- How the West Was Sung: Music in the Westerns of John Ford
Students of music and film already owe a debt to Kathryn Kalinak, and this volume significantly deepens that debt. Based on painstaking archival research and guided by a clearly defined thesis, it offers a model for serious work in an arena still in its intellectual adolescence and with more than its share of quirky, unfocused, and self-indulgent studies. Its many virtues notwithstanding, Kalinak’s first book, Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Holly wood Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), had itself come in for its share of criticism for the deficiencies of its technical discussions of music. Happily, How the West Was Sung sidesteps this difficulty thanks to its central argument—that in the Westerns of John Ford it is folk song, hymnody, and period music more than their newly composed scores that “contribute to narrative trajectory, character development, and thematic exposition” (p. 2). More than a few studies of Ford’s cinematic oeuvre, along with hundred of other books on film, scarcely mention music at all. Here Kalinak restores it to its rightful place as a core narrative element and does so by focusing on a director whose ideas about music in his films plays directly to her strength, to song as both a narrative device and a bearer of cultural meaning.
The subtitle of the volume would seem to raise a problem in extending auteur theory to music in cinematic studies. Should a study of film music really pay more attention to the director than the composer? (The title of Jack Sullivan’s Hitchcock’s Music [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006] offers an unambiguous “yes”.) Certainly there is a consistency to what Ford wanted, as distinguished from what he got, in all his films. His concern for music rivals his concern for dialogue, and not just in ensuring that each remain subordinate to the image.
After the introduction and an initial chapter on the role of music in the life and films of Ford, Kalinak organizes her monograph entirely by films, taken either individually or in groups. In some cases the grouping pays dividends (as with her fine analysis of the “Irishness” of the cavalry trilogy), but not in others (she herself acknowledges that My Darling Clementine and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance make for “an odd pairing” [p. 76]). Chapters on single films mark both the boundaries of Ford’s engagement with the Western in the sound era—Stagecoach (1939) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964)—and its zenith in The Searchers (1956), a revision of her contribution to The Searchers: Essays and Reflections on John Ford’s Classic Western, ed. Arthur M. Eckstein and Peter Lehman (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004; see pp. 109–43).
Within this taxonomy, several recurring themes lend consistency and coherence to the book’s narrative, especially Ford’s attitudes toward race and ethnicity, composers and arrangers, and the studio system. That no clear picture emerges of how Ford related to the composers assigned to his films (most notably Richard Hageman, Max Steiner, Cyril Mockridge, Victor Young, and Alex North) scarcely counts as a demerit. A wealth of new archival evidence illuminates this issue about as well as one could hope or expect.
Equally painstaking is the research devoted to individual songs. Kalinak artfully weaves the history and pedigree of nearly every tune incorporated into Ford’s Westerns (and some tunes that were considered but not included) with their social and cultural meanings both for Ford and his audiences. On occasion, it is true, her effort to mine this rich vein for interpretative nuggets seems overdone. For example, by 1956 American audiences could have retained scarcely an inkling of the minstrel origins of “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” much less have responded to more than its vague association with the Confederacy in grappling with the complex personality of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers...