Steyn's Song of the Week
Sixty years ago - in November 1954 - Rosemary Clooney had the Number One record in both America and Britain. Three decades later, it was a UK Number One all over again - providing a late-career windfall for a cowboy actor turned radio evangelist. This Song of the Week is adapted from Mark Steyn's Passing Parade, which is available in a personally autographed print edition direct from SteynOnline, or in new expanded eBook format from Amazon worldwide and the other outlets listed at the foot of the page:
This Ole House once knew my children
Movie buffs will appreciate that moment in low-budget westerns when the leader of the bad guys, the brains of the outfit with the fancy suit and big cigars, swings open the saloon doors and says, "Saddle up, boys, we're ridin' out." In dozens of Republic and Monogram third features of the Thirties and Forties, the camera would then cut to the gang's heavy, chewing a stogie, downing a shot of red-eye, and playing poker in a menacing manner - Stuart Hamblen.
Most of his confrÃ¨res in the gang were phonies - failed stage actors, effete Englishmen drifting through Hollywood - but Hamblen was the real thing: born in 1908 in Kelleyville, Texas, he'd learned to ride and rope as a child and quickly graduated to the local rodeo circuit. When he moved to Los Angeles to sing on KFI Radio's "Covered Wagon Jubilee", it was inevitable that he'd mosey into cowboy pictures.
In the movies, his evil deeds were routinely foiled by Gene Autry or Roy Rogers and Trigger. Off-screen, it was the Los Angeles Police Department who regularly slung him into jail for barroom brawls or shooting out streetlights. "My daddy was a Methodist minister," he said, "and I guess I was the original juvenile delinquent." To while away his prison stretches, he wrote songs like "Ridin' Ole Paint" (which he sang in the movie The Savage Horde) and "I Won't Go Huntin' With Ya, Jake, But I'll Go Chasin' Women".
In 1949, however, Hamblen was persuaded to attend a Billy Graham prayer meeting. Overnight, he abandoned the good ol' boy songs in favour of evangelical numbers like "When The Lord Picks Up The Phone". Even more impressively for one of the hardest drinkers in Hollywood, he also gave up booze, and in the 1952 presidential election ran against Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson on the Prohibition Party ticket, pledging to restore the outright ban on alcohol: he lost by 26 million votes. Marveling at his old drinking buddy's newfound moral rectitude, John Wayne wanted to know how Stu was managing to stay off the bottle. "Well," said Hamblen, "it's no secret what God can do." "That sounds like a song," drawled the Duke. So Hamblen made it one â€“ "It Is No Secret (What God Can Do)" â€“ and he had a hit with it, and so did Red Foley and Jo Stafford, and later Elvis.
Hamblen and his wife Susie hosted "The Cowboy Church Of The Air", one of the most popular programmes on the West Coast, broadcast on KLAC every Sunday morning from the family home, a California estate once owned by another hellraiser, Errol Flynn. And, although few of his religious numbers crossed over into the wider market, one of his songs, "This Ole House", did have the distinction of reaching Number One in Britain on two separate occasions, with Rosemary Clooney in 1954 and Shakin' Stevens in 1981.
"I always wanted to write music and for me it could be anywhere," he said. "This time, I was wandering way up in the mountains and came across this dilapidated cabin." He was hunting in the high Sierras and had noticed a mangy, starving old hound dog hanging around an otherwise abandoned cabin. "Inside, I found an old prospector lying dead. I saw curtains, so that meant a woman had been there. I saw kids' things lyin' around. And they were all gone now. The old man was alone." Most of us would just get out, some perhaps would go to the cops, but Hamblen sat down and, with the corpse lying next to him for inspiration, began to rough out a song. "It took about 30 minutes," he said. "I put it down on a brown paper bag the old fellow had left lying there:
Ain't a-gonna need this house no longer
Riding down the canyon, with the pooch on the pommel of his saddle, Hamblen firmed up the central idea of the lyric: There are two meanings to "this ole house" â€“ first, the physical shelter, the wood frame and floor boards; second, the old prospector's body, the structure that houses his soul. Both houses end up as dust scattered to the winds. But the soul inside the "house" of the body is gathered up to meet the saints in the house of the Lord. Hamblen wasn't the first to put it like that. The apostle Paul, in his second epistle to the Corinthians, says:
For we know that, if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
But Stuart Hamblen was the first to get a hit song out of the idea:
My ole hound dog lies a-sleepin'
If Rosemary Clooney was aware of this deeper meditation, she didn't let it get in her way. Jimmy Carroll's arrangement treats Hamblen's reflections on the transience of corporeal reality as a jolly novelty number, a quintessential bouncy pop song from the Mitch Miller era complete with the signature sound of Rosie's early hits - Stan Freeman's harpsichord, which almost certainly wasn't how Stu Hamblen heard the song when he was up there in that cabin cooking it up. But Hamlen was grateful enough to send Rosie a bassinet with 125 yards of pink tulle for her baby: even on the Hit Parade, in the midst of death there was new life. A quarter-century after he himself met the saints and a century after his birth, "This Ole House" remains the versatile Stuart Hamblen's most enduring legacy - and the only Number One hit written in the presence of a dead body.
~adapted from Mark Steyn's Passing Parade, which can be yours in personally autographed print format direct from SteynOnline, or in the new expanded eBook edition, which you can be reading within minutes in Kindle, Nook or Kobo - from Barnes & Noble in the US, from Indigo-Chapters in Canada, and from Amazon outlets worldwide. Click below for your nearest branch office:
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November 16, 2014
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~and don't forget, if you like Mark's Song of the Week essays, some of his most requested are collected in his book A Song For The Season - including many songs for national days, from "America The Beautiful" to "Waltzing Matilda". You can order your personally autographed copy exclusively from the SteynOnline bookstore.
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~and don't forget, some of Mark's most popular Song of the Week essays are collected in his book A Song For The Season. You can order your personally autographed copy exclusively from the SteynOnline bookstore.
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The SteynOnline Hit Parade
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