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Western Music - Kind of a Latino Thing - Happy Hispanic Heritage Month

Posted by Eric Brightwell, October 4, 2011 04:46pm | Post a Comment


I love Western music. Not "Western music" as in "music rooted in European traditions," but rather the "Western" of "Country & Western." Cowboy Music. In many ways, Country and Western is an odd pairing. The two genres seem to be at complete odds. Sure, the performers evince a similar sartorial sensibility, but the subject matter of Western music is about hard-working buckeroos following honor and dogies out under the wide open sky.


Country, which I love too, is quite the opposite. Country celebrates the sedentary life - working and dying in the same small town, farm, or trailer court in which you were born -- and to hell with ethical codes of conduct; get drunk, cheat on your wife, and show up for your crappy job hungover.


Musically speaking, they're only distant cousins - no more closely related than Bluegrass and Jazz, House and Rap, Rock 'n' Roll and the Blues  -- but of those examples, only Country & Western get so invariably lumped together as a single genre that people usually omit the "Western" altogether.


Country's - or Hillbilly's - roots are in EnglishIrishScottish, and Welsh ballads although Africans brought banjos, Germans brought dulcimers, Italians brought mandolins, and Spanish brought guitars into the volatile mix. Hillbilly music was traditionally often played by small string bands that thoroughly blended their influences into something recognizably American.



In Western music, on the other hand, the solo guitar is much more prominent. Cowboys weren't known for traveling with a whole orchestra to be whipped out around the campfire. In Western music, the same ballad traditions of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland are still easily discernible but the main influences are Hispanic, coming from Mexico and Spain.


Sure, there's some musical overlap between Country and Western -- especially in the Southern Plains, which produced artists like Marty Robbins and Tex Ritter -- but for the most part, Country and Western existed and developed independently, separated geographically by many miles until some citified marketing genius stupidly shoved them in the same slot.


To some historians, the first published Western song was "Blue Juaniata" in 1844. At the time, anything west of Appalachia was "The West" and "Blue Juanita" was about a young Native woman waiting on the banks of Pennsylvania's Juaniata River for her brave. Over a century later, it was recorded by one of the biggest acts in Western music, The Sons of the Pioneers. By then, manifest destiny had long ago necessitated European-Americans invading and displacing all indigenous people from sea to shining sea.
 

As various Europeans conquered what's now thought of as the West, Western music became intrinsically bound to that most indelible symbol of the West, the cowboy. The roots of the cowboy are in northern Mexico's vaquero traditions, not surprising when you consider the ankle deep Rio Grande as the imagined division between Americ'as "The West" and Mexico's "El Norte." 


Naturally, western bound Anglos and northern bound Mexicans' traditions combined to a large extent. "Vaquero" was Anglicized as "Buckaroo" in the West, but the vaquero tradition itself could be traced to medieval Spain's hacienda system. In Mexico there were several types of vaqueros, perhaps most recognizably the charro of the Michoacán and Jalisco (where Mariachi developed).


Ranchera is another old form of Mexican music (LA has only one Ranchera station, La Ranchera 930). If Western has a sibling, it's its Mexican half-brother, Ranchera, not Country. In Ranchera, a solo guitarist usually sings about love, nature, honor, work… the same subject matter of most Western music.


There are also ballads about heroic and villainous gunfighters, which developed (with pronounced influence of German and Czech immigrants in northern Mexico) into Corridos and Norteños (or Conjuntos) that are much more popular today. "Norteño," meaning, "Northern," merely reflects the different geographic orientation of Mexico, which lies to the south of what we call "The West." And where would cowboys be without their "yeehaws" and "yahoos," which are merely their take on the "grito Mexicano " that features so prominently in Ranchera and Norteños.

 

Western music's commercial heyday was in the 1930s and '40s, when something like 75% of films made in the US were Westerns. The hard-working cattlemen and gunslingers were both highly romanticized and almost completely whitewashed. Hollywood's version of the West included a few Mexicans, most often as opportunistic-but-not-especially-effective villains, rather than the Cowboys' equal. Not to mention on the Silver Screen there were far fewer Asians and blacks than populated and developed the actual West of the 19th century.


The biggest singing cowboys in film were Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, whose formulaic movies were primarily constructed around performances of Western songs. Popular female Western performers included Billie Maxwell, The Girls of the Golden West (Millie and Dolly Good), Patsy Montana, and Texas Ruby.


