How the West Was Sung

Music in the Westerns of John Ford
By Kathryn Kalinak

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-25234-9

Chapter One

How the West Was Sung

Music in the Life and Films of John Ford

There were two pianos in the Ford household, but neither John Ford nor anyone else in his immediate family played them. Among the notable directors of Hollywood's classical studio era, Ford took the most active and sustained control of the music for his films, and yet he couldn't read music, he couldn't play an instrument, and he sang aloud only when drunk (and then only Irish songs), his grandson Dan told me. Yet professional musicians listened to what he had to say about the music. Much is made and rightly so of Ford's extraordinary visual sense, an eye for composition that seldom failed him. Ford had a musical sense, too, an instinctive feeling for when to use music and an encyclopedic knowledge of what music to use. For the westerns, he liked folk songs, nineteenth-century popular tunes, and Protestant hymnody. Ford treated music in much the same way he treated dialogue: pared it down to its essence, eliminated the irrelevant, and delivered it simply and without affectation. Such a minimalist approach, of course, depends upon choosing exactly the right line of dialogue and exactly the right piece of music. Repeatedly, and with a remarkable consistency, given Hollywood's mode of production, this is what Ford was able to do.

Born John Martin Feeney in 1894 (although he claimed otherwise) near Portland, Maine, to Irish immigrant parents, John Ford was the youngest of six surviving children. A sensitive child, and a reader, he was also a tough football player who earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Maine. After a difficult entry into college life, Jack "Bull" Feeney followed his brother Frank to Hollywood. Billed as Francis Ford (it was Frank who adopted the less ethnic surname), Frank had become a silent film actor and director. Eventually, he founded his own production company. He was thus in a position to provide his brother with an apprenticeship in the business, and he did. Jack Ford began directing in 1917.

A reversal of fortunes visited the Ford brothers in the 1920s. Under the tutelage of the cowboy star Harry Carey, Jack produced a series of successful contemporary westerns, and, as John Ford, was catapulted to international acclaim for The Iron Horse. Frank was plagued by domestic woes, alcoholism, and business problems and hit bottom. He would find work as a character actor in his brother's films for the rest of his life.

Ford plugged away through the transition to sound and eventually became Twentieth Century-Fox's most dependable director. With a string of critical and box office successes in the late 1930s and 1940s, he was Hollywood's most prestigious filmmaker, winning four Academy Awards as Best Director, and two more for his documentaries, a total unmatched to this day. Powerful, difficult, and cantankerous, he worked within the studio system but managed to go his own way nonetheless, butting heads with studio executives but generally thriving in Hollywood. It would be 1939 before he returned to the westerns that had been his entry into the industry and made Stagecoach, a film in which he cast his young friend John Wayne. Westerns would be a central thread in the fabric of Ford's opus, and several of his last films were westerns, but he never won an Academy Award for his work in the genre by which he is now defined.

Any book that devotes itself to the work of a single director needs to confront its own assumptions about authorship and at very least make them explicit for its readers. The field of film studies has been marked since its inception as an academic discipline in the 1960s by auteurism, a romantic and powerful definition of the director as a visionary artist and the source of filmic meaning. Not all directors were deemed auteurs, only those who were able to leave their personal imprint on a film. Ford was fairly early on championed as an auteur; Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema (1968) placed him in his legendary pantheon of directors, and there is a prodigious industry still devoted to this view of Ford today. Auteur status was largely equated with control over the mise-en-sc��ne in these early formulations, influenced no doubt by Cahiers du cinema, the journal in whose pages the notion of the director as auteur first appeared. Ford's status was seen as the result of his ability to render story, character, and theme in visual terms. Even the structuralist approaches to authorship that followed, notably Peter Wollen's work on Ford in Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969) tended to privilege visual language. Music was ignored in shaping these arguments.

Ford was able to exert control over an aspect of film production to which few directors in the studio system even had access, and his relationship to the music challenges traditional notions of what constitutes film authorship. Of the American directors elevated to auteur status by the critics, few directly became involved with the score (D. W. Griffith, King Vidor, and Charles Chaplin, in the silent era, and Orson Welles in his limited collaborations with Bernard Herrmann, in the sound era, are notable exceptions). Most directors left the music in the capable hands of composers. Ford, however, generally chose the songs for his films himself, and since their scores largely consist of songs, and are sometimes even limited to songs, surely this complicates things. Does Ford deserve special status in the pantheon of directors? Or is the concept of auteurism unable to accommodate a director who controlled more than just the visual field? Ignoring the score may be the least of traditional auteurism's problems, and it has long since been put to rest in academic film studies as a viable approach to understanding meaning production. But auteurism is not alone in its short-sightedness.

