IASPM-US Interview Series: Kathryn Kalinak, Music in the Western

by justindburton on January 23, 2013

Music in the Western: Notes from the Frontier brings together twelve original essays on music featured in the iconic American film genre, the western. Edited by Kathryn Kalinak, the anthology addresses the history of western film scores, their generic conventions, and their ideological role in the western’s construction of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. The book also highlights a wide range of films, from John Ford’s The Searchers, to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo,to modern-day westerns like There Will Be Blood. Kalinak organizes these diverse essays chronologically and geographically: the first section examines underscoring, title songs, and diegetic performance in the classical Hollywood western; the second section turns to scores for westerns produced outside of the United States; and the final section examines the music of westerns filmed in the last ten to fifteen years. A needed contribution to the literature on film music, Music in the Western provides accessible essays for an interdisciplinary audience of students and scholars of music and film and media studies.

Allison Robbins: Clearly, you’ve watched a lot of westerns in the past few years. In addition to editing and contributing to Music in the Western, you’ve also worked on several related projects, including your book How the West Was Sung: Music in the Westerns of John Fordand your current research on Dimitri Tiomkin’s scores for Howard Hawks westerns. How did you first become interested in the western genre? Do you remember the first western you ever watched?

Kathryn Kalinak: I’m a latecomer to westerns. I was never interested in them as a kid, although I do remember going with my brother and my dad to see The Magnificent Seven which I loved. But I always thought of westerns as something for male viewers and really didn’t get interested in the genre until fairly recently. In the 1990s I was asked to write an article on the music for John Ford’s westerns for the anthology, John Ford Made Westerns: Filming the Legend in the Sound Era. I thought, ”Why not.” I proceeded to watch every Ford western I could get my hands on, and I watched them in pretty close to chronological order.  I was blown away and spent the next few years catching up on all the other westerns that I’d missed.  What struck me about Ford’s westerns and many others is how they spoke to me as a female viewer and how relevant they seemed to be at this historical moment.


Final scene of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), which features the film’s title song written by Stan Jones and performed by the Sons of the Pioneers.

In the introduction to Music in the Western, you note that one of the anthology’s goals is to offer models of cutting-edge interdisciplinary research and that many of the individual authors demonstrate admirable skill in interpreting music, visuals, and narrative, regardless of their chosen discipline. What does your vision of interdisciplinary film music scholarship look like? In your own work, how do you incorporate methodologies from different disciplines?

I try to remember that music has a unique vocabulary and syntax, if you will, and that it always speaks through them. So does film. When I am writing about film music, I don’t want to lose perspective on either one and try to keep them both in focus. For instance, there is a moment in John Ford’s She Wore A Yellow Ribbon where the cavalry fords the river. That process, which is shown to be tense and difficult in the narrative (the cavalry plunging into the river) and the image track (long shots interspersed with close-ups of the details of the difficult crossing) is mirrored in Richard Hageman’s score where a complement of brass instruments is separated into choirs in an antiphonal cue where one choir, in effect, presents a challenge and the other responds, each in a different meter. The narrative, the image track, and the music track, each using their own language, embody the tension inherent in the difficult crossing.

Several of the essays in Music in the Western address scoring practices that incorporate folk music and popular song, both of which have a long, intertwined history with the genre. In some cases, these songs are meant to lend historical and regional authenticity to a film, even though, as you write, many of these songs are “not authentic in the way we have supposed them to be.” I am left wondering what music (popular, folk, classical, etc.) was performed or composed in the West during the mid- to late nineteenth-century and if, in fact, it differed from music experienced east of the Mississippi. Is part of the western film’s legacy the construction of a regional music?

Much of the music heard on the frontier was the same music that was heard in the East:  minstrel music. Remember that songs such as “Oh! Susanna” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas” were actually minstrel tunes (although sometimes almost completely severed from these origins), and it was the banjo that was more likely to be heard on the frontier than the guitar.  Minstrel music functioned as a kind of common currency, a musical tradition shared across the nation. That said, there were what I might call “cowboy songs,” often adapted from Anglo-American folk tunes, that were generated on the frontier, but these were not generally known outside the frontier until the pioneering work of the ethnomusicologist John Lomax (and others) who began to collect and publish “cowboy songs” in the early twentieth century. Films, along with the radio and the recording industry, were instrumental in their dissemination, so I suppose that you could argue that film played a significant role in the creation of western regional music.


