Western Films as America’s origin story, and why they sound the way they do. Featuring Gary Farmer, Rion Amilcar Scott, Jeff Grace and Kathryn Kalinak. (Dead Man, The World Does Not Require You, Meek's Cutoff, How the West was Sung)
Western Films as America’s origin story, and why they sound the way they do. Featuring Gary Farmer, Rion Amilcar Scott, Jeff Grace and Kathryn Kalinak.
Playlist of Western Film Scores:
SPOTIFY | YOUTUBE
In this episode we investigate western film scores from early westerns and singing cowboys (Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Herb Jeffries) to the John Ford Era (Tiomkin, Hageman, Steiner and Bernstein) to Ennio Morricone to Neil Young's score for Dead Man and beyond.
Hey, this is Fil Corbitt and you are listening to The Wind.
This episode is called Frontier Music.
Dead Man (1995). Scene:
The film opens on Johnny Depp playing William Blake. He's sitting uncomfortably on a passenger train wearing a plaid suit, clutching a huge suitcase.
The film is in black and white, and a classic western landscape silently drifts past the window.
The train’s fireman, played by Crispin Glover, covered in soot from shoveling coal into the steam engine, approaches Blake and sits down across from him.
When asked, William Blake says he’s from Cleveland.
Fireman: “Well that doesn’t explain why you’ve come all the way out here. All the way out here to Hell.
Blake: I have a job out in the town of Machine.
Fireman: Machine. That’s the end of the line.
Blake: Is it?
Blake: Well I received a letter. from Dickenson’s Metal Works.
Fireman: I’ll tell you one thing for sure. I wouldn’t trust no words written down on no piece of paper. You’re just as likely to find your own grave.
Fireman: Look they’re shooting buffalo! Government says we killed a million of em, last year alone.
Fil Corbitt: How do you define a western? What the parameters you put on it. I know it has blurry edges.
Kathryn Kalinak: It sure does, but doesn’t any genre?
This is Kathryn Kalinak
Kathryn Kalinak: …I am a professor in the film studies program at RI college…I’m the author of several books including 2 that are pertinent to the western.
Two of Kathryn’s books - How the West was Sung and Music in the Western investigate how composers have scored the west for film.
Kathryn Kalinak: … it's I think defined by time and place, isn’t it?I think defined by time and place, isn’t it? A certain time in American history and a certain place in American history. The Frontier. West of the Mississippi… You can update the genre of course but the classic western is defined by its time and place I think.
The Western at its core is a historical genre that generally takes place between 1850 and 1900, somewhere in North America west of the Mississippi River. Neither of these parameters are impenetrable — borders rarely are — but that general time and place gives us somewhere to start.
(music by Yclept Insan)
I emailed Carter Burwell - the composer of the The Big Lebowski, Being John Malkovich, Twilight, The Bourne Identity, Fargo and more relevant to us right now: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, No Country for Old Men and True Grit. He said he was too busy for an interview...
But he did reply! saying:
“...the way we, as a country, approach the West says a lot about our view of ourselves. It seems to have become our origin myth, although what happened to everything before the Civil War? I can’t answer why we have Western music and Western writers but no such category for the century before, or the one before that.
Stagecoach (1939). Scene: (stagecoach music)
The film is in Black and White and big white clouds float above the desert. Wagons and a whole cavalry of men on horseback bound across the land.
Kathryn Kalinak: To score the frontier, this wide open place, you use those so called wide-open intervals of 4ths and 5ths. And big long leaps in the melodic lines, jumps and leaps to suggest the vast openness of the western space. That kinda becomes part of the nomenclature: this is what constitutes what sounds western. So these composers all tapped into that.
So those big, leaps in the melody - (singing: Ba da da da DA! singing stagecoach theme) This kind of melody subconsciously tells the viewer where they are and what’s going on. You’re in the west. And specifically it transmits the idea that the west is a big wide open land. That idea is baked in to the film, whether you realize or not.
