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

By Briley, Ron | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2008 | Go to article overview

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


Briley, Ron, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


How the West Was Sung: Music in the Westerns of John Ford Kathryn Kalinak. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Acknowledging reservations regarding auteurism in film criticism, Kathryn Kalinak, professor of English and film studies at Rhode Island College, nevertheless, concludes that legendary film director John Ford was "notorious for collaborating on all aspects of a film's production, including the musical score" (12). Accordingly, Kalinak focuses upon the use of music in the Western films of Ford; an area often neglected in the volumes of Ford scholarship. Eschewing theory, Kalinak relies upon primary research in studio archives and interviews with surviving members of the John Ford stock company to produce this readable and fascinating account of music in Ford's Western cinema.

Kalinak asserts that Ford's Westerns were characterized by certain core principles: "music to both mark and bind the community, the privileging of song, and the inclusion of Anglo American folk music, period music, and Protestant hymnody" (101). Interestingly, Kalinak begins her account by concentrating upon the silent Westerns of Ford, notably The Iron Horse (1924) and Three Bad Men (1926) that introduced themes of national identity, manifest destiny, and masculinity central to Ford's later sound Westerns. "Drill, Ye Terriers, Drill" is employed in The Iron Horse to reflect the theme of inclusion for Irish and Italian rail workers, but Chinese and African-American laborers are excluded from this national consensus. Focusing upon the Dakota land rush of 1878, in Three Bad Men, Ford associates music and singing with star George O'Brien, and these qualities fail to compromise the manliness of the athletic O'Brien.

For his first sound Western, the 1939 epic Stagecoach, Ford based the film's musical score on folk songs that the director selected more for their contributions to the film's narrative than period authenticity. Music is used to create a sense of community for the inhabitants of the stagecoach, while a sense of "otherness" is provided by Native Americans. Kalinak also perceives themes of nostalgia in My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Making almost exclusive use of diegetic music, My Darling Clementine explores the sense of loss associated with civilizing the frontier. Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) employs violence to tame Tombstone, but the price for this savagery is that he is unworthy of Clementine (Cathy Downs). Similar themes are pursued in Liberty Valance, which also relies upon a diegetic score and folk songs to promote a sense of loss.

But Ford was capable of moving beyond the nostalgia of folk songs.

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