awful, bowdlerized Rawhide by the strange Scottish The Chaps (as in blokes or cowboy leg coverings?) and Sting’s eminently forgettable Cowboy Song. Here’s Tony grooving it with the dolly-birds during the decade that fashion forgot. And we never did find out “what he did to Maria”.

My cowboy days

How many Aussies of a certain age did not thrill at the Banjo’s ballad of the bushman that is almost our national poem:

He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side,
Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,
Where a horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,
The man that holds his own is good enough.

Though I was immigrant and a townie, I had my ‘cowboy’ days. I was not a good rider, but I loved the craic. Not a natural like Adele. When we first met, she kept four horses and looked after a whole riding school of them, bringing them in bareback riding, stock-whip cracking, a proper jillaroo. ‘Western pleasure’, it was called. No jackets and jodhpurs – it was cowboy hats, boots and blue jeans – before helmets and Occupational Health and Safety. I rode her gorgeous chestnut quarter horse called Twopence, and she, a handsome palomino named Trigger (of course). A riding accident put me in hospital – and I never rode a horse again. See In That Howling Infinite‘s The Twilight of the Equine Gods.

My riding days are over, but as this post will aver, I am still into westerns, and as a onetime musician myself, I have, in days gone by, penned songs in a cowboy key.

The Ballad of The Drover’s Dog is twin to iconic Australian poet Henry Lawson’s Harry Dale The Drover, that wistful if overwrought tragedy of the homeward bound stock-man who, along with his faithful hound, comes to grief in the flooded creek. Playing at a pub in Pontadawe, in South Wales, we sang the story of Bluey, the brave blue cattle dog. As ever, the audience took the song seriously albeit sardonically. But this time it was different – knowing smile flickered across many faces. Afterwards, folk came up to us and asked if we heard of Swansea Jack. Read the notes that accompany the song. Greater love hath no dog. Inspired by Henry, this story references council by-laws governing Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach.

From The Ballad of The Drovers Dog, it is only a hop, step, and a boot scoot to that song that dares not mention its name, a rollicking cross between The Man From Snowy River and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, It is likewise loosely based on a true story, as is Capricorn Cowboy. We were doing a gig in cairns, in the tropical far north of Australia, against a backdrop of frogs and cicadas, street noise and broken and breaking glasses. One of the floor singers was Henry, a wannabe country & western singer. And country music of the cowboy variety is a thread that runs through most of these songs and stories. Three quarter time, regardless of the subject matter. I Still Call Mongolia Home, notwithstanding its title and subject matter, is a cowboy song through and through, dedicated as it is to The Duke himself. And Summer Is The Time, a Viking saga that meanders all over the map , resolves into a finale that would not be out of place in Oklahoma! Well, sort of. Listen to it and also the story of Henry below.

My Cowboy Days with Twopence & Trigger

Postscript – a cowboy like me

Americans love their outlaws and really love them running wild, and if that means going out in a blaze of glory, so much the better. We recall the closing camera pan of Bonny and Clyde, and the fade to sepia freeze-frame ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In part, this is because the world’s most powerful country, and indeed, as recent history has shown, most libertarian, cleaves to its foundational “don’t tread on me” and “us against them” identities. In the American noir series Justified, an inept backwoods criminal declaims “he who is not with us – is not with us!”

But it is not only America, the land of the free and the Boogaloo Bois. England has its perennial and ageless Robin Hood – “age cannot wither nor custom stale” his infinite screen resurrections (there’s another on the way in 2021). And aren’t we still fascinated by those East End bully boys, the Kray Twins, DownUnder, the ghost of Ned Kelly haunts our ethos still, alongside those our famed and favoured bushrangers Captain Lightfoot and Ben Hall.

But the fascination with the cowboy is much more than outlaw chic. It is a deep and colourful repository of folk memories and foundation myths where fact and fiction coexist. During the closing scenes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the journalist says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. And it was always thus. As German cultural scientist Ulrich Raulff’s captivating “micro-history” Farewell to the Horse, “Like love and the stock exchange, our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking, sacrificed to our faith and blind to known facts…This is why historical myths are so tenacious. It’s as though the truth even when it’s there for everyone to see, is powerless – it can’t lay a finger on the all powerful myth”.  [See: The Twilight of the Equine Gods]

The sad irony is that even as these songs, films and musicals were being created, the world of the cowboy was fast disappearing. Films such as The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid saw its protagonists exit in a blaze of bloody glory. But the reality was more poignant: a slo-mo and allegorical lone rider heading into the sunset for one last time, an American archetype that is lost forever, as country singer Ed Bruce tells us in The Last Cowboy Song, the end of a hundred year waltz”, the video illustrated with a fine gallery of old photographs that recall Frederic Remington’s iconic paintings.

An Oklahoman friend reminded me of the famous Chisholm Trail, the rout for arduous cattle drives that traversed her state from Texas to Kansas. And there it is in Ed Bruce’s song too, together with references to Lewis & Clark, The Alamo, Custer’s Last Stand and other American epics. I had visions of visions of Rawhide and a young Clint Eastwood, but I also recalled our own  Long Paddock, the “travelling stock routes” where stockmen would walk their cattle to market over hundreds of miles exist today largely as tourist drives. Like the cowboy, our “drover” is a precious but passing of artefact of historical iconography.

We all get that cowboy vibe, the idea of a life lived on the edge. Though long “civilized” and sedentary, we harbour atavistic folk memories of running wild and free – from the law, from the tax man, from ‘civilization and its discontents‘. Even Taylor Swift has got the drift – albeit as image rather than actual.

© Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

 

For more posts on matters America in In That Howling Infinite, see My Country ’tis of thee, and on music, Soul Food- music and musicians.

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