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How the West Was Sung

Music in the Westerns of John Ford

Kathryn M. Kalinak

Publication Year: 2007

James Stewart once said, "For John Ford, there was no need for dialogue. The music said it all." This lively, accessible study is the first comprehensive analysis of Ford's use of music in his iconic westerns. Encompassing a variety of critical approaches and incorporating original archival research, Kathryn Kalinak explores the director's oft-noted predilection for American folk song, hymnody, and period music. What she finds is that Ford used music as more than a stylistic gesture. In fascinating discussions of Ford's westerns—from silent-era features such as Straight Shooting and The Iron Horse to classics of the sound era such as My Darling Clementine and The Searchers —Kalinak describes how the director exploited music, and especially song, in defining the geographical and ideological space of the American West.

Published by: University of California Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This book would not have been possible without the inspiration, input, encouragement, and support of many people: Matthew Bernstein and Gaylyn Studlar, who first asked me to think about the music in John Ford’s westerns; Janet Walker, who first challenged me to consider the impact of minstrel music, ...

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pp. 1-8

Huw Morgan in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) describes his Welsh village as ringing “with the sound of many voices, for singing is in my people as sight is in the eye.” Something very similar might be written about all the films of John Ford (1894–1973). ...

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1. How the West Was Sung: Music in the Life and Films of John Ford

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pp. 9-22

There were two pianos in the Ford household, but neither John Ford nor anyone else in his immediate family played them.1 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, ...

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2. Hearing the Music in John Ford’s Silents: The Iron Horse and 3 Bad Men

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pp. 23-48

It may seem rather odd to begin the analysis of music in John Ford westerns with silent examples. But as I note in chapter 1, Ford’s musical aesthetic was forged in the silent era and tempered in the early years of sound. Thus the two surviving feature-length westerns generally regarded as Ford’s silent masterpieces, ...

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3. “Based on American Folk Songs”: Scoring the West in Stagecoach

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pp. 49-75

The opening credits for Stagecoach announce intriguingly that the musical score is “based on American Folk Songs.” It was not a particularly obvious proclamation to make in 1939, the year Stagecoach was produced. Although there are some exceptions, notably Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman (1936),1 ...

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4. Two Fordian Film Scores: My Darling Clementine and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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pp. 76-99

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and My Darling Clementine may seem an odd pairing.1 The two films were made eighteen years apart, their visual designs are strikingly different, their narratives have little in common, with the exception of the classic generic confrontation between the lawful and the lawless, ...

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5. “Western as Hell”: 3 Godfathers and Wagon Master

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pp. 100-121

With its wall-to-wall symphonic music, heavily dependent upon original composition, 3 Godfathers could scarcely sound much more different from Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Wagon Master also departs significantly from Ford’s earlier westerns: ...

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6. “The Girl I Left Behind Me”: Men, Women, and Ireland in the Cavalry Trilogy

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pp. 122-157

John Ford did not intend Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande as a cavalry trilogy. He made other cavalry films, The Horse Soldiers, Sergeant Rutledge, and the Civil War segment of How the West Was Won, and the films dubbed “the cavalry trilogy” don’t entirely hang together as such.1 ...

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7. “What Makes a Man to Wander”: The Searchers

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pp. 158-180

The argument of this book has been that song is a distinguishing feature of Ford’s westerns. Ford was well aware of the power of music; that was why he concerned himself so closely with its use. Given that The Searchers is generally regarded as Ford’s masterpiece, and the accompanying body of criticism is dazzling in its quantity and quality, ...

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8. In the Shadow of The Searchers: Two Rode Together and Sergeant Rutledge

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pp. 181-193

The Quiet Man may be John Ford’s most enduringly popular film with the moviegoing public and his most successful from a financial standpoint, but it is The Searchers that is considered his masterpiece. Two films lurk in its shadow: Two Rode Together and Sergeant Rutledge. ...

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9. Cheyenne Autumn: A Conclusion

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pp. 194-202

This book’s central argument has been that John Ford’s choices of folk song, hymnody, and period music significantly affect the meaning of his westerns, and that readings of his films ignore the scores at their peril. Even in his last films, Ford continued to exert control over the music, ...


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pp. 203-234

Select Bibliography

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pp. 235-240


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pp. 241-256

Production Notes

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p. 268-268

E-ISBN-13: 9780520941076
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520252349

Page Count: 271
Publication Year: 2007

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Ford, John, -- 1894-1973 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Motion picture music -- United States -- History and criticism.
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