“Chuckwalla Swing,” newly composed by Stan Jones for John Ford’s Wagon Master (1950). Performed by Sons of the Pioneers.

One of the things I like most about Music in the Western is the section that explores “the global reach of the Hollywood western” and its associated scoring practices. Your article in particular examines issues of genre and national identity in Fumio Hayasaka’s score for Kurosawa’s Rashomon and its American remake The Outrage, directed by Martin Ritt and scored by Alex North. As an editor and as an author, what were the motivating factors in addressing the global western and its scores?

As I was beginning work on Music and the Western: Notes From the Frontier I was finishing writing another book Film Music: A Very Short Introduction. That book’s very pointed task was to consider film music as a global phenomenon, to recognize that film music is practiced all over the world, has been since the beginning of motion pictures, and often operates in ways that do not mimic or reproduce the typical uses of music in western filmmaking. For too long, I think, studies of film music have ignored filmmaking traditions outside the US and Europe. I hope that this is beginning to change, and I wanted Music and the Western to be part of that change.


Trailer for Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950).



Trailer for Ritt’s The Outrage (1964).

The last section of the anthology looks at contemporary westerns. I had a fantastic time watching these films, especially Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, which features an improvised score by Neil Young, and Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which uses preexisting popular music as well as a newly composed score by Marco Beltrami. Both of these films, as well other recent and not-so-recent westerns, deconstruct the ideology of the classical Hollywood western, and in the process, the musical conventions associated with the genre. How effective do you think contemporary westerns and their music have been in challenging, say, stereotypical depictions of Native, Mexican, and/or African Americans? The classic western’s version of white male masculinity? The portrayal of female characters as either doting homestead wife or saloon whore?


Scene from Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), score by Neil Young.

I would begin here by noting the dynamic change in the genre of the western itself beginning in the mid 1950s (a great starting point would be The Searchers), which interrogated the myth of the frontier and exposed its historical untruths and the fantasies that lie at its center. Music in westerns would eventually change, too, hinging on a recognition that the musical stereotypes associated with the myth of the frontier (Indian music, for instance, or stereotypes for female characters based on their sexuality, or generic “South of the Border” music for Mexicans) perpetuated the frontier myth that the films themselves were challenging. So the whole frame of reference, musically speaking, started to shift away from the conventional western musical stereotypes beginning sometime around mid-century. Of course, just because a film composer doesn’t use “Indian music” to accompany Native Americans on screen does not necessarily mean that he/she has effectively challenged the stereotypical representations of Indians. Composers, even with the best intentions, can fall into stereotypes unconsciously. So, now finally to answer your question: Have composers of contemporary westerns been able to challenge stereotypical depictions of others in these films through the music?  I think some have. I’m thinking of the musical representation of Indians in Dances With Wolves. Claudia Gorbman points out in her analysis of the film that John Barry uses the same kind of romantic, heroic music which accompanies the white protagonist for the Sioux. Or the recent True Grit and its musical representation of women where Carter Burwell uses Calvinist hymns as a kind of leitmotif for the young female protagonist.


Final scene from Dances With Wolves (1990), score by John Barry.

Final question: if you were to go on a trail ride tomorrow, what kind of soundtrack would you want to accompany you and your trusty steed?

Richard Hageman’s score for John Ford’s She Wore Yellow Ribbon! That river crossing cue is only one reason why I love to listen to this score (despite its use of stereotypical Indian music-ouch!): the striking brass fanfares (often, interesting permutations of actual military bugle calls); the thunderstorm sequence; and the use of period music and songs (exploited so prominently that the film is even named after one of them).


Scene from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), score by Richard Hageman.

Kathryn Kalinak is a professor in the English Department and the Film Studies Program at Rhode Island College, where her teaching interests include silent film, film music, and Disney. She has published numerous articles and books on film music, including Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film (Wisconsin University Press, 1992), How the West Was Sung: Music in the Westerns of John Ford (University of California Press, 2007), and Film Music: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010). In 2011 she was named the Mary Tucker Thorp Professor at Rhode Island College.

Allison Robbins is a musicologist specializing in musical multimedia. She received her Ph.D. in Critical and Comparative Studies from the University of Virginia in 2010 and has taught at the University of Virginia and the University of Tennessee. She is currently working on a monograph that investigates the mediatization of theatrical song and dance traditions in the silent and early sound film era.

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