The Music of Western Movies and our Vision of the American West.
Music of the American West is really a combination of styles and rhythms inherent to the place and culture of the people who occupied the West, whether Native American, European American or African American. The music represents the cultural heritage of the people who came to call the West home.
This music, however, is not the music that expresses the grandeur of the western environment or the image in the American mind of a place called The West. The music that most of us western aficionados associate with Western America is the music composed to accompany the numerous TV and movie westerns of the 1950s and 1960s.
The popularity of TV westerns in the late 1950s and 1960s convinced many in the film industry of the lucrative possibilities of the western genre; film executives outdid each other in their race to produce westerns of epic proportions. By so doing, they helped define the West as an expansive landscape where western characters fought and died on the advancing western frontier. Even though I have seen more western movies than I care to admit, it is not always the movie that leaves a lasting impression, it is the musical score that brings to mind a feeling and a longing for the many wonderful attributes we have come to associate with the American West.
A musical composition can relate many things to its listeners. A composer knows this and spends a lot of time incorporating the right instrument, chord, or phrase to express what he wishes to convey through his music. It really is not unlike an author who uses words to create his images; the composer uses music notation and orchestration. In the end, they both create a piece of art that tells us something about our world. Of the composers who have written musical scores to accompany western movies and TV shows, several stand out for their interpretation of the West-- Russian born Dimitri Tiomkin (1894-1979), Jerome Morass (1913- 1983) Alfred Newman (1901-1970, and Elmer Bernstein (1922- ). Of the four, Dimitri Tiomkin was probably the most influential in creating the western theme.
Dimitri Tiomkin was born in Kremenchuk, Russia1894. He studied piano and composition at St. Petersburg Conservatory of music. His first experience with music theatre was in St. Petersburg, where he played the piano accompaniment to Russian and French silent films. Tiomkin immigrated to New York in 1925, where he worked with different theatrical and ballet companies. His big break came in 1931 when Universal Studio hired him to score the Russian themed movie, Resurrection, his first non-musical film. Through his long tenure as a composer, he scored over 100 movies, which included Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939), The Westerner, (1940), It’s a Wonderful Life, (1947), Red River, (1948), The Big Sky, (1952) and The High And The Mighty (1955). And, he wrote the scores for such classic westerns as High Noon, (1952), Gunfight at the OK Corral, (1952) and the TV series, Rawhide, (1959-1966).
High Noon(1952) is what has been called a classic western in that the story has all the elements that we have come to associate with the western genre—good v. evil, or the advance of civilization and the conflict when civilization meets up with the savage West. And, the hero who has to choose between the fair haired schoolmarm from the East, or the dark haired woman who knows her man but is too indigenous to the West to get her man. Just as popular as High Noon was in the 1950s, so to was the theme song that introduced the movie, “Do Not Forsake Me.”
“Do Not Forsake Me,” was one of the most popular movie songs of the era and the winner of an Oscar in the category of the Best Original Music. The producers of High Noon also saw the commercial possibilities of recording the song for the growing pop music market--the production company made a considerable amount of money from royalties. High Noon set the trend and other film producers soon followed. Between 1950 and 1954 only thirteen percent of American feature films used theme songs in their openings. But by the 1960s, twenty-nine percent of movies opened with theme songs—and most of those were westerns. “Do Not Forsake Me” was popular with the listening public for two reasons—Dimitri Tiomkin’s musical score and Ned Washington’s lyrics.
When listening to “Do Not Forsake Me,” one cannot mistake the western flavor of the song. Tiomkin opened the composition with the constant rhythm provided by a percussion instrument, the Tom Tom. After a couple of measures of the lone Tom Tom, the slow strum of guitar chords introduced the lyrics. Throughout the song the Tom Tom continued the rhythm in the background while the guitar, harpsichord, and harmonica played softly in accompaniment to the melody and the lyrics.
Ned Washington’s lyrics informed the listener of the struggle in the story of the main characters, who were forced to vet their difference in a street fight. Added to this winning combination of music and lyrics was the performance of “Do Not Forsake Me” by Tex Ritter.
His western (Oklahoma) twang authenticated the “West” feeling of the song and added to its overall appeal.
Ned Washington wrote the lyrics to many of Dimitri Tiomkin’s musical scores. In 1952, Tiomkin wrote another classic western song for the theme to Gunfight at OK Corral starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Rhonda Fleming.
Again, Washington’s lyrics summarize the story line of the movie. And in the musical score Tiomkin employs the same rhythmic techniques in the background as he did in High Noon. The beginning overture to the movie, however, is more intense than High Noon. A full orchestra begins Gunfight at OK Corral with a strong forte’ crescendo that creates tension and energy but quickly fades out to a lone whistler beginning the melodic line. Accompanying the melody is the constant background rhythm that mocks horse huffs on dry clay earth.
The listener cannot help but imagine men on horses riding steadily toward town. Added to this is what Tiomkin must have imagined to be a truly western attribute to the music, short musical bridges between different sections imitating Native American rhythms associated with warriors and the preparation for conflict. In the movie, these bridges serve as a transition in time and place. Frankie Lane recorded the song.
