The Velvet Light Trap 51 (2003) 100-102
[Access article in PDF]
Peter Stanfield. Horse Opera: The Strange History of the 1930s Singing Cowboy. Urbana/Chicago: U of Illinois P, 2002. 177 pages, $16.95, paperback.
Amid the pantheon of American pop and camp icons, the singing cowboy is generally associated with a brand of humor and fun that appeals solely to audiences of children. The assumption that cowboys are for kids has led the singing cowboy to suffer marginalization among cultural scholars despite evidence of the singing cowboy's overwhelming popularity among a wide range of audiences during the first half of the twentieth century. While Depression-era children certainly provided a stable consumer base for the film, radio, and stage productions that featured these costumed performers, the singing cowboy also stood at a cultural intersection between class, race, and gender issues that broadened his appeal to constituencies far beyond that of youth. The image of Gene Autry riding his horse, Champion, through the lobby of London's Savoy Hotel during a 1939 publicity tour (Champion lunched from the hotel's finest china) and later drawing between 500,000 and 750,000 fans into the streets of Dublin demonstrates the wide appeal that such figures carried for audiences internationally. Mainstream Hollywood generally relegated singing cowboys to the basement of "B-grade" fare, and, later, film scholars commonly dismissed them as cultural irrelevancies. In Horse Opera Peter Stanfield reclaims the archetype from potential cultural oblivion, demonstrating that the singing cowboy, far from irrelevant, is instead a figure who for many embodied the social and political fears, tribulations, fantasies, and identities of the Great Depression.
Stanfield traces the formulaic roots of the singing cowboy to the serialized Western dime novels that emerged in the late nineteenth century. The Deadwood Dicks, Denver Dans, Jesse Jameses, and many others that drove these stories are posited as working-class models of strength and honor, commonly struggling even as outlaws and "mannerly bandits" against the capitalist development of the West while aiding the disenfranchised. The dime novel's primary audience was found among the rural working class, and the novels' heroes reflected many of the traditionalist sensibilities held among these groups. Western fiction in the form of short stories appearing in turn-of-the-century magazines (designed to appeal to the new middle classes of urban professionals) generally excised any class issues from the narrative while retaining tales of romantic courtship (for the female audience) and stories of high adventure (for the male reader). Western accounts appealing mainly to the established U.S. elite, those written by easterners such as Theodore Roosevelt and Owen Wister and illustrated by Remington, concentrated on more rarified "American" values: Anglo-Saxon racial supremacy, the importance of pursuing a "strenuous life" for the development of strong moral character, and an appreciation of the frontier as "a liminal space where a return to a more primitive state helps in the process of purifying and revitalizing an overcultivated secular soul" (13). In this literature lie the roots of the oddly mixed figure that was to become the singing cowboy in later years. The singing cowboy reflects elements of each of these representative modes, his musical training and flashy costuming in peaceful coexistence with his ability to honorably romance the ladies, ride, shoot, and throw punches.
Though the singing cowboy could find his formal roots in the cowboys of literature, it took the addition of music, naturally, in order for him to sing. Many of the cowboys who populated the mainstream dime novels, magazine fictions, and morality tales, as well as those who actually existed in the American West, did, in fact, [End Page 100] sing to each other, to their female counterparts, to their horses, and to themselves. Stanfield provides a fairly rigorous account of the various forms of folk music that provided the basis for the singing cowboy's musical vocabulary. Cowboy songbooks published in the first two decades of the twentieth century predictably established a great deal of the singing cowboy canon. Elements of African-American and blackface minstrelsy influenced this canon...