Archive for the American Folk/ Country/ Western Category

Tonight: Songs of Liberty and Justice

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, Music, PLUGS with tags , , , on February 19, 2017 by travsd

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The Battle of New Orleans

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, ME, Music, My Family History with tags , , , , , on January 8, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the start of the 10-day Battle of New Orleans (1815).  Technically, the battle occurred after the Treaty of Ghent had already concluded the War of 1812, so its outcome, a glorious victory for the young America, was tactically meaningless, rather like a sporting event (granted, one in which people died). Still it was a brilliant military achievement. The Americans were badly outnumbered, the forces composed mostly of amateur militia men, fighting against the trained, experienced professional British army, a precision killing machine feared throughout the world. The battle made a hero — and a President — of its commander, Major General Andrew Jackson.

I have written how I am one of the billion ripples of World War II; the war brought my grandfather and his family north from Tennessee to Rhode Island, where the Quonset Naval Base was. Likewise, I believe the War of 1812 had similar repercussions on my dad’s side of the family. Six generations of my ancestors lived in the area around Fayetteville, Tennessee. Fayetteville was a mustering place for several battles in that war, including the Battle of New Orleans, and several Indian fights (several tribes were aligned with the English). I believe at some of my great-great-great-grandfathers initially came to Fayetteville in this way from the earlier settlements in northern and northeastern Tennessee (still need to prove it out; many of them served, and the timing is right).

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The easiest, cheesiest way to learn about the battle is through the popular song “The Battle of New Orleans”, written and recorded by Arkansas school principal Jimmy Driftwood in 1958, set to the traditional American fiddle tune “The 8th of January”. The best known version is of course, Johnny Horton’s, which went all the way to #1 the following year. Here is Horton’s version, totally show biz, on the Ed Sullivan show, complete with drill teams, which I defy you to get out of your head after a single play (though the audio on the clip is pretty terrible). And here is the original Driftwood version, notable for several additional verses (thus better history) and a couple of swear words. Several others, including Johnny Cash, recorded the song as ell.

Me and the Mad Marchioness paid a visit to the battlefield, in Chalmette, Louisiana during our New Orleans trip in 2015. Here are some photos we took:

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Yes, I know this could be any field, but I assure you it is quite authentic.

 

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Me, taking the previous picture

 

Monument to the fallen at Chalmette Battlefield

Monument to the fallen at Chalmette Battlefield

 

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I decided to join the battle myself

Tomorrow on TCM: Dawn to Dusk Westerns #4

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, Hollywood (History), Movies, Music, Westerns with tags , on July 12, 2016 by travsd

Even as we speak we are in the midst of  Day #3 of Turner Classic Movies month long salute to the Hollywood western (see yesterday’s post here). Every Tuesday and Wednesday in July Turner Classic Movies will  be showing westerns the entire day, for a total of 100 movies in all. Here is tomorrow’s line-up.  The times below are all Eastern Standard Time, and beware that I always include spoilers.

The day launches with several western musicals. I’ve only seen a a couple of this bunch; completionist mania compels me to DVR the rest for future reference…

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6:00am: Montana Moon (1930)

Right off the bat, this one’s an oddity. Almost by definition most western musicals are B pictures from minor studios. But in the early days of talkies there was a certain amount of experimentation to learn which formulas worked. So here we have top MGM talent devoted to the effort: director Mal St. Clair and a cast that includes Joan Crawford, Dorothy Sebastian, Ricardo Cortez, Johnny Mack Brown (the one bona fide cowboy actor here and later a mainstay of the Bs), Benny Rubin, Cliff Edwards and Karl Dane. Further points of interest: it was actually shot in Montana, instead of the usual California or Arizona locations, and (as I think the poster indicates) it’s a racy pre-code story (although portions were cut by censors). Crawford plays the wayward, party-girl daughter of a wealthy rancher who has a hard time fitting in with the ways of the west. And songs by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown. 

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7:45am: Song of the Gringo (1936)

This is singing cowboy Tex Ritter’s first picture, in which he plays some kind of cop sent to investigate some mine schemes. He grows a beard and poses as a robber and is taken in by the gang, secretly based out of the estate of a kindly Spanish don (whose daughter the love interest). It is filmed in a mansion—it’s a better set than we’re accustomed to in this sort of film (it was probably a set for another film). The gang is justifiably suspicious of the “songbird” in their midst. The script is horrible at integrating Ritter’s talents. The filmmakers make Tex a show off who exhibits his singing ability at the most inappropriate times to the consternation of the gang members, who sit there grumbling while Tex performs for the people in the cinema. He whips gang members’ asses, but it doesn’t help his popularity any. Eventually they get a pretty good idea he’s not one of them and frame him for a shooting. A trial scene, and a shootout in the courtroom. But Tex comes out okay.

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9:00am: Song of the Saddle (1936)

B movie western star Dick Foran as the Singing Kid, enacting two of the most common plots of the genre. A villain (the great Charles Middleton) secretly hires gangs to hijack stagecoaches containing goods he has just bought. (I’m not real clear why any charade is required apart from the purposes of drama and intrigue. The mafia does it much more efficiently by just committing the robbery!) Anyway, that’s plot one. Plot two is that the villain killed the Kid’s dad many years ago, and the Kid is now here to put things right. The Sons of the Pioneers (the outfit that gave us Roy Rogers) are here to sing for us as well.

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10:00am: The Bronze Buckaroo (1938)

Herb Jeffries in one of the few all-black westerns of the period. The plot is the identical sort of material as in other B movies of the period: villains, deeds, land grabs and the like, it just happens to take place in an alternate universe that is entirely African American. I’m looking forward to the Four Tones singing “The Payday Blues”.

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11:00am: Cowboy Cavalier (1948)

A routine Monogram picture.  Jimmy Wakely and Dub Taylor work for a lady who runs  a stage coach line and her daughter and help them foil a gang of criminals (one of whom is masquerading as a loyal employee — but the mustache is the dead giveaway). Wakely sings several anachronistic songs (with kind of a country swing feel). Taylor pretends to play kazoo. It’s ionic that nowadays sidekick Taylor is way better remembered than Wakely, the titular star of this series of movies.

 

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12:15am: Go West, Young Lady (1941)

Penny Singleton of Blondie fame is a gal from back East named “Bill” who shoots as well as any man. Ann Miller is Lola, the jealous dance hall girl. Glenn Ford is the new sheriff, caught between these two hellcats, and having to clean up the town besides.

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1:30pm: In Old Santa Fe (1934)

Ken Maynard (a western star since silent days) never knew what hit him when Mascot Pictures allowed a little screen time in this picture for singing cowboy Gene Autry and his accordionist Smiley Burnett. This was their screen debut and Autry was to become one of the biggest screen stars ever, whereas Maynard is now a footnote remembered by only the most rabid of western fans and scholars. A bunch of mishigas here about horse races, romance, robberies — you know the drill. Gabby Hayes plays the sidekick, one “Cactus”.

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2:45pm: Boots and Saddles (1937)

Gene Autry and Smiley Burnett now as full-on stars. Here the boys help acclimate a young British aristocrat who has inherited his father’s ranch. For once the highlight may actually be the songs, especially the title one, which every good American ought to know.

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4:00pm: Home in Oklahoma (1946)

The Singing Cowboy torch has now been passed. Roy Rogers, the Sons of the Pioneers, Dale Evans, Trigger and Gabby Hayes star in this one. Ruby Dandridge, mother of the more famous Dorothy Dandridge, plays the cook at the ranch. The plots of B movie westerns reached new heights (or depths) of inconsequentiality in the Roy Rogers pictures. The most superlative element, even above the music, are the preposterous costumes. Here, Rogers is a frontier newspaper editor who must solve a murder. The mystery element is about on the level of a crossword puzzle. Give him an hour — he’ll solve it!