(THE BIG COUNTRY music)
Kathryn Kalinak: Right well isn’t that the frontier myth? Right? That you can make yourself on the frontier. Anybody can. And part of that is that the frontier is wide open. So it doesn’t matter what you came from, if you have the right skills, if you work hard enough you can make it on the frontier. And the music in some ways suggests that openness. And that’s the promise of the frontier right? That anyone can succeed there?
And so goes America’s origin myth. There is a big land out there, across the imaginary line. And if you’re clever and resourceful and you work hard, you will be okay.
For a Few Dollars More (1965) Scene:
The man with no name, played by Clint Eastwood adjusts his poncho as rain falls in sheets on the main road. He steps out of the mud in to a classic western saloon.
(Aces High saloon piano music)
This Piano clanking away in the corner is a common occurrence in the western. Similarly, a harmonica played on horseback or a cowboy strumming a guitar up against a fence. This is called Diegetic Music. Instead of an invisible orchestra playing off screen, there is a character in the film playing this music. This does 2 things. It signals authenticity by showing historic music played in the correct setting, and it establishes the characters as a force for good, bringing music and civilization to a so-called uncivilized land.
Rio Bravo (1959) Scene:
John Wayne, Dean Martin, and Ricky Nelson lounge around a cabin holding guitars and harmonicas. They slowly amble into a song.
(Rio Bravo diegetic song)
The Western at its core is a historical genre, that seeks to present a mythologized view of the American Past. I mean, listen to this. It’s so romantic. How could you not want to be here? Big clouds floating over head, you on the rim of a canyon. Just your rifle your pony, and you.
Chicago World’s Fair (1893) pre-film, real life. Scene.
(William Tell Overture music)
Here there are two things pertinent to our story. First, there is a man named Fredrick Jackson Turner stepping onto a stage to give a speech. He calls it The Frontier Thesis.
In short, he says America up until this point has been entirely defined by the existence of the frontier. An imaginary line between the United States and the so called wilderness. Our entire national identity rests upon this line and our ability to move further across it continuing to extract resources, and generally expand the American economy and way of life. And finally he argues, the frontier is officially Closed. He chooses the year 1890 as the end of America’s frontier period.
The second pertinent thing happening in Chicago during the World’s Fair, is actually just outside the gates. Buffalo Bill is hosting his Wild West show. In short, Buffalo Bill Cody was a frontiersman turned showman who started a western-themed circus. It traveled the globe and featured highly specialized horse riding, displays of western talent and story telling and even war reenactments featuring white and native people reenacting battles that they had actually fought in just years before. Like, Sitting Bull would portray himself alongside a reenactment of the Battle of Little Bighorn, which he fought in.
All of this is to say the very moment the frontier was declared closed, Americans were already bending it into Myth.
(William Tell Overture as Lone Ranger music)
Dead Man (1995). Scene:
William Blake lays in bed in the town of Machine with a woman named Thel. He finds a gun under her pillow.
Thel Russell : Watch it. It's loaded.
William Blake : Why do you have this?
Thel Russell : Because this is America.
Her ex-boyfriend walks in, and devastated to see she’s moved on, aims his gun at Blake. Thel dives in front of him, taking the bullet, and dies. It passes through her and still hits his chest, but leaves him alive, for now. So he pulls Thel’s gun from under her pillow and meekly fires 3 shots. The third one strikes Thel’s ex in the neck, slowly killing him. Blake jumps out the window and steals a horse... leaving town and riding into the wilderness.
The score for Dead Man was written and performed solo by Neil Young. And as William Blake rides into the darkness, he’s accompanied by Neil Young’s electric guitar, sparse and distorted, floating above that imaginary line.
He has come west to make himself, but in this moment, he overshoots the frontier -- "The End of The Line" -- and has passed that invisible boundary into the unknown.
Many of America’s stories unconsciously have this boundary to wilderness built in.
Rion Amilcar Scott: I’m Rion Amilcar Scott, I’m the author of The World Doesn’t Require You, which is a short story collection which is set in a town called Cross River Maryland which was founded in 1807 after a successful slave revolt.
