Notes from the prairie
How important music can be to a Western!
It must have been even more so in the early days, when there was no dialogue, for silent movies weren’t really silent. They nearly all had some kind of accompaniment, even if it was an old piano bashing out the notes to accompany the horse chase in a modest movie house in the boonies. Grander theaters in the big cities and sometimes even qite modest houses often had a complete orchestra. Motion pictures were a major source of employment for musicians.
Indeed, some of the A-pictures had music composed specially, while others got ‘cue sheets’ pairing on-screen action with recommended pieces of music. I read on one website (sorry, I forget where) that “The early composers for the burgeoning medium of film music were not second-rate hacks. Two of the most prolific composers of photoplay music working in the United States, JS Zamecnik and Gaston Borch, trained in Europe under the renowned composers Antonin Dvořák and Jules Massenet respectively.” I don’t know (I’d like to) if major silent Westerns like, say, William S Hart’s Hell’s Hinges in 1916 had a commissioned musical score but I wouldn’t be surprised.
In 1909 Edison started publishing Suggestions for Music. In 1913 volumes of music suggested for specific genres started to come out. Sam Fox Moving Picture Music had different suggestions for Indian music, cowboy music, exciting music for fights, for example. In 1918 the Filmusic Company published a catalogue of music available for mechanical instruments, with tunes suitable for all scenes in Westerns.
Wikipedia tells us that Paramount’s epic The Covered Wagon premièred in New York City on March 16, 1923. A musical soundtrack was recorded in the short-lived DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film process, but sources vary on whether this record soundtrack was of the entire score or about two reels worth of the film. The Phonofilm version of the film was only shown this way at the premiere at the Rivoli Theater in New York City.
Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard on the Miranda Open Edition Journals website says that Erno Rapée wrote an original score for Fox’s The Iron Horse in 1924 which was played when the film premièred at the Lyric Theatre in New York on August 28, 1924. This score was lost and only rediscovered in 2012. De Beauregard says, “Keenly sensitive to the power of music in his films, Ford ‘directly influenced the scores of the films that bear his name. He was notorious for collaborating on all aspects of a film’s production, including the musical score’ (Kalinak 2007, 12).” The writer adds, “The various characters are underscored by Rapée’s use of a single theme for each, which makes them identifiable for the audience.” The same year Rapée published his Motion Picture Moods for Pianists and Organists, which classified 52 different atmospheres and situations, and in 1927 Rapée published the Encyclopedia of Music for Pictures, which included forty pieces for Westerns.
As early a 1911 Motion Picture World declared it was tired of Westerns because the music was always the same. In 1926 not mush had changed, apparently, because playwright and screenwriter Rpobert E Sherwood said he was plased at the advent of Vitaphone recorded sound because he was tired o hearing Hearts and Flowers while the US Cavalry was galoping to the rescue and Horses, Horses, Horses in the love scenes.
When sound came in towards the end of the 1920s, music became integral to the film, not just an accompaniment. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences introduced a new category to its awards, originally called Best Scoring, in 1935. By then, though, after some major early-30s flops, the Western genre had largely been relegated to low-budget fare for the juvenile market, and was unlikely to qualify. A-picture Westerns like Fox’s The Big Trail and MGM’s Billy the Kid were too early to qualify, as was RKO’s Cimarron, though that one was nominated for five Oscars and won two, including Best Picture.
The first Western to be nominated for its music was when in 1937 Hal Roach sent Laurel and Hardy Way Out West. That nomination wasn’t for a masterly orchestral score, though, but for a song, actually the highlight of the film, when Stan and Ollie do an utterly sublime soft-shoe shuffle in front of the saloon (if you have never seen it I do urge you to; you will be entranced) to the strains of the Avalon Boys, a quartet consisting of Dan Brookins, Art Green, Walter Trask and Chill Wills (who also dubbed Stanley’s bass voice). It’s magical. They didn’t win, though. The Oscar went to some Deanna Durbin comedy scored by Charles Previn, ridiculous. Of course the Academy has a long history of getting it wrong.
The next film in the genre (though not really) to get close was The Cowboy and the Lady in 1938, one of Alfred Newman’s very many nominations (he’d eventually get nominated, though not win, for a Western in the 1963 awards for his work on How the West Was Won – which many love, and indeed much is classic old-style epic Western music). But The Cowboy and the Lady wasn’t a proper Western either, despite its star Gary Cooper, so we can’t count that, and anyway it didn’t win (it lost out musically to The Adventures of Robin Hood).
Finally, however, honors arrived in 1939, when Richard Hageman, W Franke Harling, John Leipold and Leo Shuken won the coveted statuette for the scoring of John Ford’s Stagecoach, and indeed that music was very memorable. Reworked and reused, it came to stand for a stagecoach bowling along in many another oater.