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5:15pm: Springtime in the Sierra (1947)

Another Roy Rogers picture, with his usual multi-species repertory company. Added bonuses in this one include Andy Devine as the side-kick and Chester Conklin as “Old Timer”. Filmed in Tru-Color!

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6:45pm: Cowboy Canteen (1944)

This is an interesting artifact. It’s the cowboy musical answer to Hollywood Canteen, a revue style film designed to build morale for the war effort.

EVENING: SEVERAL BY JOHN STURGES

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8:00pm: Hour of the Gun (1967)

To be accurate, it’s the 1:41 of the gun. While I enjoyed it, this film is definitely only for western fans (meaning fans of the genre prior to 1967) and O.K. Coral buffs. I would imagine others would be somewhat unmoved by this tale. James Garner is Wyatt Earp (and a very good one he is, with a dark mustache, a darker brow and a voice a register lower than his usual. We see him attempting something new here. I associate Garner with light comedy. This performance is appropriately humorless). Jason Robards is Doc Holiday, and he’s better in the role than the other half dozen actors I’ve seen play it. Robert Ryan is Ike Clanton, and a then-unknown Jon Voight one of his henchmen.

The movie starts with the fabled gunfight. We get to know Ike Clanton a bit. He seems to have staged the whole thing to get rid of the Earps. When it doesn’t work, he has his murdered brothers, in their caskets, displayed in a store window, then marches them through town in a parade. He never sheds a tear, however. Then there is a trial scene, just long enough to be preposterous this early in the movie. The Earp gang is exonerated. This prompts Ike’s revenge. His gang lays in wait and shoots both Virgil and Morgan (Wyatt’s brothers) in separate incidents. Virgil is maimed for life; Morgan is killed. Now we get to the meat of the movie. Wyatt, who (in this story) had always been a law and order man, gets up a posse, and pursues all the men responsible for his brothers’ death, just happening to shoot them all dead, including, in the very end, Clanton. (A title at the beginning says this is “the real story”. I would imagine about half of it is.)  At the end, Wyatt leaves Doc in a sanitarium, falsely telling him he’s going to take the Marshall job in Tombstone. Be he’s not. He has changed.

It’s fun to see about ten different recognizable character actors in the cast. As a character study of Earp’s journey the film had the potential to go much father, but Sturges seems a rather plodding, old-fashioned and unimaginative director. The whole thing is lit like a TV show, and alongside Bonnie and Clyde (also released that year), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (released soon after), etc, it seems rather Stone Age.

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10:00pm: The Magnificent Seven (1960)

When I was a kid I (along with everyone else) enjoyed this movie and thought of it as a classic. I’ve grown older I’ve become less impressed with it, for reasons outlined below, and I’ve come to think of it as a dilettante’s western. When you are young you are more apt to like things just because everybody else likes them; later mass approval becomes more like a taint. For one thing of the seven “stars” of this picture, I only truly like two or three of them, at best. But there are points of the movie that I find interesting.

One is that is a liberal, Kennedy era western. We find characters actually use anachronistic words and concepts like “prejudice” and “bigotry” — words that would have been on no one’s lips in the Old West. When we first meet the heroes Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, they are defending (with guns) an Indian’s right to be buried in Boot Hill. This lets a delegation of Mexican peasants know that these are men who might be helpful to them for a certain job. Their village is constantly being raided by a gang of 40 bandits, led by Eli Wallach, in a role that paves the way for his portrayals in Leone films.

Wallach’s portrayal of Mexicans is offensive even to me, just a hair less outrageous than Speedy Gonzalez’s sleepy friends, pretty much single-handedly undermining the film’s liberal messages. Indeed, the actual Mexicans in the cast, the villagers, are all interchangeable nonentities. But, this brings out the other liberal, Kennedy-era message: Americans with guns helping third world freedom fighters get rid of bullies. Just like the CIA and special forces in a dozen countries (particularly Vietnam). Thinking about this made me realize something: Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy was virtually identical to Kennedy’s, and with the same stated motives, equally “noble” in both cases., however botched and bloody the results. Somehow in 1960 it was considered “enlightened and progressive”. By 1980 it was “conservative and reckless”. What happened in between of course was the lesson of Vietnam — which is still unlearned.

The film is of course based on Kurasawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954). The two films really don’t deserve to be spoken of in the same breath, though. The Magnificent Seven is a popular film with audiences, but it’s really just flashy junk. The storytelling is pretty bad. It has too many characters; we don’t care about any of them. The plot is that the Mexican villagers don’t have much money but want to hire protection. For various reasons, seven very different gunfighters take the job. Brynner does it because he is moved by the villagers’ plight. McQueen seems to string along for the same reason. Brad Dexter as “Harry”, a likable but greedy urban character, does it because he thinks there is a secret financial angle. Charles Bronson as “O’Reilly” does it because work for gunfighters has gotten scarce and this is all there is (other reasons will emerge — he’s actually half Mexican). James Coburn, the “fastest with a gun or a knife” does it for the challenge. Robert Vaughan, a slick killer, does it because he’s on the run from the law. Horst Buccholz (yes, that good old Mexican Horst Buccholz) is an impulsive young man who wants to prove himself with the big guys — and also is a peasant from a similar Mexican village.

The seven guys teach the villagers to fight, CIA style. After an initial skirmish they pick off about a quarter of the bad guys, who retreat. There is a bit of a waiting game. The kid falls in love with a girl. Bronson bonds with a bunch of children.  The others indulge in a tiny bit of doubt, introspection and philosophizing about the life of the gunfighter, but not enough to be profound. Then the kid goes into the bad guy’s camp to spy and learns that the bandits are starving and will definitely be back. The villagers back out of the fight. The bad guys sneak in, strip the 7 of their guns and escort them from the village. Then they make the mistake of giving the 7 their guns back, thinking that the 7 are like them, simple bad guys for hire. They don’t calculate on the possibility of goodness, doing something for others for nothing. The 7 take their guns and ride back and fight it out with the bad guys. 4 of them die in unintentionally humorous scenes: Harry has a death speech: “What was it? Gold? (dies)” Charles Bronson tries one last knife throw. Bronson is surrounded by children. Vaughan (who has nightmares about his death) is taken unawares. The bad guys are completely routed, Wallach is killed. The kid survives and stays in the village with the girl. The other two guys ride off — Brynner to return in the same costume again ten years later in Westworld. 

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12:15am: Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

I love this movie! A western set in contemporary times, in an isolated place in the desert. Though the film was made in ‘55, it is set right after the war a decade earlier. Spencer Tracy plays a mysterious one armed man who gets off the train at the tiny Arizona town of Black Rock. He is greeted with instant suspicion and hostility by everyone in town. They seem to have nothing better to do than saunter and glare, and say “What are YOU doin’ here, mister?” Robert Ryan plays the guy who runs and owns the whole town. His henchmen include Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin. The closest thing to decent guys are two weaklings: the town doctor (Walter Brennan) and the drunken sheriff (Dean Jagger).

It is plain to us and to Tracy from the outset that whole town has something to hide. Because they all treat Tracy like he is there specifically to investigate something, we assume he is some sort of cop. This is one of Tracy’s best roles. The character is a total hero, not just morally, but because he is the ultimate cool customer. Nothing rattles him. He hates jerks and lets them know it, and he very quietly, very bravely ignores their needling in pursuit of what he wants. For example, when he tries to check into the hotel he is told “No Vacancy”, but he very calmly signs in and takes a key anyway. His goal is to visit a location in the desert, the home of a Japanese man. He rents a jeep from a girl. When he gets out there, all he finds is a burnt house. Then Borgnine tries to run him off the road. Back in town, Borgnine baits him some more. When Tracy can’t stand it, he beats the shit out of Borgnine, one arm and all, using karate. It is one of the most satisfying fights in all of moviedom.

