Ballads of the Frontier West, Part 1

Marty Robbins Ballads

Hey, Giselle!

Wow, I have been away too long!  How is life treating you, Robert, and Morgan?  That’s great! 

Me?  Well, as you can see, I’ve been busy lately.  First it was torture DiNozzo by droning on and on about animated TV shows and movies.  Then it was burn off the ears of Marvel Comics’ writers – again.  And then it was talk to DiNozzo about movies again.  So I’ve had a full schedule for – whew, ages.  This will be a nice break.

I’m curious.  What do you think of when you hear the term ‘Western ballads’? 

Wait.  You don’t know any? 

Well then, have I got some suggestions for you!

I will warn you, some of these suggested songs are kind of sad.  The man in each of these upcoming ballads dies, loses his girlfriend and then dies, or is struggling through some terrible hardship.  People don’t really make up ballads these days; but the genre that included Western ballads some years ago is now called country music.

It is not an inaccurate name for this style of music.  But there are people who like to make fun of it, usually by saying, “What happens when you play country music backwards?  You get your girlfriend back, you get your truck back, and you get your dog back…”

I guess it is a pretty funny joke.  And most country songs do talk about some poor fella reaching the end of his rope after losing his dog, his truck, his girlfriend, etc.  But that doesn’t make the music bad.  And it certainly does not diminish the stories in each song – that is, after all, why they are called ballads.  They are supposed to tell stories; particularly romantic or sentimental narratives.  One can’t get much more sentimental than empathizing with somebody who has lost it all through hard luck. 

Not only that, most of the ballads I am about to list are based on the kinds of events cowhands and others in the American West actually had to deal with.  An example is ‘Cool Water,’ which you can find here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8ewWSMNoHI.  In this song, Marty Robbins (he’s the singer) tells the story of a man and his horse trying to cross the desert.

The problem is they have run out of water.

One of the terrifying things about almost every desert on earth is that people stranded in nature’s ovens have often perished mere feet from water.  ‘Cool Water’ never mentions whether its protagonist found any water.  In this way it points out the reality of the frontier; there were no certainties, there was no easy way out.  One either learned the ways of the desert or one lost trying.  Sadly, some did not even have the chance to try.

Oh, yes, the girlfriend.  Most of those who dislike country music would probably roll their eyes at these two songs, but the thing is that the events in the ballads probably happened.  Not as often as they are portrayed in film, books, etc., but it is likely that they did happen at one time or another.

The first of these songs is ‘El Paso’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIHRgisdbeY), and the second is ‘Runnin’ Gun’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YjWMNKnfjd8).  Both, like ‘Cool Water,’ are performed by Marty Robbins.  I don’t know if someone else has recorded these songs since his death, and if they have I don’t want to hear them.  Mr. Robbins is one of the best balladeers I have ever heard; to listen to anyone else sing these songs would only ruin them for me.

‘El Paso’ describes the fate of a young cowhand who falls for a Mexican saloon girl.  While she returns his affections (at least the ballad implies she does, as does a tie-in ballad bearing her name, ‘Feleena’), she will not leave her job.  She enjoys it too much.

Well, this leads to her flirting with another handsome cowboy.  Her cowboy is at the saloon this particular night.  Furious with jealousy, he kills this ‘rival.’  And then he bolts.  Killing, as many Western shows attest, was a hanging offense in that era.

So was horse stealing.  This poor fella grabbed the fastest horse hitched in front of the saloon and sped out of El Paso.  He dies at the end of the song, of course, because his love for Feleena is “stronger than [his] fear of death.”

While I have no statistics describing how often this type of scenario occurred, it would not surprise me if it happened more than once.  Still, that doesn’t make it quite as popular an event as Western television shows and movies may have led people to believe.  After all, how many knights back in the Middle Ages actually went around killing evil kings so they could win the hand of the kidnapped princess?  One or two might have done it, but stories need a plot.  The writer’s job is a whole lot easier if all he does is reuse the same plot in each story, with a few changes to spice each one up, of course.

‘Runnin’ Gun’ is similar to ‘El Paso’ in that Robbins’s, ummm, character, I suppose, dies.  However, this character is not killed because he shot a man in a saloon, though he may have nailed more than one in a bar.