Victor Young had a bumper year at the 13th Awards. He got nominated for three Westerns! Yes, three. Arizona, Dark Command and North West Mounted Police. He didn’t win, but still. Young was a major figure of the Western soundtrack, writing such scores as Shane, The Tall Men, Rio Grande, Wells Fargo and Johnny Guitar among many others. Actually, George Stevens didn’t much like his music for Shane and in certain key scenes replaced it during the post-production phase with some that Young had written for another Paramount Alan Ladd movie, The Glass Key.
Westerns had to wait till 1943 for another try at the music Oscar, when In Old Oklahoma (if you call that a Western) and The Kansan (that was one) were both nominated. Similarly, Belle of the Yukon got a nomination in 1945 and The Harvey Girls in 1946 but it seemed that many of these early honors were for ‘Westerns’ which weren’t. True Westerns were maybe considered beneath the Academy.
The next actual victory was in 1950 for the Adolph Deutsch and Roger Edens melodies on Annie Get Your Gun (again, barely a Western, really a musical) but then of course in 1953 Dimitri Tiomkin won for the previous year’s High Noon. Actually, he won twice because he was also rewarded, along with Ned Washington (lyrics) for ‘Best Music, Original Song’ for the ballad Do Not Forsake Me, sung by Tex Ritter, which also became a best-selling record, in a cover version by Frankie Laine.
This was one of the few instances of the ‘singing cowboy’ sub-genre influencing A-Westerns. Ritter was an early star of what was then called country & western music, singing on the radio in the late 1920s and early 30s, and from 1936 on he made a lot of Westerns (rather inferior Westerns, to be brutally frank) distributed by less-than-major Grand National Pictures, and his voice was certainly well known. But of course he was not the first or even the most popular of the singing cowboys.
It was Gene Autry who did most to romanticize and commercialize the cowboy song tradition and give birth to the singing cowboy sub-genre of Western movie. He was already a successful singer and radio personality (his 1931 That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine sold over a million copies) when Nat Levine of Mascot brought him to Hollywood, and had him croon in a Ken Maynard oater, then star himself in the chapter play Phantom Empire. When Mascot merged into Republic, studio boss Herb Yates was also owner of The American Record Company, to which Autry was signed. Republic’s melodic Tumbling Tumbleweeds in 1935 was a big hit.
Suddenly, singing cowboys were all the rage, and Dick Foran (a former opera singer), Eddie Dean, Monte Hale, Rex Allen, Jimmy Wakely, Tex Ritter and more rode the range while strumming an anachronistic guitar – that instrument wasn’t popularized until the twentieth century. And even in series Westerns led by non-singers there was usually a country & western song or two included – take those Charles Starrett Durango Kid oaters as an example.
Autry’s heir was Roy Rogers, and his Sons of the Pioneers were also very successful. They too managed to move into the mainstream A-picture Western, notably for John Ford in Rio Grande and The Searchers – unlike Roy, who remained musically mute and guitarless when they put him as ingénu in Republic’s big Dark Command in 1940. Bob Nolan, effective leader of the Sons, wrote many of the most famous cowboy ballads.
A propos de Ford, James Stewart once said, “For John Ford, there was no need for dialogue. The music said it all.” Music, especially traditional Irish songs, but also the score (see above re The Iron Horse) were of great importance to him. Rio Grande was damn near a musical.
After High Noon, the intro ballad, usually more pop than cowboy, became a thing. It got so that you could hardly make a Hollywood Western without one. And the singers started to be featured as actors too, Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo, Frankie Avalon in The Alamo, Glenn Campbell in True Grit, and so on.
This was brilliantly sent up by Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles in 1974. The opening corny ballad (Oscar-nominated, words by Mel) is sung by Frankie Laine. He did it straight, not understanding that it was a parody, and it is the funnier for that. Laine had become a go-to for intro Western ballads, doing 3:10 to Yuma, Gunfight at the OK Corral, Rawhide on TV and many more. One speaker on the How the West Was Cast podcast said that Laine to the Western was what Shirley Bassey was to Bond movies.
When Marty Robbins turned to acting, he naturally gravitated to the Western. Better singers and better actors than Robbins, notably Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, made some memorable Westerns. Although both were capable of cynically turning out one-take trash to make a fast buck, they could also contribute fine performances occasionally. These tended, however, to be as actors; they didn’t sing. Elvis did, sometimes, and is hilarious when gyrating his pelvis to an audience of 1860s teeny-boppers in Love Me Tender, but he was also a good actor when he got the script and direction needed, as Flaming Star showed.
The pop singer in Westerns gave rise to a whole thread of country-singer oaters starring the likes of Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Trace Adkins, Willie Nelson and other artists. Often these too didn’t include a song by them; the guys were just having fun, trading in their guitars for a six-gun and Stetson. Many of them as actors made great singers. The same may be said of Bob Dylan in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, though his song Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door was a key part of that film.
Although they weren’t written specifically for the movie and many might think them incongruous, I find Leonard Cohen’s three songs in McCabe & Mrs Miller especially good. Stranger Song (McCabe), Winter Lady (Mrs Miller) and Sisters of Mercy (the prostitutes) seem entirely fitting and right to me. Bravo, Altman.
Just to finish the Oscars subject, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers won in 1954 and Oklahoma! in ’55, not Westerns, I agree, and that would be that till 1969, when Burt Bacharach’s kitsch jingle in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, so bad that it came near to sinking the whole picture, won the award, leaving in the cold the superb Jerry Fielding music for The Wild Bunch, but as I said, the Academy sure knew how to get things wrong. John Barry won for Dances with Wolves in 1990. In this century, Gustavo Santaolaila won for Brokeback Mountain (another non-Western) in 2005, Marco Beltrami was nominated for the remake of 3:10 to Yuma in 2007, and Morricone was back (sigh, see below) with Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight in 2015.
Back with orchestral scores in bigger westerns, we all have our favorites, no doubt. Just as an example, the popular-classics radio station Classic FM gives a list of “The greatest Western movie scores” which goes as follows:
- Red River (Dimitri Tiomkin)
- The Searchers (Max Steiner)
- The Big Country (Jerome Moross)
- The Magnificent Seven (Elmer Bernstein)
- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Ennio Morricone)
- A Fistful of Dollars (ditto)
- Once Upon a Time in the West (ditto)
- The Missouri Breaks (John Williams)
- The Wild Bunch (Jerry Fielding)
- Dances with Wolves (John Barry)
Many would agree with that list. You might too. I wouldn’t but it’s a matter of taste.
30% of the above were Morricone-composed. Personally, I think Morricone’s reputation as great musician is hugely undeserved but many greatly admire his stuff. Certainly spaghetti ‘music’ (in inverted commas because often it’s almost more sound-effects than melody, with its shouted ho ho motifs, whip cracks, amplified whistling and so on) has become enormously influential. It fed back into American Westerns after the spag boom was over and there’s a whole generation for whom spaghetti music is the Western. It’s evident in ads on TV, YouTube and so on: if you want to signal ‘Western’ to sell your product, you show Monument Valley but you play sub-Morricone spaghetti-style ‘music’. To be fair, Leone’s Dollars music was innovative. A lot of it in fact was because he couldn’t afford an orchestrated soundtrack. Echo-chamber whistling, twanging electric guitar and all the rest were infinitely cheaper.
Bernstein, yes, I’d include him alright. That Magnificent Seven score was stirring, exciting, melodic, just wonderful. The rip-off of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring when Calvera rides in to collect his tribute after a hard winter is brilliant. When the music surges after Chris and Vin have successfully delivered the coffin up to Boot Hill and gallop the hearse back down, it just makes you want to shout Yeehar! And Bernstein wrote so many memorable Western scores, True Grit and The Shootist, The Tin Star, Hud, so many. Although I thought the movie was lousy, The Hallelujah Trail also featured a wonderful Bernstein score. I have a nice recording of The Magnificent Seven and The Hallelujah Trail music on my iPod (I still use an iPod) by the Phoenix Symphony.
Somebody once derided Bernstein to me because the music was not “authentic”. That seems to me a daft criticism. What is authentic about any Western movie music? Precious little. The nearest we probably get to ‘authentic’ is the kind of film score that featured variations on old cowboy songs, the likes of Streets of Laredo, My Old Paint and The Chisholm Trail. David Raskin’s music for Across the Wide Missouri, for example, is largely, as you would imagine, variations on the theme of Oh, Shenandoah, a song which appears to have originated with fur traders traveling down the Missouri River. It’s actually rather pleasant. Skip to my Lou and Alouette, gentille alouette also figure. We can’t really call the bagpipe ‘tunes’ music, though.
There was perhaps the idea that using traditional airs in a Western signaled to the viewer that the picture was ‘historical’. It gave a (usually false) aura of period accuracy. Related to that may be the popularity of the word ballad in Western titles. The index of this blog alone will take you to reviews of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, The Ballad of Lefty Brown and The Ballad of Little Jo, and I’m sure there were more.
Ry Cooder’s music for The Long Riders, T-Bone Burnett on Heaven’s Gate (that roller-skate dance is just marvelous) and others went down this route. Actually, the music was the best thing about both those films. I love Jerry Goldsmith’s music for Wild Rovers, with its variations on a theme of Goodbye, Old Paint, lyrical, elegiac and triste. Similarly, there is rather delightful Adolph Deutsch music in Ramrod, which plays variations on a theme of These Thousand Hills but without the cheesy 50s Hollywood angel choirs in the movie of that name. Listen also to Jeff Alexander’s score for Escape from Fort Bravo or the R Dale Butts music in San Antone.