In the end, it turns out that Tracy isn’t even an investigator. The Japanese man’s son saved his life in the war before losing his own. Tracy just wanted to give his medal to his father. But he learns that a drunken mob had killed the father on Pearl Harbor day and buried him. The town is so remote no one had found out. In the end, Tracy dispatches Ryan with a Molotov cocktail when he gets ambushed in the desert, and Tracy’s cohorts finally get word to the outside authorities, who arrest the remaining conspirators.

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1:45am: The Law and Jake Wade (1958)

Richard Widmark is an outlaw. Sheriff Robert Taylor frees him from jail, in repayment of some former favor. That makes Widmark no never mind, he still captures Taylor, and at gunpoint, makes him show him where he buried the gold from some long-ago heist. They were formerly partners. When Taylor accidentally killed a kid he quit the business. Widmark feels betrayed. Their journey is a long one—not unlike the one in Mann’s The Naked Spur. A girl (Patricia Owens) is along for the ride as well. Deforest Kelly plays the most violent of the gang. When they are holed up in a ghost town, Indians attack, wiping out most of the gang. After they dig up the gold, Widmark and Taylor have a duel, which Widmark loses, of course. It’s a pity. Taylor, as an actor, is already nonexistent. If he’d lost the duel, we might not have noticed.

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3:15am: Escape from Fort Bravo (1953)

I’d be tempted to dismiss the film but the climax is so distinctive, effective and memorable it redeems the relative tedium that precedes it. William Holden is a U.S. cavalry officer at a remote Arizona fort. It is 1863, and this fort has to do double duty by periodically doing battle with the Indians and serving as a prison camp for Confederate POWs. Holden is a hard ass, a cynic, and downright cruel and unbending with the prisoners. But we know he has a heart because he tends a flower garden. But we also suspect his strictness with escaping prisoners stems from a desire not to see them killed by Indians or perishing in the desert. Also, he falls in love with a beautiful woman (Eleanor Parker) who comes to the fort, apparently only for the purpose of helping some Cofederates break out, although Holden doesn’t see that.

Parker’s old flame is the Confederate’s ranking officer, John Forsythe. He escapes, along with a crusty old sergeant played by William Demarest, whose New York accent can just barely pass as New Orleans, and lastly a young poet(John Lupton), whom we all figure for a coward. Holden goes to retrieve the woman and the escapes, along with his junior officer, played by Richard Anderson. They get pinned down in the desert in a tiny little trench, with Indians on all sides. In the climactic scene, they are harassed by volleys of arrows, which get closer and closer, until in the end it’s really only Holden and the women left, and Holden himself is wounded and about to get the coup de grace when the cavalry arrives. The deus ex machina doesn’t exactly spoil what came before. Frankly, this was the FIRST time I’d ever seen that famous device actually used!

And now that we are well into tomorrow, the menu moves off John Sturges onto one film by Nicholas Ray: 

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5:00am: The Lusty Men (1952)

I like a movie that makes no bones about what it offers, don’t you? That title! That poster! Like Bad Day at Black Rock this is a latter day western. Arthur Kennedy plays a ranch hand who dreams of owning his own ranch for himself one day along with his wife, practical minded Susan Hayward. When retired rodeo star Robert Mitchum drops into their orbit, Kennedy spies his chance to realize his goal on the fast track, by becoming a rodeo star himself, with Mitchum as his trainer and manager. Improbably he does so, breaking all sorts of records and making big money. This is all against Hayward’s wishes – she doesn’t like the risks. Predictably Kennedy gets sucked into the rodeo life and begins to want to choose that over the ranch he originally set out to get. He’s also playing around with other women. Mitchum finally sees his chance to reveal that he is in love with Hayward. But she is still in love with Kennedy, who publicly accuses Mitchum (formerly his hero) of being a leech and hanger-on. His pride wounded, Mitchum, who is in bad physical shape, enrolls to participate in the rodeo himself and has an accident, becoming fatally wounded. Kennedy resolves to quit that very instant, and he and Hayward go to start their ranch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, CULTURE & POLITICS, ME, Music, My Family History, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the late, great Levon Helm (1940-1912), the only American in The Band, but I think most of his fans will agree that he had enough America in him for a million Americans.

Now, I’ve already blogged about his last years and the documentary about them here. Today, it seems timely to talk about his best known song and its deep personal meaning for me. I call it “his”, though technically it was co-written with The Band’s leader and guitarist Robbie Robertson. But really — come on. Robertson pursued his interest in rural American culture as a fascinated alien. Helm on the other hand, drove and encouraged the process from the INSIDE. He’s the one who sings the song for a reason. He owns the song, spiritually and artistically, if (clearly) not legally. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is about Helm’s culture and history. Robertson helped raise the barn, but it’s Helm’s lumber and nails.

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I’ve known and loved this song almost my entire life. Ironically, along with millions of other Americans I’m guessing, I knew the Joan Baez hit single version first. She released her version in 1971 and it went all the way to #3 on the pop charts. Though the original version by the Band came out in 1967, I don’t imagine that I ever heard it until some time in the early ’80s, through the agency of my best friend who was a big fan of the group. I am fond of both versions of the song; I’ll compare and contrast them directly.

If I had to pick one popular American song of the post-rock era that means the most to me — more than that — is about me, illuminates me — this would be the one. Written in the style of a traditional American folk song, it’s a first person (fictional) testimony from an East Tennessee farmer about the last days of the Civil War when the North’s Total War, slash and burn tactics had reduced the people of the region to starving beggars, the 19th century equivalent of having been “bombed back to the Stone Age.” They’re not just dirt poor, but demoralized, so beaten in spirit that they won’t recover for at least a century.

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For some Americans it is a kind of anthem, for others it can be thought of as a test of our humanity. I’m born and raised a Yankee, though culturally, through my father, there is much about me that is Southern. My entire life has been a sort of internal wrestling match to the death between both sides of my brain. Now, last year I wrote this piece about the Stars and Bars. I feel pretty strongly that museums and history movies are the only places it ought to be flown. The secret hope that “The South will rise again” has been the source of so much damage and hurt. It ought to have been a matter of settled politics over a century ago.

But this song isn’t about the cause of slavery. It’s about the cause of humanity. Men have been fighting wars since before there were men. This side or that one may be the aggressor, this cause or that one may be the more heinous. But in the end each individual soldier fights for his own reasons. A certain number of men who fought and died for the Confederacy neither kept slaves, condoned slavery or wanted secession, they were just doing their duty. And many others didn’t even take arms, but still suffered the same privations and so forth. On top of this it’s not like the North wasn’t also full of racists whatever their politicians and clergymen said (this is a topic I’ll be returning to in a post in a couple of weeks.) So who “deserves” what happened is really an open question.

Ultimately, I can and do step back and say…yes but at the end of the day, they served the cause of evil. There were numerous Southerners who made a different choice…either became Union soldiers (some of my Southern relatives did that!), or like my (4th) great uncle Levi H. Knight spied for the union, or didn’t serve at all. I’m not someone who sees unquestioning duty as an intrinsic virtue. I am more partial to the American tradition embodied by Thoreau. God gave you a brain and a heart to make choices with. Abdicating the use of them just because you’re told to is to be less than a human. But the ENTIRE South suffered during and after the Civil War, not just slave owners and racists.