Under the influence of the poststructuralist revolution of the 1970s, more recent theories have repositioned authorship within a network of meaning production that exceeds the director. John Ford is no longer simply seen as an individual artist working within an assembly-line mode of production who was able to transcend the system and mark his films with personal meaning. Rather, "John Ford" is a site determined by a variety of industrial, institutional, economic, social, legal, cultural, and psychic practices that have the power to govern the ways in which films are interpreted. At its most extreme, directors are regarded as the products of psychic and cultural forces that leave them little or no control over meaning. Although these theories posit more sophisticated models for meaning production in film, they often share the visual bias of traditional auteurism.

My own theory of authorship, evolved over the course of writing this book, is situated somewhere between the positions briefly sketched in the two preceding paragraphs. Studying the musical scores of films has made it impossible for me to ignore the impact of culture on filmic meaning. Music is a form of cultural transmission, trailing preestablished responses that influence filmic meaning in powerful ways. These responses can be exploited for specific reasons, but they do not originate with the director. Cultural meaning has a life of its own, and it always exceeds the individual.

At the same time, I find it difficult to turn my back on the individual. Business and production records indicate that Ford directly influenced the scores of the films that bear his name. He was notorious for collaborating on all aspects of a film's production, including the musical score. He had a prodigious knowledge of nineteenth-century American history, and he knew the music of the period. In the end, I realize that I think about authorship in cultural and individual terms, however uncomfortably those two concepts co-exist. I fear that in erasing the individual author from authorship, the discipline has unduly narrowed its understanding of meaning production. (And perhaps this is why auteur theory has had such a long shelf life outside academia.) Or maybe I just cannot give up on human agency and the idea that the power of culture ultimately finds its expression through individuals. I am neither the first to point out the power to govern meaning contained in the signature of a powerful director nor the last to throw up my hands in frustration in attempting to ascertain the source of filmic meaning. Considering the musical score and tracing its impact in John Ford westerns has convinced me that definitions of authorship are central to our discipline; that "old-fashioned" ideas of authorship can offer useful theoretical and methodological strategies when grounded in industrial, economic, aesthetic, social, cultural, and psychic contexts; that production history and biography have important perspectives to impart to our understanding of filmic meaning; and that a recognition of the importance of the musical score enriches our understanding of John Ford's westerns.

To put those perspectives in perspective, if you will, I devote the remainder of this chapter to Ford and music, to his collaboration on the musical scores for his films, to the evolution of his musical aesthetic from his earliest silent westerns through the early years of sound, and to the part music played in his life on and off the set. The similarities among the scores of Ford's westerns, the striking recurrence of the same songs, across numerous genres, produced by different studios in different eras and scored by different composers, as well as the extent to which many of the songs are not typical or used conventionally, has convinced me that there is a kind of music that I am prepared to describe as Fordian. How else to account for "Ten Thousand Cattle" being cut from Stage-coach only to reappear in My Darling Clementine; the appearance of "Red River Valley" in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), They Were Expendable (1945), Wagon Master, and My Darling Clementine; "Oh, Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie" in Stagecoach, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and 3 Godfathers; "The Cuckoo Waltz" in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), My Darling Clementine, and The Sun Shines Bright (1953); "Garry Owen" in The Long Voyage Home (1940), Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Long Gray Line (1955), and The Searchers; "Sweet Genevieve" in Hell Bent, Fort Apache, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; "Shall We Gather at the River?" in Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, Tobacco Road (1941), My Darling Clementine, 3 Godfathers, Wagon Master, The Searchers, and 7 Women (1965); "The Battle-cry of Freedom" in The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), Young Mr. Lincoln, Stagecoach, and They Were Expendable (1945), "Lorena" in The Searchers and The Horse Soldiers; and "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Dixie" in Ford films too numerous to mention here. And this list is by no means inclusive. Years after the completion of a film, Ford could still recall its songs, correcting interviewers who misremembered song titles or the films in which they were heard.