The World Does Not Require You is a uniquely American collection of short stories. It takes place in the fictional town of Cross River, which Rion created as the only town in America started from a successful slave revolt. The town borders a place called The Wildlands — It’s an ominous patch of untamed land that is home to all types of threats, including Man’s only predator…
Rion Amilcar Scott: … I think back to fairy tales. The woods is always this place where dark magical things happen. And that’s kinda what happens in Cross river. Whenever I bring it in, it’s always something wild, crazy and strange is about to happen….
Fil:….I think that’s why the wildlands clicked with me is this idea that for an American Myth to take place there has to be a wilderness nearby. and this thing that is a juxtoposition to society ….was that something in your mind?
Rion Amilcar Scott: Not consciously…Now that I think about it! but not consciously. I think that makes a lot of sense. Like I said I imagined a time when there would be condos built on it but I can’t even imagine writing that now. I think there’s so much utility in it being this untamed land. And um through our history there is so much we don’t know, so much we misunderstand, misinterpret. So many things our children and grandchildren will look at and think “they got that really wrong” just as we look at our ancestors and say they got it wrong. I think it’s sort of a metaphorical representation, the wildlands, of the darkness, of the unknown which is beautiful because there’s still stuff to discover. but there can be a whole lot of ugliness in our ignorance and there is a lot of ugliness in our ignorance….
(Rio Bravo music)
The frontier is the imaginary line between so called civilization and so called wilderness. This imaginary line started on the east coast of North America with the first European colonizers, and slowly pushed westward, over the Appalachians, across the plains, into the Rockies and the Great Basin on its way to California. Not only is the line invisible, it’s also moving, and porous, and there are people who have been living on the other side of it for thousands of years.
When the land is shown as pristine or open, it’s a misleading claim to justify Americas’ encroachment onto it. It wasn’t untamed and open for the taking, it was understood as un-ownable, and spoken about with the languages that the land itself had shaped.
Stagecoach (1939). Scene:
The wagon traverses monument valley, John Wayne sitting on the roof with a rifle. This incredible, iconic landscape unfolds in front of us…And suddenly the camera pans far to the left to reveal a group of Apache warriors. Let’s see if you can hear when the camera gets to them.
Then it cuts back to the stagecoach...
Annnnd back to the Apaches.
Historian Richard Slotkin points out that America frames its colonial history paradoxically as victimhood. Some of our most famous western stories -- Custer’s last stand, and the Alamo -- are stories where Americans lost. Slotkin argues that this is not a coincidence.
Dead Man (1995) Scene:
William Blake after fleeing town, wakes up, having been found by a Native American man played by Co-star Gary Farmer.
William Blake: What is your name?
Nobody: My name is Nobody”
William Blake: Excuse me?
Nobody: My name is Xebeche. He who talks loud, saying nothing.
William Blake: he who talks...I thought you said your name was Nobody.
Nobody: Well I prefer to be called Nobody
Gary Farmer: I try to choose material that is gonna make people think, right? Because I learned young if I can make em laugh or if I can make em cry, I make em think.
This is Nobody himself, Gary Farmer.
William Blake: William Blake
Nobody: Is this a lie!? Or a white man’s trick!?
William Blake: No, I’m William Blake
Nobody: Then you are a dead man!
William Blake: Sorry I don’t understand.
Nobody: Is your name really William Blake?
William Blake: Yes
Nobody: Every night and every morn,
some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night,
some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
some are born to endless night.
Fil: I heard an interview you did where you talked about the experience of fasting before Dead Man. Basically you said Unknowns are such a normal and important part of many indigenous cultures and that the unknown is the main thing that white culture can’t live with, and that it has this propensity to devour all that is unknown…because the known vs the unknown thing is so present in these movies and in your work too. Sitting with the unknown.
Gary Farmer: Yeah I mean it was accepted. It was the great mystery. It’s something we learn, potentially once we leave. It’s meant for that. You’re meant to live this life.