And in the end, war sucks for everybody, including innocent civilians. Well, that’s putting it mildly, isn’t it? It’s the worst thing humankind can endure. Granted, as an entity the South was akin to a mean, cruel and arrogant bully, but in the aftermath the bully lay in the mud, his bones broken, his eyes gouged out, his flesh lacerated in a thousand places, his home burned, his wife raped, his children killed, and he’s howling and crying in pain. What’s next, Victor? Our first reaction is to say, “Good! You had it coming!”. But I like to think most of us would soon soften, to as Lincoln said, quoting the Psalm, “bind the nation’s wounds.” If, once healed, the bully turns into a monster again (as I think it can be argued that the South has collectively done on occasion, many times), you cross that bridge when you come to it. But when someone’s down, you don’t kick them.

The Second Inaugural

The Second Inaugural

It’s amazing to me that The Band wrote and recorded this song at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King had the kind of largeness of spirit this song appeals to, one of the million reasons his assassination was a major loss to the nation. Luke 6:27-28: “Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.” Easier said than done. But it’s exactly what Lincoln’s plan was for the post-war period, “Charity To All, Malice Toward None.”

Anyway, that’s my imaginary conversation with a Yankee who might be lacking in sympathy for the vanquished Rebel. I feel like I know how to have that conversation because, like I say, I grew up a Stranger in a Strange Land.  But as for those like me who are also children of the Rebels, I can attest that the memory of the wounds received lingered long, mostly because, yes, this is a stubborn and tradition-loving people, and they refused to let go. Culturally, many Southern people are Scots-Irish. They are a people given to multi-generational feuding. They don’t forget. Like, ever. They kept the loss and sense of grievance alive, nursed it, relived it every day. The culture of the South developed that beaten, fatalistic quality, that all the great Southern writers like Faulkner and Williams capture. My father absolutely had that quality. In some ways, it was as though the century behind us had never passed.

And a century isn’t such a long time anyway…the Civil War was four generations ago in my case. The children of that generation were my father’s grandparents, whom he knew well, and that knowledge was passed on to me. I was four years old when the Baez version of the song came out, so I was YOUNG when I first learned about the Civil War, as my dad parsed and interpreted this song for me. I generally have found myself confused and appalled to hear adults say they don’t understand what the song means…but that’s a wrong impulse. It ought to be a Teaching Moment. At bottom I find I can be a surprisingly crummy teacher.

Some nice person at www.traditionalmusic.co.ok posted the lyrics:

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My great-grandfather’s name was Virgil Stewart, and this became one of my earliest connections to the song…it’s impossible for me to hear this without thinking of him, of thinking of this as my story. And Virgil was a farmer in Tennessee, just like the narrator. (My family, just like Levon Helm’s, were cotton farmers). Virgil Stewart was born after the Civil War, though. It was his dad’s generation that fought it. Virgil’s father Calvin sat it out (my theory is that because he had a newborn baby at the time of enlistment, and then Tennessee was soon occupied by the North after that). But Virgil’s uncle William Carrol Stewart did go and fight and was badly wounded at Gettysburg, so it is him and other relatives I think of when I hear the part about “a Yankee laid him in his grave”.

The choice of the name Caine seems significant, Cain being the Biblical inventor of murder. And not just murder: fratricide. “Brother against brother”. The South started it, there’s blood on their hands, and like Cain himself, they paid. Oh, how they paid.

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Years later, I began to link Virgil Caine with Buster Keaton’s character in The General.  A train engineer? Union soldiers tearing up the tracks? As I’ve written elsewhere, I firmly believe that the melancholy historical echoes of the setting were what prevented Keaton’s masterpiece from being a hit in 1927. The ticket buyers were the kids and grandkids of the Civil War generation. Too soon? Yes — too soon.

Whose eyes indicate that he's crazy enough to harm women, children, old men and animals? Well Stonewall Jackson is dead, so how about THAT guy?

Whose eyes indicate that he’s crazy enough to harm women, children, old men and animals? How about THAT guy?

“Stoneman” in the song refers to Major General George Stoneman, who led one of the last of the Union raids through the South during the Civil War, which was launched in Mossy Creek, Tennessee and moved East into North Carolina. His mission was to lay waste to everything he saw, and demoralize the civilian population. Mission accomplished!

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Like I say, lately I’ve been listening to both versions of this song, comparing and contrasting them. Baez’s and Helm’s voices couldn’t be more different. Her’s is pretty and polished, Helm’s is homely and real. Baez is interpreting something for us from the outside; Helm is re-enacting it from the inside. The Baez version is guitar-driven, the Band’s is driven by Richard Manuel’s piano. I am partial to the many voices on the chorus on the Baez version, which to me evokes the cries of the many. I feel like the Band’s version is marred by Robbie Robertson’s whiny high harmony, I’ve never been able to stand his weak, thin voice. But I love the haunting harmonica!

There are interesting differences in the lyrics in both versions, reportedly because Baez didn’t have access to the real ones (beyond listening to the record.). Why she didn’t try to obtain the real ones is a question. I know that things were clunkier in those days…it was just telephone and U.S. mail to conduct business, but that’s not exactly an insurmountable hurdle. There may have been a time crunch. But what is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie down” but a folk song? And all the great folk songs pretty much get rewritten every time they’re sung. That’s the way of oral tradition. What are the “real” lyrics of “Stagger Lee”? For that matter what is the real title of the song? There are none. It is a perpetually re-interpreted, protean cultural product.

One lyrical difference (to my ears): in The Band’s version it sounds to me like Helm is singing “You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat.” On the Baez version that line sounds to me more like “You cant raise the cane back up once it’s in the feed.” I don’t know if that’s what she’s singing but that’s what it sounds like. I’d take it to mean something like…if you’ve already mixed sugar cane into the fodder (lucky livestock), you can’t pretend its still planted in the ground to inspire with visions of what you’ll do with your crop. This could be my own hallucination, but this metaphor also works for me. The deed is done and now all hope for the future is dead,

Also…I’ve always heard one of the lines as “There goes THE Robert E. Lee”. I always pictured it as a train named after the Confederate general and it’s being hijacked, just like in the Buster Keaton movie I mentioned above. As a kid, I also interpreted the”Dixie” of the chorus in the same way, as a train, literally being driven away. After all, Virgil “drove on the Danville train”. With Dixie of course ALSO representing the entire Confederacy being driven into the ground through the scorched earth tactics.

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There was also a steamboat named “Robert E. Lee” (like in the 1912 song “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee”) but that vessel wasn’t christened until after the war (so much for letting sleeping dogs lie, South!). Consensus (including a quote from Helm) seems to indicate that the song refers to the literal Robert E. Lee, but that sounds dumb to me. Like, what’s he doing over there? Near a Tennessee farm, when he’s closing in on Appomattox? At any rate, I despise literalism in poem and song interpretation. If there’s only one meaning to it, it ain’t much of a fuckin’ song. As opposed to this song — which is a hell of a fuckin’ song. It’s a hell of a fuckn’ song.

Bayou ‘n’ Brooklyn This Weekend!

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, BROOKLYN, Music, PLUGS with tags , , , on May 13, 2016 by travsd

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Thoughts on Rubber Soul on its 50th Anniversary

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2015 by travsd

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This past weekend saw the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles album Rubber Soul; yesterday was the 35th anniversary of John Lennon’s death. Today finds me…catching up.

One hallmark of great artists is that it is impossible to choose your favorite amongst their works. Or, you can choose one, but it keeps changing. Favorite Shakespeare play? Favorite Chaplin movie? Preposterous. So it is with me with the Beatles. But amongst my several favorites, Rubber Soul frequently surges to the top, and increasingly more so the older I get.