‘Runnin’ Gun’ is the story of a wandering gunman for hire.  He’s fast with a six shooter (called such because the cylinder could hold six bullets), and killing is what keeps food in his mouth, clothes on his back, and a pillow under his head at night.  ‘Fast draws’ of the Old West have been replaced by writers these days with a more modern equivalent: assassins or hit men for hire.

This man’s no different than most of the assassins detailed in current literature: he has a sweetheart back home, and his life of constant killing means that “the nights begin to haunt [him] by the men that [he] left dead.”  So he decides to get out of the business and tells his girlfriend, Jeannie, that he will send for her once he is safely in Mexico.

Except that a bounty hunter finds him long before he makes it across the border.  Just like other fast draws before him, Robbins’ character meets a man with a faster hand, whom he predicts will someday end up in his place. 

Maybe the bounty hunter does, maybe he doesn’t.  Not every gunman of the Old West died because of (cough) ‘lead poisoning.’

Last song.  ‘Utah Carol’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yejiDPbaHCQ) tells the story of a cowhand killed while out herding cattle.  This I know was a common enough occurrence back in the Old West so that I do not doubt the ballad is a twining of several such incidents.  In ‘Utah Carol,’ Robbins invites his friends (the listeners) to hear his tale about his old friend, Utah Carol.

Utah is described as a model cowboy.  One day, he and the other hands are busy rounding up the cattle when the rancher’s daughter joins them on her own pony.  Unfortunately, she no sooner rides up to the hands then something spooks the cattle and the herd begins to stampede. 

Being a smart girl, she makes a run for it.  But her saddle girth breaks and she falls off her mount.

Now, there is nothing that can stop a stampede of cattle or horses.  If a herd of either animal gets frightened enough, they will charge through anything – and through anyone. 

Utah Carol, being the hero he is, rides up and tries to get the girl on his pony.  But that doesn’t work.  So Utah gets the rancher’s daughter out of harm’s way and, since his pony’s gone and he’s the only thing standing, the herd charges at him.  Before it reaches him, Utah manages to “drop the leading steer,” presumably with a shot from his pistol. 

And so Utah Carol dies a hero’s death.  This song is not quite as sad, in principle, as the other ballads listed.  They are all wonderful to listen to and, if you like singing (which I know you do), they are easy to keep up with.  Considering these are songs that actual cowhands probably sang around the campfire (and may still sing around it today), I also enjoy the history attached to them.

Okay, maybe real events did not happen exactly the way they are portrayed in the songs.  Who cares?  The ballads are easy on the ears and they put a story to work in the mind.  They are some of the nicest ways to waste time.

What did I mean by part one, Giselle?  Well not all Western ballads were tragedies. 

Yes.  Part Two will be about the more chipper ballads from the Old West.  Some will be from Marty Robbins; a few will be from other performers.  But I promise they will be happier than, say, ‘El Paso’ or ‘Runnin’ Gun.’ 

Speaking of the Old West, I have to hit the saddle.  See you around, Giselle!

Later,

Mithril

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About The Mithril Guardian

I like stories.  Whether they’re on film, in song, or in print, I always remember a good story.  They remind me of paintings.  People cannot see them without learning something.  So it’s a good idea to look at a story from as many angles as possible.  I can watch the same movie a million times and still I will learn something that I did not know before.  Thoughts on the Edge of Forever is where I get to focus on what I learned from stories; what was not obvious the first time, the second time, or the umpteenth time. Earlier posts are written in the form of letters, usually to specific characters, to point out what I saw in a particular story or heard in a piece of music. Some of those letters, though, are like letters to the editor. Why did someone write a story this way and not another? Would the story have turned out better if the writer had done something different? These ‘letters to the editor’ will probably never be answered by the writers - the characters certainly will not answer anything - but their contents are still up for debate. After all, unless you ask a question, you will never get an answer. Still, civil ground rules apply. Any foul language or other form of abuse will not be tolerated in Thoughts on the Edge of Forever. I mean, who wants to be around the guest at the dinner party who is being nasty? Practically nobody, since people go to a party to have fun, not to hang around a grouch. So let’s have fun! The Mithril Guardian
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