Western music incorporated sophisticated harmonies with The Sons of the Pioneers.


Western Swing, developed and popularized by Bob Wills, absorbed Jazz and (with greats like Harry Choates) Cajun music too.


TV and Radio shows continued to evince Americans' love of the old west through the 1950s. With the decline of Old Time Radio and film Westerns' popularity toward the end of that decade, Western music also faded and today you find very few Western groups out there (such as little-known Sons of San Joaquin and Riders in the Sky), where as commercialized Country had flourished financially (if not creatively). However, scan your FM and you'll likely hear some Norteños or Bandas that keep the Western flame alive more than some Cashville mannequin in a cowboy hat. Ayyyyaaah ha haaaaaa!


*****

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Billie Maxwell - The Cow Girl Singer

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 5, 2009 09:00pm | Post a Comment

The 1920s and ‘30s were full of cowgirl singers like the Girls of the Golden West (Millie and Dolly Good), Patsy Montana and Texas Ruby, most of whom were just as inauthentic as their better known male counterparts like Gene Autry and the Sons of the Pioneers. However, one western performer was the real deal: Billie Maxwell.

                     
One of the two known photos of Billie Maxwell (left), Springerville, Arizona in the 1920s (right).

Billie Maxwell was born in 1906 and raised near Springerville, Arizona, same place where Ike Clanton, one of the Missourian players in the Gunfight at the OK Corral, was shot dead by a detective not 20 years earlier. Her father, E. Curtis Maxwell, was locally renowned as a fiddler who'd amassed a massive repertoire of songs learnt from his father, William Beatty Maxwell, an Illinoisan who’d moved first to Nevada and then Arizona in the 1800s. Curtis Maxwell formed a string band called the White Mountain Orchestra who toured (on horseback) the ranches in the area, playing dances. Not only did Maxwell know many traditional songs, but he composed his own work too, including “Escudilla Waltz” and “Frolic of the Mice.” In her teenage years, Billie joined her father’s band, where she played guitar alongside her brother, Marion, who played mandolin. Eventually she occasionally struck out on her own, performing solo shows in the backcountry.


In 1929, at the age of 23, she married a local schoolteacher, Alvin Chester Warner, and settled down to raise a family. A few months later, in June, her uncle Frank Maxwell (a lawman over in Silver City) noticed a classified in the local paper advertising an upcoming field recording session for Victor over in El Paso. At an audition, the White Mountain Orchestra were deemed worthy and two weeks later Chester Warner drove his wife, Marion, Curtis and Frank to a recording session where they met Ralph Peer.

Jack Thorp (left), John Lomax (center) and Ralph Peer (right)

Back in the 1910s, N. Howard “Jack” Thorp and John Lomax were (separately) traveling the west, compiling books of western songs. By the 1920s, when radio began to proliferate, western audiences were by and large more interested in hearing locally popular music rather than the urbane ditties of Tin Pan Alley. Ralph Peer was a famed talent scout from Missouri who was a pioneer in field recording and, often working as a talent scout, traveled the country recording blues, gospel, hillbilly, jazz and western performers outside studio settings.


Peer listened to the White Mountain Orchestra cut four numbers, “Escudilla Waltz,” “Gooson Quadrille,” “Leather Britches” and “Maxwell’s Old Rye Waltz.” After they finished, Peer singled out Maxwell and asked if she could sing. She sang “Billy Venero” and, suitably impressed, he asked her to record solo. She obliged with “Arizona Girl I Left Behind,” “Billy Venero, pt I,” “Billy Venero, pt II,” “Cowboy's Wife,” “Haunted Hunter” and “Where Your Sweetheart Waits For You.” Although she may not have realized it, in doing so, she was the first woman to record western music.


After the session, Billie continued playing with her dad’s band and they all moved over to New Mexico, where they primarily played in a joint called The Smokehouse. After the birth of her first of ultimately two children, Billie Maxwell retired from music. She died February 18, 1954. Although she never received much recognition nor money for her role as western’s first female to record, her six songs are now part of history. Currently, her tiny but important musical output isn't collected on any one recording. Rather, her songs appear on Let 'Er Buck! - 25 Authentic Cowboy Songs, Hillbilly Honeymoon, When I Was A Cowboy Vol. 1 & 2 and "Where Your Sweetheart Waits For You" is still only available on the original Victor 78. Hopefully, someday she'll be recognized as the pioneer she was.

 


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