In my later teens, my tastes were Lennon-centric, tilted towards the later Lennon, the self-consciously “personal”, druggy, lyrically experimental and politically radical Lennon. But lately there’s a part of me that’s begun to think that Lennon’s best work was on Rubber Soul (and the album that preceded it, Help! which I’ll write about subsequently). “The devil!” you say, “His peak in 1965?!” Yes! And perhaps even the peak of the Beatles.

There is a universality about Rubber Soul, a sophistication, and a maturity. Influence from folk music brought lyrical depth, and a quieter, softer sound. Influence from jazz and classical music brought a broader range of styles. But it’s still the original act, an act with a much wider appeal, i.e., not yet explicitly drug-oriented or counter cultural. This is, to me, the last gasp of the Beatles as they were in their movies, as they were on television and as a live act, and as they might have been on Broadway (at a certain point they had discussed a Broadway show). There’s a charming bohemian edge to it, but it’s still show biz. It’s a record you could see playing on the same turntable that might spin “The Girl from Ipanema”, or “What’s New Pussycat?” or something. Like a lot of pop culture at the time (including movies) there are European influences in addition to the American ones. Lastly, this is the last album before Lennon virtually drops out, almost disappears into himself and then returns reincarnated. We’ll return to Lennon shortly.

Non-Rubber Soul

Non-Rubber Soul

When I was a kid, I liked the name of the record, but it seemed wrong. Where’s the “soul”? I wondered. Isn’t soul Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin? (It is). Ironically Paul McCartney’s best example of that kind of thing (“Got to Get You Into My Life”) would come on Revolver. McCartney had earlier used the phrase “plastic soul” in studio chatter during the sessions for “I’m Down”, a song which also fits the description. As for what WOUND UP on Rubber Soul, the only tunes I can identify that come close to that description are “Drive My Car”, “The Word”, and the breaks at the end of each verse of “I’m Looking Through You”. Ironically, there was a much more soulful version of “I’m Looking Through You” (later released on Anthology) but they switched it out for the better known version on the original record. And there were two more tracks from the sessions that would have gone a long way towards justifying the title. “Day Tripper” totally fits, but they pulled it off the record and released it only as a single (and on “Yesterday and Today” in the States). And they recorded a VERY interesting 12-bar Blues jam which is a really great peek at the Beatles behind the scenes. It’s the sort of thing they didn’t release on record very often, although they recorded quite a lot of these jams during the “Get Back” sessions. Until you hear it one mightn’t think they could play that way (and if you want to be mean, they sort of can’t. The Rubber Soul blues jam is a trifle lackluster, they never quite break out.) Still it puts across the IDEA of the title, and if they included these missing tracks it would have done more towards justifying this name. The record definitely hangs together as a concept album — it’s just that “rubber soul” doesn’t seem to be the actual prevailing concept.

What is the concept? You can’t quite put your finger on it, but it’s there. Rubber Soul is quite similar to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds in that way. It feels sort of like a book of poems or short stories. The pieces do fit together. They’re coming from the same place. They evoke similar moods. But each entry in the whole is a little different. It’s not one single narrative.

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The dominating voice (it seems to me) is still Lennon’s. He was the original leader of the band, and he still is at this stage. In the long run, “Yesterday” (and the man who wrote it) would take the wind out of Lennon’s sails, but that wouldn’t be evident until Revolver, which can be thought of as Lennon’s low-point. (Don’t get me wrong, Lennon is always Lennon and that’s vastly more than most others; it’s just that his genius is less on view in Revolver than in any other album, for reasons we’ll get to when we blog about that record in a few months.) In Rubber Soul he’s still very much in the race, still musically ambitious (whereas later he would be much less so).

I think of “Norwegian Wood” as the best song on the album — it sets the tone for the whole record. The imagery it evokes — of a dude (I picture him in a turtleneck) sitting on a chick’s floor, drinking wine, waiting to score — kind of encapsulates the entire era, and with such economy. I can picture the whole apartment, can’t you? I see it in Greenwich Village, but it could be London, Paris or Berlin, or (given the title) Oslo. There are shelves full of art books and poetry. There are candles. There’s probably no heat.  (But there is a fireplace, come to think of it). And George Harrison’s sitar adds to the atmosphere of sophistication.  Another Side of Bob Dylan was full of this kind of imagery…but Lennon had gone to art school, and hung out with bohemians in Hamburg. It was “him” as much as it was Dylan, although it was Dylan who had freed him up to write about it. The other thing I love about the song is the characteristic Lennon drollery, probably one of the best examples of it. It is funny. I think I may prefer the version on Anthology. There is a “call and response” thing with the sitar (and a kind of gloopy punctuation at the end) which makes it seem even funnier.

Third thing about the song is that it’s also moody. The singer DOESN’T score. He has to sleep in the bathtub, and when he wakes up the girl has taken off. (Like the Rolling Stone’s “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, these are some of the first intimations of sex in pop music, which had previously  been the domain of teeny boppers).

The rest of Lennon’s songs on the album all have this moody, reflective quality. “Girl” sounds like a beautiful Eastern or Southern European folk song; there’s a tone of regret to it (even though the singer claims to have no regrets). The girlfriend sounds like a handful. (I’ve always found commentators’ claims that Lennon’s inhalations were meant to evoke pot-smoking, and that the background “tit tit tit” vocal was meant as a dirty joke, to be simplistic and moronically literal. They’re just sounds. Can’t you just enjoy sounds?).

The nostalgic “In My Life” is one of Lennon’s masterpieces — and THIS is what I miss when he begins dropping acid and losing himself. This is a clear bit of writing, and an ambitious piece of music. Lennon definitely wrote the words (which presage the mood of “Strawberry Fields”) but it’s a matter of some contention as to who wrote the tune, as McCartney now claims credit. He may be overstating it — that melodic figure when Lennon sings “li-hi-hi-hi-life” in the second line is SO characteristically Lennon (and not very McCartneyesque). I can’t divorce the tune from Lennon’s performance. At any rate, directly after this record, Lennon starts giving us much simpler music, in songs such as “Rain” (three chords) and “Tomorrow Never Knows” (one chord) and within a few years he would become a sort of rock ‘n’ roll oldies act. Ambitious songs like this were behind him. “In My Life” may well be his high water mark as a songwriter, at least as a writer of “standards”.

As for “Nowhere Man” I’ve never been as crazy about it. I find it repetitive and not very inspired. Its best aspects are in the production, the harmonies, the arrangement, etc.

Another striking track is “Run for Your Life”, which draws from folk in allowing the content to be MUCH darker than usual. It sounds like your basic 1965 Beatles track — but it’s told from the point of view of somebody who’s threatening his girlfriend with physical violence.

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As for McCartney’s contributions to the album — in a way, the entire album is his best contribution, i.e., it is often his musicianship in the support of the other guy’s songs which are what we value the most. Interestingly, he himself doesn’t seem to set out with any huge ambition as a songwriter on this album. For example, there is no “classical strings” number on the order of “Yesterday”, “Eleanor Rigby” or “She’s Leaving Home”. I think his strongest, most memorable tune on Rubber Soul is “Michelle”, which is very savvy in putting us into a Parisian head space in the age of the Nouvelle Vague. (Its imagery actually seems very much of a piece with “Norwegian Wood”). I’m also very fond of “I’m Looking Through You”,  with its folkie harmonies reminiscent of those on the song “Help!” And “You Won’t See Me” is very catchy. It strikes me as a song that would be excellent for a Motown girl group (though it was later a hit for the soporific Anne Murray).

But as I say frequently it’s McCartney’s musicianship we think of. His high harmonies. His bass playing is often the saving grace of many a weak tune. For example, Lennon’s “The Word” is a bit of a throwaway, saved by McCartney’s swinging bass playing. The fuzz bass on Harrison’s “Think for Yourself”, is almost exclusively what most people remember about that tune. And McCartney’s playing on “Drive My Car” is breath-taking.