The frontier occupies a precarious place in our national identity. So many of these films portray the landscape as achingly beautiful. They portray this pride and a nostalgia for a time before it was marred by strip malls and freeways and sub-developments. And yet, they portray the very moments that put that version future into motion. Because the second European Americans stepped onto this land, money and violence quickly followed.
Nobody: William Blake, Do you know how to use this weapon?
William Blake: Not really
Nobody: That weapon will replace your tongue. You will learn to speak through it. And your poetry will now be written with blood.
(Magnificent Seven Music)
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Kathryn Kalinak: I mean it’s the most iconic western theme, I really can’t think of one that is more iconic than that.
Fil: yeah me neither!
Kathryn Kalinak: And there’s those big intervals for you... (singing theme) There’s the frontier. You embed it right into the melodic line.
The 1960 version of Magnificent 7 is actually a remake of a Samurai film - Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa.
Kathryn Kalinak: Yeah And I think the interesting thing I’d point to to start out is looking at how the American film copied the Japanese one. I think it's fascinating. People tend to think of these films, the Easterns the samurai films as somehow adaptations of westerns. But really it’s the other way around…
And not only the American Western. The first Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood film, A Fistful of Dollars, is a remake of Yojimbo, another Kurosawa Samurai film. Many western conventions, about hired warriors from the country’s past, are borrowed.
(The Good, The Bad, The Ugly music)
Spaghetti Westerns -- the colloquial term for westerns made in Italy -- gained steam in the early 1960’s with the director Sergio Leone and his composer Ennio Morricone. These films tend to have one main plot driver in common. Money.
A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More, The Good the Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in The West all feature a protagonist who has used his wits and cleverness to get richer. Though sometimes he is motivated by revenge or honor, the winner in the Italian Western always deservedly ends up with the cash.
These films reminds us that at the core of western expansion is economy; the ability to make money from land. This sub-genre of western holds a mirror up to the American version.
But what’s funny is, the American version is already a mirror.
Kathryn Kalinak: Exactly and when you think about that western sound that’s generated in the 30s and 40s for the classic westerns you’re talking about Dimitri Tiomkin: Russian. Max Steiner: Viennese. And Richard Hageman: from the Netherlands. And they’re 3 huge composers in creating that sound and none of them are American, were raised here….
Our ideas of the west are conceived elsewhere, and simply overlaid on top of it.
Dead Man (1995) Scene:
After killing pretty much every single character we’ve met, William Blake, on the run from bounty hunters, takes a turn for the worse. Nobody paddles him down a river, toward an uncertain fate.
The river bank is littered with the smoldering remains of indigenous villages.
(Dead Man guitar)
Gary Farmer: We’re here to try to get some messages across and certainly I’ve spent my career trying to get a large audience to think a little differently about things and recognize who you really are because America is classically Native American. All your Cities, all your states are named after….but you don’t even know. You don’t even know who you are. You don’t even know what you’re made from. All those generations that have been here. You don’t have any respect for the country you came to or the way we lived here prior to you coming. No respect at all. And so, I do my best and I’ll continue to do it til the day I die because that’s what I was made to do.
There Will Be Blood (2007). Scene
Daniel Plainview sprints toward his exploded Oil Rig, black gold spewing hundreds of feet into the air. The tower of oil catches fire, a massive torch burning into the night.
Kathryn Kalinak: And what you see in the film score for TWBB, forget those beautiful 4ths and 5ths, forget those open intervals, those open melodies with the leaps in them to connote the beauty of the frontier the wide openness…the possibility. This is like “dit dit dit dit dit” coming at you this film score, right?
(There Will Be Blood Music)
I mean it lacks all of those conventions from the classic Hollywood film score. That’s why it’s a nodal point for me. This is where you can really hear how it’s changed.
Meek's Cutoff (2015) Scene: (music)
The film opens on a wagon train struggling to ford a river. The frame is almost square, and though you know there is a sweeping landscape, it feels almost claustrophobic. And as the party crosses the water, the camera focuses not on the men but on the women.
