In Search Of Singing Cowboys

I was watching an old Western movie the other day, and I got to thinking about how so much of what we think we know about the history of the American West was actually shaped by Hollywood. Of course, they were probably just following the pattern set years earlier by dime-novels, but Hollywood took the myths from those books and used them as a starting point to create an entire industry of movies filled with inaccuracies.

A good example is the classic gunfight that’s in almost every Western movie. You know the kind I mean. The hero has to face down a bad guy, usually after a slow walk down a dusty street, and shoot him down like the dog he is — but only after the bad guy starts to go for his gun first. That makes it self-defense, right?

It usually didn’t happen that way in the real world. Historians now pretty much agree that although there were occasional gunfights, they were usually brief, wild exchanges that were most often won by the luckiest shooter. And that self-defense thing was defined a little differently too. Just hearing that someone had threatened you was enough justification to shoot him first, even in the back. After the dust settled, folks would try to figure out whether anyone should be put in jail. Often that would depend on which side had the most friends in high places, not who was right or wrong.

There are rare instances of filmmakers getting a little closer to reality, such as in Kevin Kostner’s Open Range. In that movie, the good guys and bad guys are engaged in a tense jawin’ match, and Kostner (a good guy) sets off the fireworks by abruptly walking up to one of the baddest of the bad guys, drawing his shootin’ iron, and plugging the guy right between the eyes.

Kostner bypasses another movie cliché near the end of the extended gunfight. Most of the bad guys have been gunned down by then, but one of them grabs Kostner’s ladyfriend as a hostage. You expect a long, drawn-out talking scene, possibly ending with her biting the guy’s hand so that Kostner can shoot him. Nope, Kostner doesn’t say a word. He simply shoots over the lady’s shoulder and blows the guy away.cowboy

But although some modern movies have gotten more realistic in some aspects, there’s another facet that they’ve neglected. Think about it — you no longer see much evidence of music in Western movies. And I’m not talking about soundtrack albums and/or background music. Simply put, I’m asking: whatever happened to singing cowboys?

I’m not asking for moviemakers to go back to the days of Gene Autry and others, wearing those frilly shirts and warbling to their horse. There have been countless numbers of those kinds of movies made in the past, and I really don’t miss them. After all, watching a young John Wayne trying to sing is painful.

But it’s been pretty well determined that music was often part of cowboy life, and even though I’m not sure they really sang to the cattle to calm them down as legend suggests, it’s probably a safe bet that they spent some time singing around the campfire. After all, they had time on their hands and it wasn’t that uncommon in those days for someone to have a harmonica, or even a fiddle or guitar.

Many of the songs from those days have survived through the years, and have been recorded at various times by dedicated musicians. I think it would be a hoot to see more of the characters in Western movies break into song while sitting around the campfire. Hollywood, are you listening?

Charlie Daniels – “Old Chisholm Trail

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