The first rule of Gene Autry's Cowboy Code is:
The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
When the yodelin' cowboy turned baseballin' tycoon (the Los Angeles Angels) departed for that last round-up in the sky twenty years ago - October 1998 - many of the dweebs on the obituaries pages took unfair advantage and hit a lower man (six foot under) with frankly somewhat condescending farewell-and-good-riddances both to Autry and to singing cowboys in general. Gene himself would probably have deferred to their alleged intellectual superiority. After all, as he sang in Yodelin' Kid from Pine Ridge (1937), the cowboy...
...don't know much of art
But his song is from the heart
Sing me a song of the trail.
Gene didn't know much of art but he knew plenty 'bout business, shrewdly anticipating every major trend in movies, music, broadcasting. He remains the only guy to have five stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, one for every category â€” films, TV, radio, stage and records. Even more impressive, he's the only TV star to wangle his animal his own spin-off series, "Champion the Wonder Horse". My late feline, by comparison, watched me do a thousand Tucker appearances without once suggesting he'd like to host "Special Report" or "Fox & Friends". Only Champion pulled it off â€” not like that loser Trigger, who just wound up stuffed and unmounted in the corner of Roy Rogers' living-room.
It's important to distinguish between singing cowboys. My view of Rogers, who died a few weeks before Autry, is broadly that of Bob Hope in the saloon scene in Son of Paleface (1952). The vamp for "Wing Ding Tonight" heralds the arrival of Jane Russell, shoehorned into a scarlet bodice. Steam begins to rise from Hope's pipe, but Rogers is completely unmoved. "What's the matter?" asks Hope. "Don't you like girls?"
"I'll stick to horses, mister," says Rogers. Hope is aghast. Autry was wooden in a taciturn, manly, wild frontier kind of way, but Rogers was often just bland. And Autry had more character in his voice â€” a kind of nasal ache that sits beautifully on top of steel guitars.
The trail blazed by Autry the first singing cowboy, was followed by dozens of others. Ray Whitley, who starred in some two-reelers for RKO, had a more typical career. Woken at dawn by a phone call telling him to report to the studio for a new assignment, he staggered to his feet and yelped to the missus, "I'm back in the saddle again!" The old cartoon lightbulb went off in his head and he wrote up the phrase as a song for Border G-Man (1938, back when America had both borders and G-men). No one noticed it except Autry, who polished it up, re-introduced it in Rovin' Tumbleweeds (1939) and planted the phrase in the American vernacular.
Rogers, Whitley, Tex Ritter and Fred Scott the Silvery Voiced Baritone all made their screen debuts within a year or two of Autry in 1935; by 1937, Herb Jeffries was even making all-negro singing-cowboy pictures. But the original was always the best. Pre-Dances with Wolves westerns are assumed to be a conservative genre, yet Autry managed to share all Kevin Costner's modish concerns, only not so tediously and ostentatiously: the environment? the plight of Native Americans? the scourge of big business? Autry did it all 60 years ago. In Old Monterey (1939), for example, is a crackling yarn about ranchers and the federal government feuding over military testing in the desert.
The social messages were alleviated by Gene's genial singing. He took what in the Thirties was a dated, regional style and made it America's music. The record industry dropped the patronizing designation '"hillbilly music" and started calling it "country-and-western" in an attempt to hitch all rural music to the popularity of Autry's singing westerns. "C&W" became plain old "country", and eventually America's most popular music â€” thanks to Autry's pioneering efforts, and a helping hand from some British songwriters. Michael Carr (from Leeds) and Jimmy Kennedy (Belfast) wrote the title song for Gene's most popular movie South of the Border (Down Mexico Way), even though neither man had ever been south of the border at all, except the Irish border. Earlier, Carr and Kennedy's brother had written "Ole Faithful", which Gene sings touchingly to Champion in The Big Show (1936):
When your round-up days are over
There'll be pastures white with clover
Ole faithful palo' mine...
When Autry's celluloid round-up days were over, he found lusher pastures. A few years before his death, during a long bus trip for major-league baseball owners on some promotional junket, the driver was obliged to make a roadside stop for Gene to relieve himself: as he reboarded, George W Bush (co-owner of the Texas Rangers team) congratulated the old singing cowboy on his "great spray". I can't speak to that, but I had some small contact with him around the same time in an attempt to tease him out of retirement to sing "Here Comes Santa Claus" and "Rudolph" for a Christmas show. He was a perfect gentleman, a living exemplar of his Cowboy Code, whose eternal verities appeared to have passed their sell-by dates by the time he took his leave in Clintonian America, not least Rules Number Three ("The Cowboy must always tell the truth"), Number Eight ("He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action and personal habits") and Number Nine ("He must respect women, parents and his nation's laws"). As the Bard said, even golden lads must come to dust. Or as the sagebrush troubadour warbled:
Dust in the sky
Dust on the trail
Dust in my eye...
~Mark will be back with On the Town later tonight to spin some platters and present some live music as we continue our centenary celebrations of Bobby Troup. On the Town is made possible through the support of members of The Mark Steyn Club, for which we are profoundly grateful. Club membership isn't for everybody, but it helps keep all our content out there for everybody, in print, audio, video, on everything from civilizational collapse to our Saturday movie dates. And we're proud to say that this site now offers more free content than ever before.
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