Music and the Western; or, The New West’s Bittersweet Lesson

The stirring, swelling strains of Cimarron (1960), directed by Anthony Mann, music by Franz Waxman, make me want to chop wood and haul water and ride fast horses over wide plains and watch over cattle in the cold moonlight night and sweep a woman into my arms. It’s that insidious. This score would trick anyone into becoming a pioneer to win the West with blood, sweat, and tears, shown in wide-screen epic scope. *

Waxman’s score elevates this studio saga out of the maudlin with a dusting of silver-screen magic. The mid-century audience must have thrilled to its chords, poised as they were on the edge of the Space Age frontier, flush with economic success yet sobered by the spasms of violence during the civil rights struggles. By the way, no way would this score fly now.

My, how times have changed. The Coen Brothers’ take on True Grit (2010) doesn’t pull in a chorale of singers and mighty trumpets but the high, lonesome sound of gospel during one trailer (the achingly beautiful rendition of “Where No One Stands Alone” by The Peasall Sisters) and the rough voice of Johnny Cash in the other, singing of God’s retribution (“God’s Gonna Cut You Down.”) These were the songs chosen to draw modern folk into theaters.

The bittersweet range of the quiet voices of the three teenage sisters and the apocryphal moan of Cash catches the heartache of striving in a world that doesn’t have happy-ever-afters: the after-effects, from an American point of view, of decades of wars that can’t be won, politics that have no heart, and the boomeranging paybacks of frontier explorations in the guise of reservation poverty, environmental destruction, and waste, empty desire, and…holy bejeezus, I think I just diluted my shot of whiskey with a freaking bucketful of salty tears.

But the strains of faith also ring in these two songs, a glimpse of hope amid the struggle, a raising of one’s eyes to something higher, a psalm to whatever Greatness a person projects to “hold my hand all the way, every hour and every day….” Cash has a darker Old Testament fire-and-brimstone take, having been called to do God’s will, which is to growl to “that long-tongue liar, that midnight rider, the rambler, the gambler, the back-biter” that God will cut them down for their sins (but not the singer, who has turned from sin to receive, on bended knee, an angel’s instructions). Redemption is possible, but the way is hard. So saith the modern West, dear pilgrims. Amen.

Meanwhile, before Armageddon hits, “I don’t know a thing in this whole, wide world that’s worse than being alone,” so I’m going to take my salty whiskey to the theater to catch True Grit again. Or maybe I’ll just watch the rest of Cimarron on my computer and pretend life is as easy and rewarding as a big-screen Panavision saga says it is.

Johnny Cash and True Grit on the official movie website and Video/trailer 2. The Peasall Sisters on Video/trailer 1.

* BTW, I was wrong to mock 1960’s Cimarron in my last post. Now I can appreciate more the sharp moments of violence and sweeping panoramas and quiet, emotional struggles between man and wife and settler and Indian. No, I haven’t finished watching it yet. The film is billed as “the epic tale of a West transformed and a love that endured” but my endurance for its self-importance lasts about 23 minutes at a time.

4 comments to Music and the Western; or, The New West’s Bittersweet Lesson

  • Another great post Bucko.

    And it’s really nice to note somebody taking notice of the scores on these things.

    Yeah… a Waxman score probably wouldn’t fly today, but like others of his contemporaries, he is still being blatantly parodied or referenced in modern movies. Like his creation music from Bride of Frankenstein being used in Small Soldiers for example.

    I’ve not heard Cimarron or seen the film but I believe it’s regarded as a classic score.

    Anyway… good reading is obviously found here on this little corner of cyberspace!

  • bucko

    Thanks!! I am just following your lead! After reading your posts I realized how little I pay attention to the music, unless it is terrible or excellent. I hadn’t realized how big of a deal Waxman was; guess it makes sense people would adapt and parody and reference his iconic work.

  • Tim

    Hi Bucko – Very interesting the difference in tone between classic and modern Westerns . . . Guess America finally hit the frontier and discovered . . . no new tomorrow. I wonder which is better in the end . . .


  • bucko

    Hi, T! Thanks for checking in. No new tomorrow, just an endless supply of days. I think the feeling of having a frontier is important to a psyche–energy, optimism, sacrifice for a goal.

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