Jeff Grace: you know, the framing of the film is for three. So. Yeah. And that's kind of like the bonnet of the wagon. And so but there's also sometimes there's this sort of like boxed in field. I mean, sometimes the feeling is it's very expansive and you have these great landscapes. But she also she didn't want the whole movie to feel beautiful and pretty because it's really unsettling at times.
This is composer Jeff Grace speaking about director Kelly Reichardt. Jeff has scored 2 westerns including In a Valley of Violence by Ti West, and this one, Meek's Cutoff. Jeff says that Kelly originally tried to go with traditional western music.
Jeff Grace: When she just tried to put kind of traditional music with the film, the film, it it it felt like it was kind of getting like she was hitting the audience over the head and was very like it was taking her out of the film. It was way too much.
So he broke it down. First of all, like any western, it is a period piece - this one taking place on the Oregon trail in the 1840s.
Jeff Grace: So, yeah, it occurred to me that it's obviously a period film and there was no way around that. So you had so I felt like that had to be, the music, had to be aware of that on some level. And then I could see what she meant by having more of a traditional score just really... the movie just kind of kicked that back. And so I had an idea that maybe I would try to go and use instruments that were available at the time. And kind of what you would expect for a Western. Bit try to use it in an unconventional, maybe some unconventional way. So it wasn't so familiar.
Jeff built these hypnotic, beautiful layers out of instruments that would have been available in the 1840s. Violins, Flutes, Cellos, Ocarina and modified piano - but simply played them differently.
(Meek's Cutoff Music)
A Fistful of Dollars (1964) Scene:
(A Fistful of Dollars Music)
The man with no name rides into a desert town and dismounts his horse. The music is unlike any western before it. Since Ennio Morricone couldn’t afford a full orchestra, he got creative. Using harmonicas, acoustic guitars, flutes, whistling and jaw harps, he created a world of sound that could have been achievable in the 1800s. Then, he added the sound of whips and church bells… And finally, introduces the electric guitar.
A new a voice on the scene. The safety of the orchestra has been replaced by this new sound, pushing the listener to reimagine their view of the American West. Gunshots and yelling punctuate these big sonic landscapes, adorned with the high ethereal whine of a human whistle. A mirage bending and swaying in the desert heat.
The Revenant: (2015) Scene:
(The Revenant music)
Leonardo DiCaprio lays still in the snow. He is playing Hugh Glass, a real life American trapper, who later became a folk legend. After narrowly surviving a grizzly attack, Glass is on the brink of death in a frozen, unforgiving landscape. The camera, creeps in close to his shivering face, and he dispels a breath, fogging the camera lens. We then cut to icy fog rolling over the snowcapped mountains.
In this cut we see this connection between earth and human through wind and breath. But as the lens fogs up we also are suddenly aware of the presence of a camera. We’re reminded that everything on screen is legend, and we are engaging in the act of mythmaking.
Smoke Signals (1998). Scene:
Thomas: Man the cowboys always win!
Victor: The cowboys don't always win.
Thomas: Yeah they do! They cowboys always win. What about John Wayne? Man he was about the toughest cowboy of them all, innit?
Victor and Thomas leave the Coeur d’Alene reservation on a bus heading to Phoenix. They’re on the way to pick up the ashes of Victor’s father played by Gary Farmer. And Victor points out this great point about mythmaking. Sometimes it's very manicured.
Victor: You know in all those movies, you never saw John Wayne's Teeth? Not once. ...I think there's something wrong when you don't see a guy's teeth.
(Music: a 49 about John Wayne's Teeth)
El Topo (1970). Scene:
Mara: ¿Me amas?
El Topo: Si.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s experimental Mexican acid-western. El Topo, the mole, a man dressed in black, sits in the sprawling dunes with his love interest, Mara.
Mara: For you to love me you must be better. The 4 masters of the gun live in this desert. Must find them and kill them.
El Topo: The desert is a circle. To find the 4 masters, we must travel in a spiral.
(El Topo Music)
The frontier is the imaginary line between so called civilization and so called wilderness. Not only is this line invisible, it’s also moving, and porous, and maybe, it’s not a line at all.