Furthermore, while the song choices in Ford's films may now seem typical, what anyone might use in a similar situation, I would point out that there is nothing obvious about a Texas cowboy tune representing the forced migration of Okies to California during the Great Depression or a western dirge accompanying the progress of a stagecoach. Songs in Ford westerns can be obscure, anachronistic, used out of context. That they now seem obvious choices is largely a function of hindsight and the powerful connections in Ford between music and visual images.

Ford was involved in every aspect of a film's production. Although he never took screen credit, he supervised the writing of the screenplay and often created dialogue on the set. He described himself as "a cameraman rather than a director," and there is plenty of evidence that he determined and set up the shots for his films. Ford exerted a large measure of control over the editing process too. "I cut in the camera and that's it." Ford would shoot so economically, generally aiming for only one take, that studio editors were left with few options but to follow his editing plan. Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century-Fox seems to have been the most successful at trimming Ford's work; others, like Herbert Yates at Republic, got nowhere.

Ford also collaborated on the sound track. Through the power and prestige he had accrued in Hollywood, his knowledge of music, and the force of his combustible personality, he was in a unique position for a Hollywood director of his era. He wasn't always invested in the musical score per se (this may be because he worked with composers he trusted), but he cared about the songs, and he was in a position to select them himself, both those performed in the film and those heard in the background score. Correspondence about song choice and even song lyrics turns up in Ford's files, not in the composer's, and Ford even wrote custom lyrics for some of the period songs heard in his films.

The process of selecting songs differed from film to film. Ford sometimes had very specific ideas about the music very early on in the production process. Some diegetic songs are clearly noted in the scenarios of the silent era and the screenplays of his sound films. More often they are not. The business of choosing songs could be an ongoing process, extending into the shooting schedule, with final selections sometimes made as late as the location shooting in some cases, surprising the very actors called upon to perform. It is important and revealing to note that the songs heard in Ford's films do not appear in the source material, with one exception: "The Holy City" in Peter Kyne's book The Three Godfathers also figures in Ford's 3 Godfathers.

Ford liked to work with composers that he knew and trusted. He didn't always choose the composer, and sometimes he wasn't satisfied with the score even when he did. But when afforded the opportunity to choose, he did so. Richard Hageman became virtually the house composer at Argosy Pictures, Ford's production company. And when Hageman wanted a job on a Ford film, he wrote to Ford. Even as late as Cheyenne Autumn, at a time when Ford's power in Hollywood was waning, Warner Bros. waited to hire the composer Alex North until Ford had approved the choice. Although evaluating the quality of a film score is a notoriously subjective process, I am willing to assert that many of the composers who worked for Ford did their best work for him. If you have any doubt, listen to the score for, say, Angel and the Badman (James Edward Grant, 1947) alongside She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to hear the difference Ford made to the career of Richard Hageman. Or compare Shane (George Stevens, 1953) to Rio Grande, both scored by Victor Young. After Angel and the Badman, Hageman confessed to Ford that he would never score another western, but Ford could be very persuasive. Hageman scored four more for Ford.

From the beginning, Ford understood music's power, and he included songs even in his earliest films. Musical performances were anything but incidental for him, and songs, in particular, fulfilled clear dramatic functions in his silent westerns. In Straight Shooting (1917), the cowboys relax listening to phonograph records, and when their boss arrives, he orders the music stopped. In Bucking Broadway (1918), the cowboys gather around a piano to sing "Home, Sweet Home" after the protagonist, Cheyenne Harry (Harry Carey), learns that he has been jilted by the woman he loves, the song an audible expression of his loss. In Hell Bent, Cheyenne Harry (Harry Carey) and Cimarron Bill (Duke Lee) drunkenly sing "Sweet Genevieve," but their singing and the sentiment attached to it differentiates them from the rest of the drunken rabble in the saloon. In The Iron Horse, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific rail gangs sing "Drill, Ye Terriers, Drill," whose lyrics encapsulate the film's theme of cooperation and assimilation and whose rhythms force the men to work together. In 3 Bad Men, Dan (George O'Brien) sings "All the Way from Ireland" and later serenades his love with a harmonica, expressing the seductive power often attached to song in Ford.


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