- New Deal Cowboy: Gene Autry and Public Diplomacy by Michael Duchemin
In this time of intense debate about American media and politics, New Deal Cowboy: Gene Autry and Public Diplomacy provides an in-depth study of the roots of the relationship between government and the news and entertainment media. The book’s ambitious scope is to tie together the development of multimedia, the Roosevelt Administration’s grasp of these tools as potential propaganda, the evolution of country and western music, and the role of a charming young man named Orvon Glover “Gene” Autry. It addresses how the entertainment industry both reflected and influenced America during the 1930s, a time of deep cultural change. As America transformed itself from a mostly rural to a largely urban nation, Gene Autry and his music were center stage.
Duchemin succinctly traces Autry’s career from his days as a railroad telegrapher to that of a top-rated movie star who readily adapted to the rapidly growing entertainment world, changing his style when necessary. As a prime example, Duchemin cites Autry’s choice of the singing cowboy persona instead of the Jimmy Rodgers yodeler image: when the motion picture industry developed, Autry’s transition to the silver screen was natural. Even with new media available, Autry’s favorite method of promoting his radio show and movies remained live performances.
Simultaneously, Duchemin traces the evolution of modern country western music. Autry’s career developed hand in glove with the new hybrid combination of hillbilly, western, and some folk music. Through radio, recordings, and live performances, Autry gave this hybridization life. Along with the new motion picture industry, this combination proved to be the perfect tool to reach what the author frequently refers to as “rural, small-town, and newly urban” audiences of the 1930s.
When the Great Depression descended in the 1930s, Autry’s country western music, which encompassed family, community, and faith, offered comfort to millions. Duchemin believes that FDR and New Dealers quickly understood the potential of the new media to reach ordinary people and recruit their support for New Deal programs. He also connects movie plots and music to the New Deal and FDR’s diplomatic goals, calling Autry’s [End Page 112] films the “most advanced forms of soft-power public diplomacy through multiplatform entertainment” (68). They encompassed New Deal ideas such as irrigation, electrical power, and flood control as well as promoting tourism. Up to twenty-seven out of fifty-six movies were in direct support of New Deal themes; another fourteen featured neighboring Latin American countries.
New Deal Cowboy offers few insights, however, into what Gene Autry himself thought about the evolution of his career. This is especially evident in the first few chapters of the book, in which Duchemin offers much discussion about decisions made by music and movie producers, while what Autry contributed (other than his ability to perform) is hard to glean. Nevertheless, this well-documented narrative leaves little doubt about the influence that Autry had or the message he was delivering. Although Duchemin believes Autry was a willing participant, the question remains whether Autry consciously delivered these messages or was merely a tool of New Dealers to reach an audience described as “lower culture, rebellious, reactionary” (6).
As the threat of war loomed, the theme of Autry’s movies changed to reflect the administration’s desire to counter German propaganda in Latin America and gain support for the war effort in Europe. It is clear that in this arena, Autry was very aware of his ability to promote war preparedness and patriotism. His widely publicized enlistment and service in the military exemplified his sincere love of country.
In his autobiography Back in the Saddle Again (Doubleday, 1978), Autry described himself as “a kind of New Deal cowboy who never hesitated to tackle many . . . problems” (53) and a Democrat. Being a Democrat and a patriot do not necessarily translate into being the sophisticated propagandist portrayed in this book. That being said, New Deal Cowboy is an excellent study of the...