Gunfight at OK corral--1952
Probably the most popular song for Frankie Lane was the theme to the TV series, Rawhide, another Dimitri Tiomkin musical successes.
Tiomkin’s constant rhythm in the background of Rawhide however, is not instrumental but performed by backup singers who add the same western flavor to the song as Frankie Lane’s rendition of the lyrics.
In 1958 Jerome Moross wrote the score to another successful western, (and one of my favorites) The Big Country staring Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons.
Moross was another accomplished musician who wrote musicals, ballets and concert pieces. He was born in New York City in 1913. As a child, he studied piano and graduated from the New York School of Music at age eighteen. As a senior he held the Julliard conducting fellowship and was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1947-48. He is probably most known for his song, “Frankie and Johnny.”
He started his career in Hollywood first as an orchestrator for films in the 30s and 40s and by 1948, as a composer. Of the western films he scored, Big Country is the best known.Moross explained, “as we hit the Plains, I got so excited that I stopped off in Albuquerque and the next day I got to the edge of town and walked out onto the flat land with a marvelous feeling of being alone in the vastness with the mountains cutting off the horizon. When it came to writing the main title of the film, I wrote the string figure and the opening theme almost automatically.” The main theme to Big Country reflected Moross’s wonder at the grandeur of the West.
The opening theme to Big Country starts with full orchestra, at double forte’, stings carrying the background rhythm. The music goes from forte’ to a quieter melody line played by strings, but in the background bass instruments bring home the driving rhythm until the orchestra comes in again at full force, the bigness of the country expressed in the music can not be missed.
Elmer Bernstein was another successful composer who has many movies to his credit; most recognizable is The Magnificent Seven.
Bernstein was born in New York City in 1922. As a young man, he performed as a dancer, actor and artist, winning several prizes for his paintings. He also studied piano with a teacher from Julliard School of Music. In his long career, he was nominated fourteen times for an Academy Award and in 1967 won for his score of Thoroughly Modern Millie. His other nominations were The Man with the Golden Arm, Summer and Smoke, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Return of the Seven, Hawaii, True Grit, Walk on the Wild Side, just to name a few.
Like musical scores of other westerns, Bernstein opens the score to The Magnificent Seven with full orchestra, which quickly moves into a strong rhythmic background lead by percussion and brass. Bernstein introduces a variation to the western theme with his use of Latin rhythms in the percussion and guitar, which incorporated the Spanish flavor of the American Southwest. Throughout the theme, strings and woodwinds play the melody against the constant and strong background beat
The musical style used by Dimitri Tiomkin influenced others who followed Tiomkin with their own musical compositions written to accompany The Western. Most apparent in the different western movie themes was the constant beat in the background that imitated Native American rhythms. Also, the use of percussion instruments to give special effects like galloping horses, and incorporating such folk instruments as the guitar, the harmonica, and the whistle into the score produced a unique sound that became associated in the American mind with the music of the American West.
There is one other song that is almost synonymous with westward immigration and has been incorporated in many western scores—“Shenandoah.” The song has been around since early America, but there seems to be quite a bit of debate about the origins of the song. One popularly accepted explanation, taken from a 1931 book on sea and river chanteys by David Bone, has the songs origins in Virginia. Bone maintained that, “Oh Shenandoah” originated as a river shanty song and became popular with crews on sea faring vessels in the 1800s, basically a boatman’s song. Another more feasible explanation is that it originated with Scot-Irish settlers and the lyrics referred to their term of confinement as indentured servants. “The seven (long) years since I last saw you” was the common term of indenture servitude in early America. Over the years, the song has been known by different titles including, “Shennydore”, “The Wide Missouri”, “Across The Wide Missouri”, “The Wild Missourye”, “The World of Misery”, “Solid Fas”, “Rolling River” and “Oh Shenandoah.”
At any rate, by the 1950s and 60s, “Shenandoah” was solidly anchored in the American music culture. The Kingston Trio wrote their popular version of the song and included it in their albums and concerts. But, probably the person to reintroduce the song into American music culture was Alfred Newman, who incorporated the song into his score of the epic western, How the West Was Won.
In 2006, Bruce Springsteen released yet another version of Shenandoah on his album, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.” Springsteen’s arrangement of the song, and the instrumentation, gives the song the “feel” of western migration. The song opens with the slow and soft chords of the guitar and fiddle. Gradually the music builds as the accordion and banjo take over. As the introduction continues to build, the banjo player plucks slow distinct chords that give the listener the feel for the rhythm of the river. The music begins to build as Springsteen sings the familiar lyrics. The listener cannot help but feel the energy of the song as Springsteen brings the song to climax and the music begins its fade to the soft chords at the end. What ever the origins of the song may be, Springsteen’s interpretation gives the listener the distinct feeling of pioneer moving west.
Music is timeless and how one interprets music is an individual experience. For me, whenever I hear a theme from one of the many westerns of the 1950s and 1960s, I imagine the large landscape and beautiful mountain vistas of Western America. But, the music also relates the conflicts inherent in settling the land. Just as it was all played out on the “big screen,” it was also played out in the musical score that accompanied the action.