Bob Dylan And Western Movies


By Larry Fyffe

Post Modernism mixes ‘high brow’ and ‘low brow’ art together in a chunky soup. Rough and tough Western movies, and the traditional western folksongs of ‘singing cowboys’ have a strong influence on Bob Dylan’s lyrics and music; so do the Romantic poets – especially the Gothics.

Dylan recognizes the similarity of the themes in each of these genres – often dark and cloudy they be:

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy
into smiling
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance
it wore ….
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the night’s
Plutonian shore
(Edgar Allan Poe: The Raven)

Sorrowful is the song below:

She wrote me a letter; she wrote it so kind
And in that letter these words she will find
'Come back to me darling, you're the one I adore
You're the one I will marry on the Red River shore'
(Kingston Trio: Red River Shore - traditional)

And so be it in the following gender-twisted version:

Well, I can’t escape from the memories
Of the one I’ll always adore
All those nights when I lay in the arms
Of the girl from the Red River shore
(Bob Dylan: Red River Shore)

Western movies, though often dark in plot, usually feature a good guy cowboy who saves the day.

Which brings us to the western movie ‘Red River Shore’, introduced by Rex Allen singing the (previously discussed) song ‘Red River Valley’ over the opening credits. It’s a story set in Oklahoma where lawman Allen saves ranchers from being swindled by dishonest oil businessmen. Western movies, made in the days when Bob Dylan is growing up, more often than not, star a basically good guy gunfighter, a hero, who, in the end, wins out, one way or another, over the bad guys.

By the way, Rex Allen records ‘Ramona’, a song from a movie by the same name, based on a Helen Jackson story set in Southern California. The movie is about love between a half-Indian girl and and a full-blooded Indian. In the film, because of racism things go badly. Ramona marries a well-to-rancher after the death of her Indian husband. This song too has been previously presented (See: Bob Dylan And Helen Jackson).

But back to the gunslingers – ‘The Oklahoma Kid’ movie stars James Cagney, a Lone Ranger-type vigilante hero. ‘The Kid’ deals with Humphrey Bogart who, with his gang of outlaws, runs the town of Tulsa. Sourced by others than myself – the Oklahoma Kid replies: ‘Go ahead and talk’ after the black-clad bad guy confronts him in the saloon, saying: ‘Kid, I want to talk to you’.

Bob Dylan takes on the persona of the Oklahoma Kid, and pays tribute to the movie in the song lyrics below:

You want to talk to me
Go ahead and talk
Whatever you got anything to say to me
Won’t come as any shock
(Bob Dylan: Tight Connection To My Heart)

In the western movie ‘Shane’, Alan Ladd plays a reformed gunfighter. He sides with Wyoming homesteaders against a ruthless cattle baron and his gang. Hired as a hand by a farmer, whose wife and son he takes a shining to, Shane prevents the homesteader from taking on one of the baron’s gunman by doing so himself. Shane kills the cattle baron as well – he eats, shoots, and leaves.

At the beginning of the movie, Shane meets the farmer:

Shane: ‘Would you put that gun down? Then I’ll leave’
———-: ‘What’s the difference? You’re leaving anyway’.
Shane: ‘I’d like it to be my idea’

In one of his songs, Dylan takes on the persona of Shane; it’s not necessary for the listener to know about the western movie, but some background to the song lyrics is added if the listener does know the plot of the movie:

You give me something to think about
Every time I see ya
Don’t worry, baby, I don’t mind leaving
I’d just like it to be my idea
(Bob Dylan: Never Gonna Be The Same Again)

The movie ‘Rose-Marie’, based on an operetta, features a singing Mountie, and gives rise to the popularity of ‘singing cowboy’ westerns:

Then I will know our love will come true
You’ll belong to me, and I’ll belong to you
Then I will know our love will come true
You’ll belong to me, and I’ll belong to you
(Eddy & McDonald: Indian Love Call – Hammerstein et al))

Bob Dylan, it might be said, takes on the role of the Mountie in the song ‘She Belongs To Me’ – ‘She nobody’s child, the Law can’t touch her at all’.

The plot of ‘Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts’ may be influenced by the storyline in the musical stage version of ‘Rose-Marie’, and in the film version Jack Flower is the brother of opera singer Rose-Marie (See: Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts: revealing the source of this and other Dylan songs).

It’s all mixed-up Post Modern confusion. Or as actor Robert Mitchum puts it – in a rodeo cowboy movie:

‘Broken bottles, broken bones, broken everything’.
(The Lusty Men)

And confirmed by the singer/songwriter:

Broken bottles, broken plates
Broken switches, broken gates
Broken dishes, broken parts
Streets are filled with broken hearts
Broken words never meant to be spoken
Everything is broken
(Bob Dylan: Everything Is Broken)

What else is on the site?

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