Tag Archives: Old West Ballads

Songs of the American West

Hey, partners! Grab your guitars and set a little closer to the fire! Listen for a spell to these ballads from the Frontier West!

Yeehaw! Ride ‘em, cowboy!

The Mithril Guardian

The Master’s Call

Gray Beard

The Magnificent Seven

Ringo

The Gambler

Rio Bravo

The Yellow Rose of Texas

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Quotable Quotes #6

Giants Fall by Francesca Battistelli

Go to your bosom: Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know. – William Shakespeare

Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you. – Thomas Jefferson, 3rd U.S. President

A person should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul. – Johann Goethe, German poet

Try to keep your soul young and quivering right up to old age. – George Sand (Aurore Lucille Dupin), French novelist

We exaggerate misfortune and happiness alike. We are never as bad off or as happy as we say we are. – Honoré de Balzac, French novelist

Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life. – Immanuel Kant, German philosopher

Always acknowledge a fault. This will throw those in authority off their guard and give you an opportunity to commit more. – Mark Twain

Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish. – John Quincy Adams, 6th U. S. President

Every man should keep a fair sized cemetery in which to bury the faults of his friends. – Henry Ward Beecher, American clergyman

All I have seen teaches me to trust the creator of all I have not seen. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth; we are happy when we are growing. – William Butler Yeats, Irish poet

Ballads of the Frontier West, Part 2

Marty Robbins Ballads

Hi, Giselle!

Are you ready for some more music, partner?  Then let’s get to it!

I don’t know if you and your family like to watch old westerns.  Most original Westerns have the bad guy and the sheriff/good cowhand/reformed gunfighter face off against each other at noon on Main Street.  They walk forward a few paces and then whip out their guns.  Usually the good guy is faster and he wins the duel.

This standard plot is no exception in the ballad ‘Big Iron,’ performed once again by Marty Robbins (you can find it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGmUsJvRv7U).  The hero of this tale is an Arizona Ranger.  He is after a no-good 24 year old man called Texas Red.  Red has notched his pistol once for every man he has killed, twenty in all.  He hears about the Ranger who has come to town for him and decides that he will make an excellent number twenty-one.

The two walk into the street at a quarter past eleven (not exactly noon, but close enough).  The whole town is indoors, waiting with bated breath.

Then, before Texas Red has ‘cleared leather,’ (gotten his pistol clear of his holster) there is the report of a gun.  The Ranger has turned out to be the faster draw.

The song is called ‘Big Iron’ to describe the Ranger’s armament, likely a Colt pistol.  These were known back in the day as rather large handguns, and so when people saw a man ride into town with one, they said, “He had a big iron (pistol) on his hip.”

The song is great fun.  You can tap out the tune or sing along with it no problem, and it is a great addition to Western folklore.  ‘Big Iron’ is a story in the best Old West tradition.  Just like the films High Noon and Rio Bravo, it is a story that stays with you wherever you go.  There are worse stories to have following one around, I must say.

Another cheerful song is ‘A Hundred and Sixty Acres’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbyBUtvd8oo).  Like ‘Big Iron,’ this song is also performed by Marty Robbins.  It was written when the Homestead Act was passed.  Under the Homestead Act, a man could get a hundred and sixty acres out west if he worked the land for a certain amount of time.  For the most part, the song is repetitive; it speaks about the singer being his own man, totally reliant on himself for his wages and success.  Whoever composed the song must have been extremely happy with his wide open 160 acres!

Another ballad Robbins did is called ‘Strawberry Roan,’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z81gbEhez7w).  It tells the story of a bronco buster who is hired to tame an untamable horse.  The Rider is sure he can bust any bronc.  Ol’ Strawberry is sure he can bust any rider.

I’ll let you find out which one wins.

Next is one of my favorite Western themes of all time.  This one was originally performed by Frankie Laine, and it topped the charts back in the 1960’s, the first TV theme song to do so – if my information is correct.  It was certainly the most popular TV theme to make it to the charts, anyway.

The theme song I’m talking about is the one that introduces the show Rawhide (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSHr4ubuD64).  The show ran for seven years, and listening to the theme song, it is no surprise why.  This song is harder to sing along with in some ways than any of Robbins’ ballads, but that is because the tempo is faster.  It is a song meant to match the gallop of a horse, I think; a song meant for the hard, dusty work of a trail ride.  Rawhide chronicled the adventures of a band of cowhands who were eternally herding cattle to the railroad.  It was the show that got Clint Eastwood his big break.

Then there is Kenny Rogers’ ‘Graybeard,’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdJ1irW5iWA).  It’s about a young gunfighter called ‘The Devil Kid.’  He meets an old timer in a ghost town by the name of Graybeard.  This old coot is still lightning quick with his iron, and he overcomes the Devil Kid.  And you will not believe how he does it!

Last, but not least, is a theme song from yet another Western TV show.  You see, Giselle, Westerns were to the ‘sixties what crime shows have become to the current era.  You could not trip over a rock without running into one of them, no matter where you went.  And they rewarded the actors who performed in them very well.

This theme song is from the show Have Gun, Will Travel.  The song itself is called ‘The Ballad of Paladin’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgvxu8QY01s).  It’s named after the hero of the series, Paladin, a gunman for hire.  I have not had the chance to see many episodes of the series, but from what I have seen, he is an interesting character.  The song describes him as a “knight without armor in a savage land.”

That is a moniker most cowboys wear in stories, and doubtless wore in times past.

The thing about these songs is that they are ballads in the truest sense of the word – with the possible exception of ‘A Hundred and Sixty Acres.’ I can’t help but think it was written more for a special occasion, like the song ‘Happy Birthday to You.’  That doesn’t make it inappropriate though; it is still part of the ‘Old’ West culture.

To me, there is nothing old about that culture.  It will always be there.  One would just have to get out there and find it.

That wouldn’t be too hard, especially if one found a willing guide and kept their eyes open.

I have to go.  The sun is setting.

Later,

Mithril

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