UKULELE MUSING 34, 24 AUGUST 2019—“ROOTIN’ TOOTIN’ COWBOY SONGS OF THE WILD WEST (SORT OF . . .)”
An ever -popular form of American music today is what we call “Country.” In years past, the category was called “Country and Western” and still further back in time “Hillbilly and Cowboy.”
Many, many songs in our Blue and Yellow Books come from this genre and most were composed and written by real folks from the hills and prairies—think The Carter Family, Carson Robeson, and that ilk.
As to the so-called cowboy songs in our books, many evoke the mythic ways and denizens of the American West and are fun to sing and hear.
Take a listen to our nearby “Sugarloaf String Band” to see what I mean. Good friends, good tunes, and good times right here in our “Happy Valley!”
Sugarloaf String Band: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-Cb9qIfgJE
There are a couple of so-called cowboy tunes in our book, however, that just might rate an asterisk—ones that are a bit more Hollywood than Wild West. Take, for example, “I’m an Old Cowhand, From the Rio Grande.”
This was from the pen of the prolific songwriter from Savannah, Georgia, Johnny Mercer (1909-1976)—about as Eastern as you can get—who wrote lyrics for dozens of witty hits like “Ac-Cen-Thu-Ate the Positive,” and “That Old Black Magic.”
He wrote it for the movie “Rhythm on the Range” and it was sung by its star, Bing Crosby, a quintessential Hollywoodian. This was back in 1936 and the Bing Crosby/Tommy Dorsey recording became a huge hit of the day.
The story is that Mercer and his wife were driving across the USA back to Savannah after having apparently failed to succeed in Hollywood. Mercer was amused by the sight of cowboys, with spurs and ten-gallon hats, driving cars and trucks instead of riding horses.
Singing cowboys were popular in films and on the radio then, and within fifteen minutes, writing on the back of an envelope, Mercer transferred the image he was seeing into a song whose satirical lyrics about a 20th-century cowboy who has little in common with the cowpunchers of old vented some of his own bitter frustration with Hollywood.
Sons of the Pioneers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWcsC12Wpe8
This song was recorded by many folks over time and members of the Western Writers of America—a regional literary and cultural society—chose it as one of the top Western songs of all time. Go figure!
Another example of a Hollywood/Western song from our books, albeit with a tad more cowboy cred, is “Don’t Fence Me In.”
This was written in 1934 with music by Cole Porter (1891-1964)—another decidedly non-Westerner who had been a Yale Whiffenpoof and a Broadway songwriter of such American Songbook standards as “Begin the Beguine” and “Anything Goes.”
Originally written for an unproduced movie, “Adios, Argentina,” the lyrics were based on a genuine cowboy poem by one Robert Fletcher of Helena, Montana.
Roy Rogers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLoYFvbR0XY
Porter, who had been asked to write a cowboy song for the movie, bought the poem from Fletcher for $250 and tweaked the lyrics to fit his melody. Although it became one of the most popular songs of its time—number one on “The Hit Parade”—Porter claimed it was his least favorite of his compositions and, in fact would never play it—even if begged—at any of the many New York cocktail parties where he was a frequent martini-drinking, piano-playing guest.
Yet, this is another song that members of the Western Writers of America chose as one of the top Western songs of all time. Again, go figure.
Ella Fitzgerald (With original lyrics): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHLr3FzgpOY
Porter’s revision of the song retained quite a few portions of Fletcher’s poem, such as “Give me land, lots of land”, “… breeze … cottonwood trees”, “turn me loose, let me straddle my old saddle,” “mountains rise … western skies”, “cayuse,” “where the West commences,” and “… hobbles … can’t stand fences.” But in some places he modified them to give them what critics have called Porter’s sophisticated “Manhattanite” touch.
Once again, many singers recorded the song over the years. It seems that everyone but Porter liked it!
Cole Porter (At the piano): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wd1w5tn040g
So, as the sun sinks slowly in the west, we can strum our little four-string cowboy “gitars”
and have some fun with how a couple of songwriters from way out East produced a couple of classic tunes from way out West. Enjoy, pardners!