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I love Harrison’s two songs. “Think for Yourself” like a lot of his early songwriting (e.g., “Don’t Bother Me) has an almost proto-punk quality, sort of melodically dark and cramped. “If I Needed Someone” propelled along by McCartney’s interesting, business like bass-line, the ringing, chiming guitars, and the sweeping three part harmonies, is downright majestic.

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As for the obligatory Ringo number, “What Goes On” is the weakest link. It’s tedious and repetitive. It’s always been the Rubber Soul track I’m mostly like to skip listening to. It’s not that it’s too country. It’s that it’s too blah. The Beatles’ cover of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally” on their preceding record was downright inspired by comparison, as is Harrison’s solo on “Run for Your Life”.

As for “Wait”, which is about 50% Paul and 50% John, it’s pleasant enough (I love the tremolo effect on the guitar). It sounds like a throwback to the days of Beatles ’65 or Beatles VI. This and “We Can Work It Out” (pulled from these sessions for release a single) was one of the last occasions when the pair functioned together as a real songwriting team.

Is Rubber Soul the last proper Beatles album? Revolver finds them being even more experimental and also more individualistic…thus more separate, less collaborative. Ironically Rubber Soul seems a more “mature” album than subsequent ones — it pulls away from the pure pelvic passion and noise of rock. And while subsequent albums move even farther away from boy-girl romantic themes, they remain “adolescent” in the sense that their exploration of mystical and outre themes can be kind of superficial and sensational. You know what I mean? On the order of “Mr. Mojo Risin'” — although the Beatles, on their worst day could never be as stupid as the Doors. 

I’ll be writing about Help! soon, as I forgot to observe the anniversary a few months back.

 

What’s Up With the Westerns?

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, Crackers, ME, My Family History, Westerns with tags , , , , , , on September 10, 2015 by travsd

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The most loyal readers of this blog, i.e., the ones who read all the posts, will have noticed that many months ago a new content stream began to invade our already established content turf of American traditional show biz: vaudeville, burlesque, side show, circus, mellers, classic comedy films and the like. Westerns. I imagine a lot of my core readers from the urban northeast have been pretty much “WTF”, but the way I see it, even superficially it’s not a stretch…to bridge the gap, we’d certainly already written about wild west shows, medicine shows and 19th century saloon entertainment and certain key figures like Will Rogers, Buffalo Bill Cody, etc etc.

The short answer for why I’ve crossed the border into writing about the western genre is that I began doing research for a western screenplay about a decade ago and quickly realized I had enough material for a book (possibly more than one book). My initial idea was that it would be my third book, although other ideas have raced ahead of it in line, and it might be my fourth, fifth or sixth book, if indeed there are any more. At any rate, as an experiment, I thought I would use the reverse of the process I used for No Applause and Chain of FoolsRather than publishing the book first and then following up with ancillary blogposts as I did with the first two books, I would develop the writing (and hopefully the interest) on the blog first, and THEN turn it into a book. So that’s what’s going on.

But now the longer answer: why the west as a subject at all? After all, I grew up in New England, and though my father was from a family that pioneered Tennessee, my direct ancestors (with one possible exception we’ll get to) never got further west than halfway across that state.

I understand it has no basement

I understand it has no basement

Well, first and foremost, there’s my name.

William Travis was one of the heroes of the Alamo. My father, a native Tennessean and a Western buff, had named me that in a burst of regional pride. He’s not the only one. “Travis” appears as a character name in numerous Westerns, as well as the  related frontier family classic Old Yeller. And think of all the country music stars with that name. There’s a very strong Tennessee-Texas connection. Many or most of the first Texans (including Alamo martyrs like Davy Crockett and father of Texas Sam Houston) were transplanted Tennesseans. Another Tennessean was John Stewart, Daniel Boone’s real-life cohort on his pioneering trip through the Cumberland Gap. (Stewart is my given last name).  In my childhood I liked to imagine a family connection to this historic frontiersman, and I was encouraged to do so.

I was constantly made aware of my pioneer roots. My father’s family was from the Smokey Mountain region. There was a family rumor that we were part Cherokee (although that later proved not to be true). My dad went so far as to decorate my room with rough-hewn wood paneling that resembled the interior of a log-cabin.  My cherished toys included a set of toy cowboy and Indian figures complete with a little cavalry stockade and teepees; a set of Lincoln logs; a cowboy revolver; an Indian bow with suction cup arrows; a harmonica; and my first guitar, which came with a songbook of cowboy songs. Among the first television shows I remember watching were first run episodes of Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and The High Chaparral, and syndicated episodes of The Cisco Kid and Rin Tin Tin. One of the joys of doing this research was discovering that my childhood nickname Trampas (bestowed on me by a grizzled old sailor friend of my parents) is actually a character from The Virginian, portrayed on television by Doug McClure.

You had these guys, too, right? It's not a subject we intend to take lightly in our book

You had these guys, too, right? It’s not a subject we intend to take lightly in our book

And then there is the less obvious west, the San Francisco, Nevada and Missouri of the writings of Mark Twain, so influential on me as a child, and the Kansas of The Wizard of Oz, my favorite book and movie.

When I became a teenager, I moved on to other obsessions and remained far — very far — from any interest in the subject of the west throughout my young adulthood. But when I was in my late twenties, my then-wife, who was working on a novel about cowboys, orchestrated two major fact-finding trips for us to the Far West (one of them disguised as our honeymoon). And thus we spent two or three weeks in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, doing things like riding horses, staying in bunkhouses, seeing buffalo in their native habitat, cooking coffee over a campfire, sleeping on the ground, hiking in the desert, visiting ghost towns and caves and gulches and old mines and just generally being steeped in the culture. We went through Monument Valley around Moab, Utah (favorite location of John Ford),  stayed in Cody Wyoming (site of the Buffalo Bill Museum), drove past Little Big Horn, spent time in Yellowstone Park, took the Loveland Pass through the Rocky Mountains, etc etc (not in that order). At the time, it felt rather random, as though I were just along for the ride. In retrospect, I’m enormously grateful for the experience, and would do it again in a heartbeat. Here’s proof:

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Hippie Trav near a Yallerstone Geezer

Your correspondent photographs a Bison in his native element safely from the car window

Your correspondent photographs a Bison in his native element safely from the car window

Entrance to the dude ranch where we stayed. We were the dudes who stayed with a dude what wasn't a

Entrance to a dude ranch where we stayed. We were the dudes who stayed with a dude what wasn’t a “dude”, if you take my meaning

Ghost Town. Hey, where is everybody?

Ghost Town. Hey, where is everybody?

I want to say this is a frontier cabin we saw in a box canyon near Fruita, Colorado but it's not although we did see that

I want to say this is a frontier cabin we saw in a box canyon near Fruita, Colorado but it’s not although we did see that

Gradually, some of my creative writing began to look west. I adapted Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man, set on a Mississippi steamboat. And I wrote Jasper Jaxon, about an Oklahoma Outlaw. And an experimental play called Custer Wore an Arrow Shirt. And of course Horse Play had several western scenes. Which gets us close enough to the present.

But to return to the Tennessee-Texas connection. It’s strong. When I was down in Nashville about ten years ago, people in the industry got testy when I used the phrase “country-western.” Apparently, it’s just “country” now, and I guess they consider it corny to call it anything different. But in that classic Nashville heyday of the mid-twentieth century, you’d better believe “western” was part of the equation. Just look any old television clip. Look at a picture of Hank Williams. He’s dressed like a cowboy. Williams was born in Alabama and died in West Virginia. They don’t have cattle spreads in those states. This is the east. Their imaginations were following their relatives who went west.

