Horse Operas, with singing cowboys and Folk Music and Songs
The term singing cowboy could have a variety of meanings, such as
- Real cowboys that sing. These cowboys sang about being on the trail and often whatever songs they heard along the way. However, they don’t appear here except incidentally.
- Singers who play or have played the part of cowboys and incidentally sang something: this has become a long list including: Ricky Nelson, Dean Martin, Bob Dylan, Kris Khristofferson, Johnnie Cash and Willie Nelson.
- What we are concerned about here are those actors that played parts in which singing was integrated with the movies they played in. Horse Opera is the term that was invented for it.
According to Wikipedia the “singing cowboy was a subtype of the archetypical cowboy hero of early Western films, popularized by …B-movies of the 1930’ and the 1940’s. “
The image of a singing cowboy was a created in 1925 with the recording of the “When the Works All Done This Fall,” by Carl T. Sprague.
The first movie cowboy
Surprising to me was learning that the first “singing cowboy” in the movies was the Duke. None other than John Wayne. Only I don’t think he actually sang. He played “Singin’ Sandy Saunders” in Riders of Destiny in 1933.Wayne’s singing voice was dubbed.
Do not forsake me
Oh my darling
Theme song from movie “High Noon” starring Gary Cooper.
Tex Ritter sang the song in the movie. It was composed by Dimitiri Tiemkin. So it probably is not a folk song, but it is a classic song of the mythical West. It evokes some of our strongest mythological images and in a sense becomes part of our folklore.
Woodward Maurice Ritter (Tex) was born January 12, 1905 in Murvail, Texas. He died in Nashville, Tennessee in January of 1974. He attended the University of Texas from 1922 to 1927 with a year in Law school. He sang in the Men’s Glee Club. His greatest influence was from the folk music and cowboy songs collected by UT professors J.Frank Dobie, Oscar J. Fox and John A. Lomax.
Ritter began his singing career on radio and later appeared in a Theater Guild production of “Green Grow The Lilacs” which later served as the basis for the musical “Oklahoma.” In 1936 he started in the movies and made seventy-eight westerns. His songs were more in the line of traditional western folk songs rather than the more modern western songs of other “singing cowboys.” Among his hits are “Rye Whiskey”,” Boll Weevil”, Wayward Wind,” Hillbilly Heaven,” “You are my Sunshine” which was also a hit for Gene Autry.
Much of the above is from The New Handbook of Texas .
Ritter was also influential in the Country Music Association.
His son John Ritter was a popular comedy actor best known for his part in the Television sitcom “Three’s Company.”
A the riders loped by him he heard
One call his name.
“If you want to save your soul from hell
a-ridin’ on our range,
Then cowboy change your ways today or
With us you will ride
A-tryin’ to catch the devil’s herd across the
These endless skies.”
Riders in the sky. By Stan Jones. Sung by Gene Autry.
I first heard this song from pop singer Frankie Lane. Johnnie Cash, Outlaws, Marty Robins and many others have since recorded it.
Gene Autry was the first singing cowboy that I saw as a kid. Autry was discovered by Will Rogers, according to the movie biography of Will Rogers, starring Will Rogers, Jr. Autry, I think, was a hero to me because he joined the Army Air Corps even though it gave Roy Rogers a chance to take his place as the “Singing Cowboy”. I think my big brother, who loved airplanes was in the Navy then and the service to the country back then automatically qualified someone as a hero to a ten year old boy. At that age it didn’t seem strange to me that a cowboy would be flying airplanes.
I think Autry was a creative musician and many of his songs were of his own composition. Oddly he is best known for “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” In his biography he tell of how he needed a song to fit the flip side of a 78rpm or 45 rpm record. The song was presented to him and he didn’t like it, but his wife did. It reminded her of the “ugly Duckling” fairy tale. I never would have thought of it, but thinking about it I think she was right.
Happy trails to you
Until we meet again;
Happy trails to you
Keep smilin' until then.
Happy trails, written by Dale Evens and the theme song for Roy and dale
Roy Rogers, originally Leonard Franklin Slye was born November 5, 1911 and died July 6, 1998 was many peoples idea of what a cowboy really was. He was Gene Autry’s replacement when Autry left the studio and went into the Army Air Corp. Interestingly he played a supporting role in a Gene Autry movie before he adopted the name Rogers.
Musically he was the one who started the “Sons of the Pioneers”, a group still performing. Roy Rogers and his wife Dale Evans were active in the Christian community and supported many charities.
Oddly these singing cowboys played in movies that seemed to mix up the modern with the historical. Cars, horses, stagecoaches, telephones, outlaws and city slickers were all mixed together. For some reason it didn’t seem to bother the audience much.
There have been other singing cowboys but none gained the prominence of these icons of the Hollywood West.
© 2009 Don A. Hoglund
More by this Author
One of the folk artists who was an authentic person who absorbed the traditions through her life and shared them with the world.There were many good musicians during the 1960's folk revival but she had learned through...
Burl Ives was a unique name in popular American music in the 1950's as a folk and pop singer. He later made a big name as an actor but strangely was overlooked during the 1960's folk revival.
They came from upper Alaska where they were working companions to a native tribe.. They are a Nordic sled dog that descended from the arctic wolf and are often mistaken for wolves.