Academy Awards 2010

For fans of westerns or for fans of films set in the American West, the 2010 Academy Awards last night offered a mixed bag. As usual, films with western themes or settings were not particularly prominent, not even in this year’s expanded list of nominees. However, the one film that makes good use of western settings, Crazy Heart, did quite well, with Jeff Bridges snagging the Best Actor Oscar, and Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett winning in the best original song category for “The Weary Kind” (Crazy Heart‘s theme song).

And, we might consider director James Cameron’s Avatar to be, if not a western in the traditional sense, at least a post-western.  More than one reviewer has pointed out parallels between Avatar and Dances With Wolves, and more generally, the way Avatar relocates traditional western themes (encounters with a new land and with the indigenous inhabitants of that land) in a science fiction setting. And Avatar did carry away a few Oscars, for cinematography, visual effects, and art direction.

Trying to Locate Song

We received a question from a reader who is looking for a particular western song, which he describes below:

“I’m attempting to track down a western song about a man, either a
priest or reverend, who had a past of gunfighting, and is attempting
to teach forgiveness to a town.

“I know this is fairly vague, but I am attempting to find this song for
my father and these are all the details he remembers. If you have any
ideas over what the title or artist might be, or even just some
potential locations to look for old songs, it would be greatly
appreciated.”

Any suggestions?

Hinterlands of Devotion

Many of you may be aware of the Afro-British R&B singer Sade. Many more of you may be aware of her ability to capture the essence of love and longing in her music–an impressive set of best selling records that she is talented enough to only release every 10 years or so. Being an African American West fanatic when I heard the first release from her latest album my ears shot up. The title is “Soldier of Love” which does not mean much until she begins to sing about the “Wild Wild West” and the “hinterlands of [her] devotion.” I immediately began trying to figure out how and why the mythic 19th century west became a point of contact in her song (in 2010). I am still teasing this out, but I find it fascinating nevertheless.

Western Hip-Hop

Continuing the theme of western music, there’s a new single out from hip-hop artist Gonjasufi called “Kowboyz and Indians.” In terms of musical genre, it’s a long way from Tex Ritter and John Denver, but an interesting song nonetheless from this Nevada-based performer.

Western Songs

Dave Alvin, ‘King of California’
Richmond Fontaine – almost anything! – CD Thirteen Cities
Dave Alvin singing Merle Haggard’s ‘Kern River’
Minutemen, ‘Corona’ (and the even BETTER version by Calexico!!)

Favorite Western Songs II

With Grammy Awards coming up tonight (Sunday, January 31), I thought it was time to return to an earlier post on Favorite Western Songs. Just taking a quick look at the award nominees this year, none of them strike me as particularly western in theme (unless Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” is really about Texas Hold ‘Em). Below are some favorite western songs drawn from comments made on the original post. As usual, use the comment link below to aid to the list. In particular, if you know of any “western” songs recorded in the last year that were passed over by the Grammy Awards, add them to the list.

I recently saw Rio Bravo (1959), starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, and Ricky Nelson, and was struck by the performance of the song “My Rifle, My Pony, And Me.” In the scene, the main characters are gathered in the jail, and, for two minutes or so, the plot is abandoned, and we have a nice little duet with Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson singing the song. The only real motivation that I can imagine is that, if you have Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in a movie together, how can you not have them sing?

I don’t know if this my favorite song performed in a western, but it’s a pleasant and memorable moment in the film.

I’m also fond of Tom Russell’s “When Sinatra Played Juarez” and “Tonight We Ride”

And, of course, anything by Calexico:

From Lesley Brown:

I don’t think it’s necessarily a great song, but the theme song from High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling) never leaves my head. I haven’t seen that movie in over 30 years, and yet the song pops into my head regularly.

I like all the old raunchy western songs, and among the overly familiar western songs, Tumblin Tumbleweeds will remain my favorite because the harmony is just so good. The PBS special _American Roots Music_ has a good section on western music and its influence on what we now consider to be Roots Music.
My favorite song to sing is an old song called “My Love is a Rider,” which can be found in a book called _He Was Singin’ That Song_ by Jim Bob Tinsley, U Press of Florida, 1981.

Favorite verse: My love has a gun that has gone to the bad/ And that makes my lover feel pretty damned sad/ For the gun it shoots high, and the gun it shoots low/ And it wobbles around like a bucking bronco.

From David Cremean:

y favorite two (among the many, many I love) are more contemporary: John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” and Michael Murphey’s “Carolina in the Pines.” Many lasting personal connections.

Filmically, probably Marty Stuart’s closing song to the mediocre film version of “Pretty Horses,” “So Far Away.”

From Jim Price:

Three of the best are Ghost Riders In The Sky, Mr.Shorty
and The Streets of Laredo.Now this is real western music,
and Strawberry Roan and El Paso City are pretty good
as well.

New Oscar Micheaux-Themed CD

As noted in earlier posts, the past couple of years have been good ones for fans of African American writer and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951). Paul McGilligan’s comprehensive biography, Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only, came out in 2007. There was a major conference in February 2009 on Micheaux’s work at Columbia University, concurrent with a retrospective screening of his films at Lincoln Center. [See Faded Glory: Oscar Micheaux and The Pre-War Black Independent Cinema. ]

And, now, Stace England and the Salt Kings have just released an album of songs responding to Micheaux’s life and work, The Amazing Oscar Micheaux.

Although Micheaux was born in Metropolis, Illinois (and thereby came to the attention of the Illinois-based Salt Kings), he is of interest to scholars of the American West in part because of the several years he spent on a homestead near Gregory, South Dakota. His autobiography The Conquest (1913) and his novel The Homesteader (1917), both of which detail his trials and tribulations (and successes) on his South Dakota farm, are among the few books currently in print describing the experiences of an African American homesteader.

Micheaux is best known as a pioneering filmmaker. His film version of The Homesteader (1919) was the first full-length feature by an African American director.  Of the three Micheaux silent films still extant, Within Our Gates (1920), The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), and Body and Soul (1925), one of them, The Symbol of the Unconquered, returns to Micheaux’s homesteading experiences as the basis for the narrative, as does a later sound film, The Exile (1931). The Amazing Oscar Micheaux draws on both The Symbol of the Unconquered and The Exile as a source for songs.

Reviews of The Amazing Oscar Micheaux have been posted on Blogcritics and AssociatedContent.com (a review by Joseph Bridges that also reprints the albums liner notes). Click on either of the excerpts below for the full review.

Blogcritics: Over the last few years Stace England and his band the Salt Kings have put out two albums, Cairo Illinois and Salt Sex Slaves, which have [recounted] events that you won’t find a record of in most history text books. With their latest album they’ve moved into the twentieth century in order to give us not just a glimpse of events but a person. The Amazing Oscar Micheaux, available for download now and being released in the new year on Rankoutsider Records, introduces listeners to America’s first major African-American director.

From Joseph Bridges: Reading the liner notes to an album is an important part of listening to any album (Note: For those of you out there who think an MP3 is actually music, go buy a physical cd. It costs about the same and includes notations and pictures that add to the effect and tone of the music. i.e The Beatles Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band). Some notes are sparse as the musicians would like you to dream some of the meanings to the songs. Some notes are copious. Those are the ones I like and on The Amazing Oscar Micheaux, Stace England remembers an almost forgotten legend in the seminal film director Oscar Micheaux. Wrapping up the life of a great director into an album is also a feat as England and his Salt kings break down the life, times, and accomplishments of Micheaux into twelve songs.