- How the West Was Sung: Music in the Westerns of John Ford
Most devotees of John Ford’s westerns have probably sensed that the director’s sound tracks represented the sonic equivalent of his films’ stunning visuals. As Kathryn Kalinak demonstrates in her thoroughly researched and well-written book, Ford often chose the songs and tunes for his films with the same care that went into picking the locations for [End Page 172] his shoots. Astonishingly, Ford even used songs in his early silent westerns, providing movie-house accompanists with a variety of on-screen cues as to what the characters were either singing or using as dance music. As Kalinak explains, once sound came in, Ford continued to use music diegetically (heard by and/or performed by the characters), as well as nondiegetically (heard only by the audience). The author maintains, rightly, that these musical moments (sometimes amounting to production numbers) are often among the most distinctive and memorable features of Ford’s films.
Although Ford often had members of his production teams research the music for his films, the final choices were largely his. The emotional quality of a piece was obviously important, but sometimes he picked songs that underscored a film’s ideological message. Kalinak points out that the mid-nineteenth-century Baptist hymn, “Shall we Gather at the River” (used in six Ford films) resonated with the director’s belief in the importance of community on the western frontier.
Although film composers and arrangers were often brought in on Ford’s productions, the author argues that Ford’s own choice of musical material helped to create a sense of “authenticity” in his films. This is because the director drew from period popular music—parlor songs, dances and hymns, as well as folk material, although, as Kalinak demonstrates, relative little of the music is actually traditional. One of the signs of Kalinak’s meticulous research is her willingness to track down the sources for each tune she discusses.
Following a generally chronological path through Ford’s westerns, Kalinak not only identifies the music but explains how each song or tune was used in the film, from conception to final cut, sometimes on a scene-by-scene basis. However, the author does not limit herself to this careful focus on the role of music in the production of Ford’s films. She also scrutinizes both the songs and the films in terms of class, race and gender. While usually illuminating, this approach may occasionally raise questions about how much of a song’s cultural background actually resonated with an audience or, even in some cases, with Ford himself. For example, Ford used a few songs that originated on the nineteenth-century minstrel stage. As the author reminds us, all such songs reflected the racism that is part of the history of American culture. However, by the time Ford used “The Yellow Rose of Texas” in three films, how many Americans (outside of Texas, perhaps) were aware of its original racist content. The song, made popular by Mitch Miller in the 1950s, had undergone several stages of cultural cleaning. Were those unacquainted with the song’s origins, nevertheless, infected by the virus of race? This is a minor question, however, in the broad context of a work that will interest not only specialists in film and popular music but also those readers concerned with any aspect of twentieth-century American popular culture.