But incongruity can be good. Take Neil Young’s electric guitar music for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. I loved it so much that I bought it on CD but then found that it wasn’t at all the same on its own; it needs the visual. Roger Ebert in his review of the film wrote that “A mood might have developed here, had it not been for the unfortunate score by Neil Young, which for the film’s final 30 minutes sounds like nothing so much as a man repeatedly dropping his guitar.” Each to his own. Still, though, Roger (may you RIP), you were wrong there.
You get as much pleasure from listening to Pursued as you do watching it. The music is by Max Steiner and very well done. Dramatic and stirring in the action scenes, somber and slow in the quieter moments, tense and sinister when the story requires, it is always dark, dark, dark. I love the melancholy variations on Mendelssohn’s wedding march when the dysfunctional newly-weds arrive at their new home. A music box that plays the Londonderry Air figures, and Robert Mitchum sings along to it. The family dog reacts by howling. Steiner orchestrally reworked the air in the minor key here and there, with great effect. Sergio Leone was perhaps referencing this moment when he had a character sing Danny Boy in Once Upon a Time in the West. Mitchum also gets to sing Streets of Laredo, which had been playing on the saloon piano, as he rides along. Mitchum often sang in Westerns, and there was quite a pleasant timbre to his voice – he even released an LP – but he didn’t find it easy to hold a note in tune and probably would have benefited from some tuition or training.
And indeed, as the Western went noir in the late 1940s, the music went noir with it. Try the fine foreboding soundtrack of Blood on the Moon, by Robert Webb, seven times nominated for Best Music. Webb was, according to Alan K Rode in his book on the film, “the quintessential film noir composer.”
Of course a million Westerns featured a song in the saloon, but these ditties tended to be very much of their time (the 1940s and 50s) rather than ones sung in the frontier days.
Sometimes movies got some classy input. Republic’s The Red Pony, for example had a script by John Steinbeck and had music by Aaron Copland, who also wrote non-movie Western music such as Rodeo and Billy the Kid. But most didn’t get quite that quality of writing. When my Western is filmed it’s going to have Dvořák’s String Quartet in F major, Op 96, the American, as its soundtrack.
For me, the great Western scores were brilliant at evoking the sweeping landscapes that we have come to associate with the genre.
Some were clearly synchronized with the action in the post-production phase, which was quite clever, clashing chords for each knife-thrust, that kind of thing. Victor Young did it well in the otherwise dreary California, Dimitri Tiomkin did it brilliantly in Dakota Lil, as did Paul Sawtell on Silver City.
Some went for sub-Wagner opera music with each character having a theme. That could be effective, though the danger was overdoing it. There is much very fine about John Barry’s music for Dances with Wolves, for example, but that Dunbar’s theme, appropriate as it was, becomes repetitive to the point of boredom. I always liked Paul Sawtell’s music. Try his score for Flaming Feather, just as an example. There’s a theme for each character, even for the excellent four-up Concord which has a chirpy tune as it is shown bowling along.
Morricone took the idea to excess (naturally) in Once Upon a Time in the West. Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), Frank (Henry Fonda), Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and Harmonica (Charles Bronson) all have their own theme. The trouble is that Cardinale’s is woo-woo Hollywood angels and over-lush strings, Fonda’s is a jarring jangle, Robards’s is an irritating faux-comic clippety-cloppety and Bronson’s is, of course, a grating harmonica. The soundtracks of Morricone, oddly much lauded, were always trite and banal and usually maddening by the end of the movie, as in this case. He did the same in Two Mules for Sister Sara.
In Duel in the Sun, Tiomkin’s music for which is often, appropriately for the film, overblown and grandiloquent, Lillian Gish sings Beautiful Dreamer at the piano, which is fine, but subsequently whenever she appears or is mentioned, Hollywood angels croon the tune in their slushiest way. It certainly doesn’t get you to the end of the movie any more quickly, though it does increase your urge to.
Still, I’m a huge Tiomkin fan. The non-Tex Ritter music for High Noon, Red River of course, less so for The Alamo (it is good in parts but often disfigured by schmaltz and soppiness), The Unforgiven, The Big Sky, so many. He was truly one of the greats.
Among my many other favorites are Hugo Friedhofer (Broken Arrow and Hondo, for example), Max Steiner (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, They Died with Their Boots On), Nick Cave (the Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), Bruce Broughton (Silverado, rightly Oscar-nominated), James Horner (The Missing), but the list is too long to complete. Which ones do you love? Leave a comment, please.
Lastly, I’d just say that much as I like a lot of Western film music, there’s a time for silence on the soundtrack, or just wind noise on the prairie or in the mountains. Especially in moments of tension, a lack of music can be as powerful as the most thrilling orchestration. Quite a few great directors understood this.