To most people Western music conjures up thoughts of cowboys, Indians, the Wild West, wagon trains, pioneers, settlers, westward expansion, exploration, and the Continental Railroad. Musicologists consider Western music as a form of music indigenous to the United States. However, there is a caveat; much of Western music has origins influenced by the folk music of the British Isles, including England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
Along with Western music, Appalachian music, often called hillbilly music, has similar origins in folk music. Much of both Western and Appalachian music was composed by people living and working in these regions of the country. Although the vast majority of Western music was composed by Westerners, serious internationally known composers also penned Western music. Aaron Copland (1900-1990), without a doubt, is the most well-known. He wrote Billy the Kid in 1938, Rodeo in 1942 and Appalachian Spring in 1944. These very famous and often played pieces are still popular today.
The Grand Canyon Suite, by Ferde Grofe (1892-1972), depicting the great geological formation in Arizona, is also a very well-known piece of Western music.
Cowboys and Indians, lawmen and outlaws, the forty-niners, and the grandeur of the West itself have all inspired the writing of Western music. Of course there are many other aspects of the West that are set to music, but these are paramount.
Listening to Western music was, of course, limited to live performances of instrumentalists and singers in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. When the phonograph and radio came into being a whole new world of listening to this genre of music became a reality. New audiences were immediately drawn to the music of the West as it became the recipient of a new popularity.
With the advent of sound in films on the silver screen, the era of the singing cowboy came upon the American scene. They remained an important part of Western films, especially during its “hey-day” in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Singing cowboys portrayed in these films became authentic American heroes to the movie going public. These Western heroes were presented as being squeaky clean; good; fair-minded; never cussed; never hit a man when he was down; clean-shaven; didn’t drink or smoke; wore clean clothes and a white hat and didn’t kiss the girls. Interesting contrast to today’s movie portrayals!
Two giants of the singing cowboy genre in this era were Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Autry was born in Tioga, Texas in 1907. Autry was known as the “Singing Cowboy.” He wrote and recorded many western songs. His interest in music was encouraged by his mother who taught him hymns and folk songs. One of his early jobs was working for the railroad for $35 a month. Later Autry became a telegraph operator and it was here that he was discovered. He worked at night and when he was not busy he played the guitar and sang. He was heard by a customer and was told that he would probably have a future in radio. That customer was humorist and actor, Will Rogers. Autry’s film, radio, and television career followed. He was an enormous success and a great influence, writing, singing and playing Western music. Autry died in 1998 when he was 91.
Roy Rogers, known as “The King of the Cowboys,” was born in 1911. His early music career started with an appearance on a radio show singing, playing guitar and yodeling. In 1931, when he was 20 years old, he joined “The Rocky Mountaineers”, a local country group.
In 1932 Rogers and two others left the Mountaineers and formed a trio. A year later, in 1933, they put a new group together, named the “Pioneer Trio.” Later, they formed “The Sons of the Pioneers” who became famous on radio and through recordings. Tumbling Tumbleweeds and Cool Water, early songs they recorded, were smash hits. Rogers’ film career began in 1935. He appeared in over 100 films and numerous radio and television episodes of “The Roy Rogers Show.” His famous horse, Trigger, billed “The Smartest Horse in the Movies” and German Sheppard dog, Bullet, were mainstays in his shows. Rogers’ television shows and Western musical films were popular with the young and old alike. Happy Trails, written by his wife, Dale Evans, became the theme song for his show. He enjoyed a long, very successful career and marriage. He died in 1998, he was 86 years old.
Espousing patriotism, heroism, and clean moral living, Rogers gained an enormous following of young fans. With his endorsement of a multitude of products—from children’s toys to cereal brands—Rogers, with Evans and Trigger, evolved into pop cultural icons. Receiving many awards during his career, Rogers was twice elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame; first as a member of the Sons of the Pioneers in 1980, and again as a soloist in 1988. To this day, he remains the only person elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame twice.
Country music today is one of the most popular forms of music in America. It takes its roots from southeastern American folk music, Western music, and the Blues. It encompasses Western music, which evolved parallel to hillbilly music from similar roots in the mid-20th century. The term “country music” is used to describe many styles and sub genres.
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