University of Minnesota Press
Reviewed by:
How the West Was Sung; by Kathryn Kalinak; University of California Press, 2007

Film music is one of the most neglected components of film analysis. Several books and essays by authors such as Claudia Gorbman, Roy Pendergast, and Royal S. Brown point out the tendency in film theory and history to largely ignore the music in critical study. In her recent book, How the West Was Sung, Rhode Island College professor Kathryn Kalinak singularly identifies this fault within auteur theory. In her analysis, she makes a strong case for film music by applying auteur theory, continental philosophy, semiotics, and music theory to the music in the westerns of auteur, John Ford. Ford’s control and implementation of music and song characterizes the personal style and vision of his work and, according to Kalinak, “operate narratively, thematically, structurally, and ideologically” (3) thus providing a superior understanding of characters, historical setting, and narrative implications.

Kalinak is a professor of English and film studies and her passion and knowledge for music is originally demonstrated in her first book, Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film (1993), a wise read before forging ahead with How the West Was Sung, since her recent work places very little emphasis on the constructs of the classical Hollywood film score. Kalinak’s current focus is song and how traditional American and folk music operate in Ford’s westerns. However, knowledge of the classical Hollywood film score and its function in film is beneficial to understanding how Ford’s songs work in much the same way.

Kalinak begins with the question of authorship. Fully aware of the difficulties within the theory itself, she clarifies her position immediately and outlines the definition of an auteur and John Ford’s placement within the composition of the theory. Her discord is immediately clear: “Ignoring the score may be the least of traditional auteurism’s problems, and it has long been put to rest in academic film studies as a viable approach to understanding meaning” (11). Films are grouped together by their relationship to one another, with Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) in chapters by themselves. Beginning in Ford’s early years, chapter 2 dives into his silent films, illustrating Ford’s control of the music from the start of his career. Kalinak notes collaborative relationships between Ford and his composers, music supervisors, [End Page 236] and orchestrators. Chapter 3 covers Stagecoach and Kalinak’s thesis begins to set in as she not only explains the significance of every song used in Stagecoach, but also suggests that Ford originated the sound that is now associated with the western genre.

Because of the similarities between the musical scores of My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), chapter 4 illustrates how the music in these two films is used to, “lend verisimilitude to the film’s portrayal of the American West” (90). Composer Cyril J. Mockridge combines folk music with the format of the classical Hollywood score by introducing traditional American songs to the romantic arrangements of the typical orchestral film score, providing, “reassuring signs of the authenticity of the images” (77). This is especially significant considering Kalinak’s earlier claim that Ford has formulated the quintessential sound for the western genre by using American folk music. The score is also used as a signifier of togetherness and community, and singles out characters that don’t belong, or rather the Others. The philosophical definition of the Other is not completely clear but rather Kalinak explains how community and the outsider are illustrated in Ford’s use of song. Ford’s tendency in these two films is to provide the outsiders with individual pieces of music representative of their characters and, “song provides a moment when the outsider is given a voice and an opportunity to raise concerns that the films do not fully develop” (84).

The Searchers, commonly referred to as Ford’s magnum opus, is definitely the most significant chapter for Kalinak as she states her surprise at how little attention has been given to the music in the historical analysis of the film. “The music has much to reveal, enriching an understanding of both the film and the culture in which it was produced” (159), and Kalinak states that characters and the driving force behind their decisions are revealed in the music. The role the music plays in the film helps illustrate Ethan Edwards’s reasons for searching, and ultimately saving, his niece Debbie. Kalinak identifies the song “Lorena” as representative of Ethan’s love for Debbie’s mother Martha at the start of the film, and explains, “It is ‘Lorena’ that accompanies Ethan’s lifting of a tense and terrified Debbie into the air. ‘Lorena’ functions as a specific aural marker for Martha. Thus, I would argue that hearing ‘Lorena’ at this moment brings us back to the figure of Martha, who returns to the scene and supplies Ethan’s motivation” (169). Music as signifier is carried heavily throughout this chapter, revealing hidden meanings in Ford’s portrayal of race relations between Native Americans, Mexicans, and white Americans across the western frontier during this period. The Searchers has long been analyzed as a film about prejudice and hatred, and the music helps further the conversation regarding Ford’s true implications in his portrayal of different race and ethnic backgrounds. It is no longer just a commentary on race; the music moves the discussion further by identifying the way in which music represents all characters of different backgrounds and their relationships to one another.

One problem in Kalinak’s book begins in chapter 3 as she attempts to define what makes music American. It’s not so much that Kalinak fails to define what constitutes a purely American sound in folk song. The problem comes from even attempting to define such a difficult genre of music. Folk and/or traditional music is different depending on what part of the world it comes from. America is known as the melting pot of the world and with that comes a melting pot of music from various cultures that influence American music. Four pages are spent attempting to define traditional American music but instrumentation, rhythm, style, and structure are never fully identified. Finally Kalinak concedes, stating, “Folk song, by its very nature, is a slippery entity characterized by a high degree of variation . . . depending on era, geographic location, and performance setting” (57). This postulation would be justified at the beginning of chapter 3 since her attempts early in the chapter to explain where and how American folk music began can cause some confusion, especially for music historians or theorists.

Kathryn Kalinak has proven her skills when critically analyzing film music in the essays, “Disturbing the Guests with this Racket: Music and Twin Peaks,” focusing on the television show’s orchestral score, and “Flashdance: The Dead End Kid,” pointing out the film’s fantastical use of song. The amount of research completed in How the West Was [End Page 237] Sung is evident while her writing style is always clear and conscientious. She has a way with words, illustrated in appealing background stories and anecdotes that convey the depth of her knowledge, and I thoroughly enjoy her sense of humor: “Are all prostitutes in Ford’s westerns named after cities?” (114). In the end, Kalinak efficiently ascertains that auteur theorists have committed a major faux pas in omitting music from their theory and analysis. Kalinak’s book offers a shrewd hypothesis, well organized and thoroughly examined, that brings a wealth of discovery into the formative study of film music.

Kylah Magee

Kylah Magee received a Bachelor of Music degree from Texas State University in 2001 and an MA in film studies from Chapman University in 2007. She has worked as a film screener with the Los Angeles Film Festival and assisted in the film and music archives at the University of Texas Harry Ransom Center. Most recently Kylah has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. She is a member of The Society for Cinema and Media Studies and The Film Music Society and currently resides in Austin, Texas.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.