When I was a boy, in the late 1940s, Saturday was film club day when we children
all stormed the local cinema (theatre) to be thrilled by the cliff-hanger
serials, laugh at clowns like Laurel and Hardy and cheer the heroes of the
big adventure films. When these were westerns they were often Roy Rogers
or Gene Autry but when these cowboys stopped chasin' shootin' and fightin',
and picked up their guitars and began to sing, we all cringed, groaned, whistled
and stamped our feet in protest at these sissy interruptions. Our teenage
sisters thought otherwise for they bought Autry and Rogers records in their
millions. Now after so many years, it is instructive and a revelation to
hear these ballads with more mature ears.
Gene Autry first recorded his songs in 1929 and over the years he sold millions
of records. He reached the zenith of his fame in the 1930s and 1940s. His
easy and understated manner, yet considerable technical skills charmed audiences.
He modelled his style on the yodelling blues singing of Jimmie Rogers the
first superstar of what would eventually be called country music. But, soon,
Gene's songs took on a smoother, softer quality that brought his style closer
to the more lucrative mainstream pop market.
This album commences with probably Autry's best remembered song, "The Last
Roundup" and comprises 25 numbers many from Mascot, Republic, 20th Century
Fox and Columbia films of the period. In "The Old Covered Wagon", he is teamed
with Smiley Burnette his comic sidekick in so many of his films. Smiley was,
himself, a gifted musician and composer. There is an interesting range of
songs here from the sentimental songs like "Mother, Here's a Bouquet for
You", composed by Smiley Burnette, to the swing-era inspired "Down in the
Land of Zulu".
There are also 25 songs in the Roy Rogers album and it, too, begins with
one of the singing cowboy star's best known numbers, "Tumbling Tumbleweed"
recorded in 1936 with Rogers's famous backing group, The Sons of the Pioneers.
Early on he played guitar and developed a considerable skill as a square-dance
caller. "Round That Couple, Go Through and Swing" demonstrates his speed
and clarity. Roy Rogers (real name Leonard Slye), the most successful of
the singing cowboys, took his art to new heights.
Rogers made 100 or so B movies teamed with cowgirl (and Rogers's second wife)
Dale Evans and old timer comedian Gabby Hayes and of course Bullet the dog
and Trigger his horse. [The songs cover the period 1936 to 1947 so alas we
don't have probably Roy's best loved song, "A Four-Legged Friend" which he
crooned to Trigger in the 1952 Bob Hope spoof western Son of Paleface.]
Nevertheless, all the old favourites are here including: "When the Golden
Train Comes Down", "Hi-Yo Silver", "Along the Navajo Trail", "Hold that Critter
Down", "Blue Shadows on the Trail", "Pecos Bill" and "Home on the Range."