Dead Man (1995). Final Scene:
Nobody has guided William Blake to the very, very far edge of the frontier. The Pacific Ocean.
Nobody: I have prepared your canoe with Cedar Bows. Time for you to leave now, William Blake.
Nobody pushes the canoe off into the sea, Blake finally exiting the American west - passing through - into the great unknown.
(Dead Man Guitar)
Gary Farmer: We had this teaching a long time ago you know? Native people in this continent, stories go around that you know if you look at the medicine wheel, it’s a basic symbology within many Native American cultures. It’s basically if you look at it, it’s a cross with a circle around it. All the races of man fit in there, the black, the white, the yellow, the red, all the shades in between….and the direction of the 4 winds…even the above above and the below below. All that recognition of that spirit world. All those ancestors all around us. And when they came to America they just had that cross. I still say today when you go to TX or OK you see these big white crosses up there. I’d love to go put that circle back around em cause that’s what they forgot. And we KNEW that those people were tribal people too, but they lost their teachings. They don’t realize that circle’s gotta be around that cross, right? And we knew when we seen that cross there would be 500 years of suffering. And that’s how it’s come…1492 now it’s 2000 and we’re supposed to be starting to move beyond that. and we are. you can see the movement among the people…people are being a little more enlightened. "We can’t treat black people like we always have, we have to work at that". We gotta get to that medicine wheel. we gotta get there. And we’re real close, And to me this is the last bastion of hate that's based on hate and division and guns and violence...
Fil Corbitt: Thank you Gary for taking the time, I really appreciate it.
Gary Farmer: You bet.
Fil Corbitt: See you later, have a good night.
Gary Famer: Adios Amigo.
(romantic western string music)
If the western is our origin story, we must deconstruct it. I think there is a tendency to write the western off as just a shoot-em genre of good guys vs bad guys, cowboys vs indians, man vs wilderness. But I believe, they hold so much more than that. There is a lot of nuance and beauty in the western canon, and a lot of films that challenge and subvert the dominant narratives. Every story we tell about this country is built on this foundation, and if we are to understand who we are and where we’re going we must first understand how we got here.
That author Richard Slotkin talks about de-mythologizing the myth-making process.
Maybe if we acknowledge the way we’ve made these myths, we can began to reconcile both their wishful thinking and their incongruities with the truth. Begin to reconsider how to tell these stories. And maybe, we can begin to write new myths, and pass through that imaginary porous line, out into the unknown.
The Wind (2020) Scene.
Me, standing quietly in the sagebrush; snow falling on the desert. The sun briefly peeks through, between the clouds and the mountains as it slowly sets in the west.
The Wind is produced by me, Fil Corbitt.
If you skipped the prologue, I do recommend giving that a quick listen because it sets up the rest of the season. The best way to support the show is to subscribe on your podcast app. If you already subscribed, leave a review on Apple Podcasts or tell a friend. This is a brand new show and any help getting the word out is very appreciated. You can follow The Wind on Instagram and Twitter and TheWind.ORG
On the website I’ll also post links to Kathryn Kalinak’s books on the western including a new biography of composer Richard Hageman. Links to Rion Amilcar Scott’s books Insurrections and The World Does Not Require You, Jeff Grace’s music including his latest score for The Artist’s Wife, and finally links to Gary Farmer’s work including Dead Man, Powwow Highway, Smoke Signals and a bunch more. Also I’ll post a list of every film I watched for this story. (A lot)
The music in this episode was entirely film music except for one track from friend of the show Yclept Insan and this song which is from the public domain. Lastly a huge thanks everybody who helped get this show off the ground: Erica Wirthlin, Joey Lovato, Lauren Baker, Sierra Jickling, Em Jiang, Emily Pratt, Mark Nesbitt, Eleanor Tullock, Mike Corbitt, Sam Greenspan, Anjeanette Damon, Anton Anger, Luka Starmer, Dallas Casey Soren and Sam from 20khz, everybody who came over from Van Sounds and so many more...
Thank you, and remember to keep Listening.
(Music fades out as desert campfire burns into the night)