Singing Cowboys and Tone-deaf Cowgirls

Singing cowboys made their entrance onto the silver screen in the 1930s and remained popular through the early 1950s. Perhaps the two most well-known are Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

Gene Autry and Smiley Burnette singing “Deep in the Heart of Texas” in Heart of the Rio Grande (1942)

The singing cowboy actually began in Medicine shows where businesses like the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company sold bottles of “Kickapoo Magic Snake Oil” with Indian brand labels. This led audiences to connect the iconic symbol of Indians to Cowboys of the West, so much so that it became part of advertising for the shows. “The earliest known collection of cowboy songs was published a producer of patent medicines, Clark Stanley, in 1897” which he used to advertise his goods.”[1]

Forms of singing commonly associated with cowboys include yodeling. In Europe yodeling pre-dates Shakespeare, but the art form wasn’t popular in the United States until the 19th century. Even then, the yodeling cowboy came not from the West but from minstrel shows, with the first show that included yodeling being promoted by “Tom Christian, a blackface minstrel who made his début in Chicago in 1847.”[2]

Here is an example of a true yodel combined with Western influence by Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers singing “A Swiss Yodel” in 1934.

When medicine shows toured the South the iconographic music morphed with the “blue yodel” of the minstrel shows and with folk and Hillbilly influences to become Country and Western music, a style that was raw and a bit too telling of the mostly poor and rural people these songs were about. How would one clean up this act? With a cowboy in a white hat, of course. The singing cowboy is “intimately tied up in the process of making Country music respectable and therefore marketable. It was the image and mythology of the cowboy that provided the most accessible means of repressing the vulgarity of Southern vernacular music.”[3]

The idea behind a cowboy who sings also replicates cowboys singing to settle herds of cattle at night during long cattle drives and for cowhands to stave off boredom. This character in movies makes this sub-genre rather unique. Unlike the traditional musical where the songs are written to tell part of the story and are fitted to the script, the Westerns that spotlight the singing cowboy are quasi-musical motion pictures that showcase the cowboy’s musical talent through popular western songs. In these western-type musicals, women are portrayed swooning over the cowboys who are serenading them. For the most part, women in these Westerns are depicted in a way that is consistent with most other films from this era: as good girls who need rescuing by a handsome cowboy so they can ride off into the sunset together. There are some who take second stage to a cowboy’s horse, but others who sing along with their cowboy partners.

In the 1951 Columbia picture, Whirlwind starring Gene Autry and Gail Davis, he opens with a song that gives the audience an indication of where he stands. The lyrics begin, “Ain’t no lady gonna break my heart, as long as I’ve got my horse.”[4] His horse, Champ, was a beautiful light sorrel, leaving the lady in the picture to earn her way into Autry’s heart.

Gene Autry singing “As Long as I Have My Horse” in Whirlwind (1951)

One may wonder why these women put up with secondary roles that portrayed them as completely dependent on crooning cowboys. However, these films were popular during a time when American society needed assurances about traditional roles of women. From the Depression to the Cold War much of motion picture entertainment centered on reflections of the normalcy of tradition, even if it was a romanticized rather than realistic version. Also noticeable is the constantly recurring “happy ending” in Hollywood: the good guy gets the girl and they live happily ever after. This led to the popularity of movie star couples on and off the screen. The most famous of the Western duets were Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

Perhaps Dale Evans can best explain this as she grew up dreaming of marrying a cowboy, Tom Mix in fact, while she also “admired silent serial heroine Ruth Roland.”[5] Evans’ pursuit of a career reflected a mixture of these two things as she become known as “Queen of the West,” partnering with her co-star and later husband, the “King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers.” Their first picture together, The Cowboy and the Señorita, was made in 1944.[6] Evans and Rogers also had a series for which Evans wrote the closing song, the famous “Happy Trails,” reflecting her talents in writing, music, and acting.

This is a tribute to Dale Evans and Roy Rogers singing “Happy Trails” and highlighting some of Evans’ many famous costumes.

One of the rare women to play the lead as a singing cowgirl was Dorothy Page. She starred as “The Singing Cowgirl” in a series of three B-Westerns by Grand National Pictures. Unlike other Westerns, Page was the star with top billing, and played the lead in fighting against rustlers and other bad guys; as in the sub-genre of Western musicals, these films simply inserted some songs into the typical story-lines. Although the three films Water Rustlers (1938), Ride’em Cowgirl (1939), and The Singing Cowgirl (1939) were not the successes the studio had hoped for, they did at least briefly allow women a place in the spotlight. For even if overlooked in popular Westerns, women built the West alongside men and have a place in the stories we love to tell about this heritage.

The film, “The Singing Cowgirl” starring Dorothy Page.

[1] Stanfield, Peter. “Dixie Cowboys and Blue Yodels” The Strange History of the Singing Cowboy” qtd. In Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson, eds. Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western. (London: British Film Institute, 1998), 97.

[2] Ibid, 98

[3] Ibid, 100.

[4] Gail Davis is probably most well known for playing Annie Oakley in the series produced by Gene Autry’s Flying-A Productions. The show ran from 1954-56. Boyd Magers and Michael G. Fitzgerald, Westerns Women: Interviews with 50 Leading Ladies of Movie and Television Westerns from the 1930s to the 1960s. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1999), 67.

[5] Magers, Boyd and Michael G. Fitzgerald, Westerns Women: Interviews with 50 Leading Ladies of Movie and Television Westerns from the 1930s to the 1960s. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1999), 84.

[6] Ibid, 84.

 

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