Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
How the West Was Sung

How the West Was Sung: Music in the Westerns of John Ford

Kathryn Kalinak
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 271
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    How the West Was Sung
    Book Description:

    James Stewart once said, "For John Ford, there was no need for dialogue. The music said it all." This lively, accessible study is the first comprehensive analysis of Ford's use of music in his iconic westerns. Encompassing a variety of critical approaches and incorporating original archival research, Kathryn Kalinak explores the director's oft-noted predilection for American folk song, hymnody, and period music. What she finds is that Ford used music as more than a stylistic gesture. In fascinating discussions of Ford's westerns-from silent-era features such asStraight ShootingandThe Iron Horseto classics of the sound era such asMy Darling ClementineandThe Searchers-Kalinak describes how the director exploited music, and especially song, in defining the geographical and ideological space of the American West.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94107-6
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Huw Morgan in John Ford’sHow Green Was My Valley(1941) describes his Welsh village as ringing “with the sound of many voices, for singing is in my people as sight is in the eye.” Something very similar might be written about all the films of John Ford (1894–1973). Ford is unique among directors in the Hollywood studio system in his insistence on song, both vocal and instrumental, diegetic (i.e., heard by the characters and often with a source visible on screen) and nondiegetic (i.e., heard by the audience but inaudible to the film’s characters), in war films, social...

  5. CHAPTER 1 How the West Was Sung: Music in the Life and Films of John Ford
    (pp. 9-22)

    There were two pianos in the Ford household, but neither John Ford nor anyone else in his immediate family played them.¹ Among the notable directors of Hollywood’s classical studio era, Ford took the most active and sustained control of the music for his films, and yet he couldn’t read music, he couldn’t play an instrument, and he sang aloud only when drunk (and then only Irish songs), his grandson Dan told me.² Yet professional musicians listened to what he had to say about the music. Much is made and rightly so of Ford’s extraordinary visual sense, an eye for composition...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Hearing the Music in John Ford’s Silents: The Iron Horse and 3 Bad Men
    (pp. 23-48)

    It may seem rather odd to begin the analysis of music in John Ford westerns with silent examples. But as I note in chapter 1, Ford’s musical aesthetic was forged in the silent era and tempered in the early years of sound. Thus the two surviving feature-length westerns generally regarded as Ford’s silent masterpieces,The Iron Horseand3 Bad Men, merit more than passing mention. I am interested in the privileging of songs in these westerns, the production numbers—their function in terms of the construction of narrative, character, and theme, and their impact on the ideological undercurrents of...

  7. CHAPTER 3 “Based on American Folk Songs”: Scoring the West in Stagecoach
    (pp. 49-75)

    The opening credits forStagecoachannounce intriguingly that the musical score is “based on American Folk Songs.” It was not a particularly obvious proclamation to make in 1939, the yearStagecoachwas produced. Although there are some exceptions, notably Cecil B. DeMille’sThe Plainsman(1936),¹ the vast majority of westerns at the time were B pictures, series westerns designed for the bottom of a double bill.² They were filled with the country-and-western music that was proving so popular on the radio and records.Stagecoach, part of the wave of A westerns that revived the genre as a prestige product, turned...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Two Fordian Film Scores: My Darling Clementine and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
    (pp. 76-99)

    The Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceandMy Darling Clementinemay seem an odd pairing.¹ The two films were made eighteen years apart, their visual designs are strikingly different, their narratives have little in common, with the exception of the classic generic confrontation between the lawful and the lawless, and they employ none of the same actors in either starring or supporting roles. But in terms of their music, they have more than a little in common. Cyril Mockridge is credited as the composer of both scores, but these films share more than just Mockridge’s credit.The Man Who Shot...

  9. CHAPTER 5 “Western as Hell”: 3 Godfathers and Wagon Master
    (pp. 100-121)

    With its wall-to-wall symphonic music, heavily dependent upon original composition,3 Godfatherscould scarcely sound much more different fromStagecoach,My Darling Clementine, orThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.Wagon Masteralso departs significantly from Ford’s earlier westerns: the characteristic folk and period music is largely replaced by originally composed songs performed by Sons of the Pioneers. Of course,3 GodfathersandWagon Masterhave privileged performances of song in common with earlier Ford westerns. And like all of Ford’s westerns,3 GodfathersandWagon Masterdo indeed sound “western as hell,”¹ Ford’s evocative description of what he wanted...

  10. CHAPTER 6 “The Girl I Left Behind Me”: Men, Women, and Ireland in the Cavalry Trilogy
    (pp. 122-157)

    John Ford did not intendFort Apache,She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, andRio Grandeas a cavalry trilogy. He made other cavalry films,The Horse Soldiers,Sergeant Rutledge, and the Civil War segment ofHow the West Was Won, and the films dubbed “the cavalry trilogy” don’t entirely hang together as such.¹ But they have been treated as a group almost since they were produced, and there is a certain logic in doing so, at least from a musical standpoint, because several period songs traverse all three films: “(Round Her Neck) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “The Girl I...

  11. CHAPTER 7 “What Makes a Man to Wander”: The Searchers
    (pp. 158-180)

    Imagine hearing these lyrics, the original first verse to Stan Jones’s title song “The Searchers,” asThe Searchersbegins:

    The horizon’s like a woman

    With her arms flung open wide

    And a man that’s tryin’ to fill his heart

    Ain’t got no place to hide.

    Ride away—Ride away—Ride away.¹

    It is the second verse of this song that found it way into the film and, with its unanswered and unanswerable set of questions, dynamically alters the film from a generic western to a metaphysical quest.

    What makes a man to wander

    What makes a man to roam


  12. CHAPTER 8 In the Shadow of The Searchers: Two Rode Together and Sergeant Rutledge
    (pp. 181-193)

    The Quiet Manmay be John Ford’s most enduringly popular film with the moviegoing public and his most successful from a financial standpoint, but it isThe Searchersthat is considered his masterpiece. Two films lurk in its shadow:Two Rode TogetherandSergeant Rutledge.Two Rode Togetheris generally regarded as among Ford’s worst, a film Ford himself called “the worst piece of crap I’ve directed in twenty years.”¹ BothThe SearchersandTwo Rode Togetherare captivity narratives that gave Ford the opportunity to reexamine America’s frontier past in terms of the confrontation between whites and Indians. Both...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Cheyenne Autumn: A Conclusion
    (pp. 194-202)

    This book’s central argument has been that John Ford’s choices of folk song, hymnody, and period music significantly affect the meaning of his westerns, and that readings of his films ignore the scores at their peril. Even in his last films, Ford continued to exert control over the music, delegating responsibility when his diminishing energies and enthusiasms demanded it but asserting his authority when it became necessary.

    Ford’s last western wasCheyenne Autumn. The musical aesthetics of Ford’s western canon constitute a continuum, from the lean, sparse sound ofMy Darling Clementine, with its virtual dependence upon the diegetic use...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 203-234)
  15. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 235-240)
  16. Index
    (pp. 241-256)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 257-257)