Really. Don't tell me 'country

Really. Don’t tell me ‘country” has nothing to do with “western”. I ain’t havin’ it.

Here’s another one I love to contemplate because it’s close to home. I have an aunt named “Juanita”. That’s a Spanish name, of course. It would make its way north to America from Mexico, along with a thousand other cultural borrowings. It’s a feminized form of John and English doesn’t have one, and I suppose that could be one explanation for this non-Spanish woman having that name (If it’s a boy it’ll be “John”. And if it’s a girl?). But another explanation is that there’s a very pretty cowboy song by that name. And we’ve got people in Texas.

So this will briefly turn into another of my family posts. I’ve identified some relatives who went west and that fires my imagination, just as it inspired my Tennessee relatives.

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One of my ancestral families which struck of west very early are the Stouts, a family of Quakers who started out in Brooklyn, moved down to New Jersey, then Delaware, then Pennsylvania, then North Carolina, then Tennessee.  My first cousin (7x removed)  Ephram Stout settled in Wayne County, then Iron County, Missouri prior to 1802 — a quarter century before it became a state. He built a log cabin in the area known as Arcadia.  Stout’s Creek remains named after him. In 1826 he moved his brood on to Illinois (this is still six years before the Black Hawk War).

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Then in 1843 Ephraim headed west yet again taking a wagon train on the Oregon Trail, settling in Salem, where his branch of the family would settle.

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Ephraim’s nephew Hosea Stout fought in the Black Hawk War in Illinois. He concerted to Mormonism while there and moved with the community through each ensuing chapter of their travails, to Missouri, to Nauvoo, to Nebraska, and finally to Salt Lake, Utah by 1848, making him one of the first settlers. For a time he was Joseph Smith’s bodyguard (I am also distantly related to Smith).

Some other early Missouri relatives: my (5) great uncle Obediah Strange brought his family to what would be Lafayette County in 1833. Two years later they were among the first settlers of Monroe County. They settled in a town originally called Madison and later Rose Hill.  The Bear Creek Methodist Episcopal Church was founded at their house in 1837. Strange had been born in Virginia, and started his family in Kentucky, a background very similar to the parents of Mark Twain. Twain (whom I’m also distantly related to) was born in 1835, and is thus part of the same historical migration.

Fort Parker

Fort Parker

One important Texas relation is John Parker, who lived a very full life indeed. Originally from Baltimore, his family moved to western Virginia when he was a child. He fought in the American Revolution, was a scout in what was to become Tennessee and Kentucky, participated in Indian “removal” in those areas, was a friend of Daniel Boone’s, and finally, at quite an advanced age, became an important early settler of Texas at Stephen Austin’s behest. He settled his entire extended family near what is now Limestone County, Texas and founded Fort Parker — which was wiped out by Comanches in 1836. This was when Texas was still an independent republic, a good decade before it came into the U.S. Some of the family were kidnapped in the attack, resulting in this famous descendant:

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Parker’s great-grandson was the “half breed” Comanche leader Quanah Parker.  My great grandfather was George Washington Parker. We are all descended from the Virginia colonist Richard Parker (1630-1683).

“Nagadoches is full of roaches!” — Groucho Marx

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In that same year of 1836, my 4th great aunt Isabel Stuart moved to Brazos, Texas with her husband Jesse Ellison. Their son, named Jesse Washington Ellison became a famous character thereabouts. I found this entertaining description of him in the book Cities of Gold: A Journey Across the American Southwest, by Douglas Preston:

…Colonel Jesse W. Ellison was one of the most famous and colorful stockmen of the Rim country. Born in Brazos County, Texas in 1841. He grew into a “reed-thin, habit-bound, hawk-faced” man whose conviction in his own rightness was unshakable. He relished being on the “right” side of a good fight. He started off as a Texas Ranger fighting Comanches and Kiowas, and then he enlisted for the South in the Civil War. He remained an unreconstructed southerner thereafter, went into the ranching business, and drove cattle up the Chisholm trail to the Kansas railheads. Texas became a little too crowded for Ellison, so he moved his family and livestock farther west. In July of 1885 he arrived in Bowie Station, Arizona with a line of railcars containing two thousand head of cattle and horses…

He found a good-looking ranch just west of Cherry Creek, which he purchased from the owner. Ellison’s cows had come from Texas with his brand, a “Q”, and his ranch became known as the “Q” ranch. The fact that the previous owner and many of his neighbors had been ruined by cattle rustlers meant nothing to Ellison: it was just one more fight he was willing to undertake – which he did with devastating effectiveness.

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Ellison and his hands branding a steer on the Q Ranch. The photo is from a collection of a distant relative and there are dozens more besides…I think it’s going to merit much more writing…

Ellison had mostly daughters, of which he was very proud. “They were all good ropers and good shots,” he told a newspaper reporter in 1887. “They drove cattle instead of playing bridge and they lived on beans when we could get ‘em.” One of his daughters, Duette, married Arizona Territory’s first governor, George W.P. Hunt becoming the first of Arizona’s First Ladies. She liked to be photographed with a gun.

Here’s another good description of Colonel Ellison. 

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Colonel Ellison & Co. He’s 3rd from the left.

A distant cousin on my mom’s side (6th cousin, 3x removed), Charles Dudley Ladd, from New Hampshire enlisted in the army in 1856, and was stationed at various forts in the area that would later become Montana. An account from the Ladd family history:

[He] joined the Thirteenth United States Infantry, which was ordered to the frontier, and came with it up the Missouri river from Leavenworth to the mouth of the Judith river, whence they arrived in July. His regiment was stationed at Camp Cook and Fort Shaw, where it assisted in building those frontier defenses against the Indians. The soldiers were actively engaged in scouting parties which scoured the country, scattering the various bands of hostile Indians, keeping them in motion and too busy to plan attacks. The absolute necessity of the presence of soldiers in those troublous times can only be appreciated by those who were then on the ground. Ranchmen and their families were in continual danger from marauding savages and many a poor fellow was discovered in the cold embrace of death by these scouting parties, with their scalps torn from their heads.

Birdtail Rock, SW of Fort Shaw, 1868

Birdtail Rock, SW of Fort Shaw, 1868

In 1869 Mr Ladd engaged in wood-cutting on the Missouri below the mouth of the Judith. Continuing in this occupation for one year, annoyed considerably by Indians, but suffering no fatalities, he removed to Fort Benton and began freighting and trading with the Indians, these combined occupations being quite remunerative. Large herds of buffalo were roaming at will in the valleys and on the benches. In 1872, he and his two companions were attacked by Indians on Eagle Creek, and after acting on the defensive from daylight until noon of the next day, the Indians withdrew, having succeeded in capturing their horses and killing their oxen. In the Summer of 1873 a squad of Indians from Canada stole some of their horses and ran them safely across the line. In a short time a party of eleven white men and one half breed was organized at Fort Benton to rescue the property, and they followed the Indian’s trial for five days, overtaking them at Farwell’s trading post. From the post the pursuing party proceeded directly to the Indian camp and began to talk with them. The Indians soon exhibited hostility and were about to attack them when the party opened fire and killed between thirty and forty of the savages. The Fort Benton party lost one member, Edward Grace. After the Indians fled, the successful whites followed the trail for some distance but were compelled to return. The horses were never recovered but the punishment administered by Mr Ladd and his brave companions ended the Indian raids into that country.

This next story interested me because it’s another one from my mom’s side (the New England side). My (4th) great uncle Cornelius Jackson had a twisty/turny life journey which eventually brought him to transplant a branch of the Connecticut family to Texas. Originally from Fairfield County, he married and started his family in New York City (which Fairfield County adjoins) circa 1833. I suspect he may have been a sailor, as was my (3rd) great grandfather Morris Jackson, who was based out of NYC for a time. Cornelius lived in New York about 8 years, then moved to Sumter County, Alabama around 1840. This is a MAJOR change. It’s hard to describe how big a change. He must have started a cotton farm, since that was the only thing to do there. The motivation for doing such a thing? For context, the Indian removal in the region had occurred in the years just before (circa 1836). I can only speculate that cheap or free land became available. He was to raise a large family here and in a nearby Mississippi County for the next 30 years. But it was a hard life, for which he was either ill-suited or ill-prepared or perhaps he was just plain unlucky. I glean this from the fact that two of his three wives died there, as did 9 of his 13 children. Starvation? Disease? Neglect? I can only speculate.

The streets of Ft. Worth, at the time of which I write.

The streets of Ft. Worth, at the time of which I write.

In 1859, his adult son William moved to Texas. Sometime in the early 1870s, Cornelius moved with his family to the Fort Worth area. Four of his children grew to adulthood; three of them left progeny. Again, I can only speculate that promise of opportunity brought them to Texas. Fort Worth had stockyards; perhaps there were jobs there.

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Oscar Branch Colquitt (1861-1940), the 25th Governor of Texas, is my 3rd cousin 4 times removed. His father (Thomas Jefferson Colquitt) had tried (and failed) to make a go of the family plantation in Georgia after the Civil War. When it went under, the family moved to Daingerfield, TX, where Colquitt got involved in railroads, then got elected to the state legislature as a democrat, then served as governor, 1911-1915. Among the most significant developments during his tenure was a series of border skirmishes with Mexicans during their revolutionary period. Colquitt was also anti-Prohibitionist, which may have hurt his political success.He ran for Senate in 1916 but lost, possibly due to his pro-German sentiments (his mother’s maiden name was Burkhalter).

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The Odoms at Home

And a sister of my great grandfather Virgil, Nancy Stewart Odom moved to Cooke County, Texas and started a family sometime in the late 1880s or early 1890s. Of course, as Frederic Jackson Turner famously opined, the American Frontier was closed by 1893. But something tells me there were plenty of cowboys left in Texas during these years.

Reverend and Mrs. Hale, reading left to right. No, no, it's right to left, but she looks like she keeps in line pretty good nonetheless

Reverend and Mrs. Hale, reading left to right. No, no, it’s right to left, but she looks like she keeps him in line pretty good nonetheless

Sometime before 1900, a cousin of this generation of Stewarts, Reverend Henry Hale moved to Karnes County, Texas with his entire brood of adult children and all their families. The reason for this major migration so far eludes my modest research but as a preliminary guess I’ll go with, being a reverend, he was assigned to a church out there.

Polk Lafayette Stewart. It's a studio pose of course, but the chosen backdrop speaks volumes

Polk Lafayette Stewart. It’s a studio pose of course, but the chosen backdrop speaks volumes

Around 1869, my first cousin 4x removed John Leonidas Cabe, a veteran of the Confederate army from North Carolina, moved to Leadville, Colorado Territory to be a miner. He must have done okay. Two of his sisters, their husbands and children, followed him out there and stayed. Eventually, their widowed mother Sarah Knight, my (4th) great aunt, followed them out as well. She must have been lonely in the home country, as she was well advanced in age (in her 80s) when she made this arduous move. It is my belief that she had this photo taken during the trip. Creston, Iowa is along the train route to Colorado from Chicago (where she’d need to transfer from the eastern train lines before heading west):

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Three of my great-great grandfather James Stewart’s siblings moved westward as well. Polk Lafayette Stewart, Elizabeth Jane Stewart Finley and Nancy Stewart Finley all moved west in hops, first to Missouri in the 1860s, and then to the area around Cherryvale, Kansas around 1880. (The Finleys these two Stewart girls married were cousins of the man many claim was the first American explorer to venture into what would become Kentucky, John Finley). These siblings all move at different times and with some differences in location but that is the general movement and they all wound up in the same place. Polk Lafayette seems to have moved to Missouri first, in 1860 when he was only 15 years old! (A tale must hang there) And he also spent some years in Mississippi. For some historical reference, these relatives moved to Missouri around the same time Mark Twain left — still the era of steamboats. They moved to Saline County, Missouri an area along the Mississippi River known as “Little Dixie” due to the large number of southerners who moved there.

Jesse James -- distant cousin

Jesse James — distant cousin

This was both the breeding and stomping grounds of Jesse James and the James-Younger Gang during these very same years. (James died in 1882 — I am also related to him! ). As for Cherryvale, Kansas, ten years before my relatives moved there, occurred the notorious murders committed by the Bloody Benders. The railheads for Texas cattle drives were located in Kansas, although that was winding down in those years. Dodge City (where Wyatt Earp had been a marshall just a few years before) is in Kansas, as is Wichita and Abilene, all depicted in countless westerns. By the late 19th century, Kansas was a tamer place — more a place of farms and teetotalers (hence a natural place for my relatives to settle as we wrote about here). Kansas was the first state to go completely dry, in 1881, in obvious reaction to the wildness of the cowboy culture that had preceded it. Carrie Nation did some of her worst work in Kansas. In 1906, a future star named Louise Brooks was born in Cherryvale. (And later returned there for a time with her tail between her legs).

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Sometime prior to 1883 my first cousin (4x removed) David Gallaher Stuart moved with his family to Pocatello, Idaho. This was seven years prior to statehood. About the only thing going on in the state at the time was mining, and I think it’s a pretty safe assumption that that was caused him to move with his family all the way from Alabama to this remote forbidding place. The entire state only had a population of 33,000 at the time. By the time he died 20 years later, Stuart had moved even father north, to Bear Lake. Most of his descendants remained in the area.

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Here are some more western characters on my mom’s side. The gentleman in the woodcut is the actual Grizzly Adams, California-based, backwoodsman, trapper, bear trainer and showman. See my full article on that amazing character here. (and while we’re on distant relations who are western celebrities, I am also related to Laura Ingalls Wilder on this side).

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My third great uncle Horace Cady from Wrentham Massachusetts got married in Walla Walla, Washington  in 1863, and then passed away at the age of 42 in Elko, Nevada in 1872! These two locations and these dates suggest the trade of gold and silver mining to me. His death at such a young age, suggests a shoot-out! But only because I have been watching too many movies. I have no details as yet as to how he died, or anything else except these beguiling times and places. He had two daughters, one moved to Arizona (when it was still quite wild), and the other moved to Los Angeles. If I unearth new stuff on them, I will share it here for sure.

Ranch

Interestingly, this book on the history of the Dakotas mentions another frontier Cady, named Hartwell, who had ranches in South Dakota and Texas, starting in 1882. I discovered him because I have two relatives named Hartwell Cady close to home (they are closely related to Horace). This Hartwell, however, was from Malone, New York. I trace him all the way back to one Nicolas Cady in New Hampshire in 1741 and then the line vanishes. So I can’t with certainty link him to my Cadys. But — really — how many people are named HARTWELL? And there are many other first names in common between his Cadys and my Connecticut/ Massachusetts Cadys, enough to give me a strong feeling that they’re connected. Read about him here. 

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An interesting LATE western figure, a distant cousin on my mom’s side, Edwin Fremont Ladd went to North Dakota in 1890 to be a professor and dean of chemistry and pharmacology at the agriculture culture in Fargo. In 1920 he was elected to the U.S. senate for North Dakota, serving until his death in 1925. In his time he was known as a pure food and drug champion.

Can I get a “Yee hah”?

No?

How about just a “Yee”?

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