The Strains of the Westerns

Originally posted September 25, 2009

Last weekend, poking around in one of the nooks and crannies where I occasionally find old music on the ’Net – I’m not sure which one it was – I came across a collection of themes from television westerns. And I began to run through them, listening to each one a few seconds at a time: lots of orchestral music, a lot of French horns, some guitars, and every once in a while, a stentorian voice telling us grandly the name of the show that we’d be about to watch, were we somehow transported back to 1957 or 1961 or 1965.

It was great fun, and I soon got lost in clicking from one western theme to the next, until the unmistakable strains – well, at least to those of us who grew up during the late 1950s and early 1960s – of the “Theme from Gunsmoke” came out of the speakers.

“What are you watching?” asked the Texas Gal from the next room.

“I’m listening to western themes.”

“Geez, I thought it was something on television that was using that music,” she said. “It sounded like an odd show, and then I recognized that last one.”

She said her dad had watched Gunsmoke for years. I told her that just the first instant of the theme flipped me back in time more than forty years: I had a quick memory of my father sitting in his coral-colored rocker – it was reupholstered in orange sometime in the mid-1960s, which helps me date this image at least a little – his eyes locked on our old Zenith television and the tales of Dodge City it brought into our living room. It would have been a Saturday evening, I believe. Not much kept Dad from Gunsmoke; the only thing that I think would have made him miss a week’s episode would be a St. Cloud State men’s basketball game, either on the radio or across the river on campus.

I kept clicking through the long list of theme songs. A few of them triggered similar memories: family time on Sunday evenings, watching Bonanza, or maybe seeing Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Gates on Rawhide early on a Friday evening as I waited for something I really liked. (A look at the prime time schedules offered at the Classic TV Database tells me that Rawhide was on CBS and I was likely waiting for The Flintstones on ABC.)

None of the others, however, brought me anything quite so vivid as did the “Theme from Gunsmoke,” so that’s a good place to start today’s music.

A Six-Pack of Western Themes
“Boot Hill/Theme from Gunsmoke” [ca. 1967]
“Bonanza” [ca. 1959]
“High Chaparral” [1967]
“A Man Called Shenandoah” [1965]
“Rawhide” [1959]
“The Rifleman” [1958]

Bonus Track
“Bonanza” [Original version, 1959]

Gunsmoke, which ran for twenty seasons, tweaked its theme numerous times. The sweeping main theme had also been used for the radio version of the show, which ran from 1951 to 1962. (The television version ran from 1955 through 1975.) The version here begins with a musical cue that was titled “Boot Hill” and accompanied the opening shot of the show: a view of a gunslinger framed by Marshall Matt Dillon’s boots. After Dillon dispatches the gunslinger, the announcer tells us what we’re watching, and then comes the main theme. According to an entry at ClassicThemes.com, “Boot Hill” was written by Fred Steiner and the main theme – known when the show was on radio as “The Old Trail” – was written by Rex Koury. Just based on the sound and a few dim memories, I’m guessing that this version of “Boot Hill/Theme from Gunsmoke” dates from the mid-1960s.

The theme to Bonanza was written by Jay Livingston & Ray Evans. The version I have here sounds like the one I heard almost every Sunday evening from about 1960 on, but there were enough tweaks through the years – the show ran from 1959 into 1973 – that I cannot be sure. The first version of the theme song, offered here as a bonus track, features Lorne Greene taking the vocal. I’ve read – I cannot remember where – that the vocal version was used for only one week, with the more familiar instrumental taking its place for the show’s second broadcast. (It’s entirely possible – and maybe more likely – that the song was replaced after the show’s first season. In either case, the version with the vocal was short-lived.) For me, the theme to Bonanza was one of the more memorable television themes, right from the ascending guitar lick.

I was aware of High Chaparral, a series based in the Arizona Territory in the 1870s, but I never watched the show, which ran from 1967 into 1971. Its theme was written by well-known television composer and arranger David Rose.

I do not recall “A Man Called Shenandoah,” a series that found Robert Horton playing a Civil War veteran wandering the West in search of his memory. He sang the main theme, to boot. The music for the theme song, obviously, is the old American folk tune “Shenandoah.” I haven’t found any indication so far of who wrote the lyrics.

I remember watching The Rifleman a couple of times, but it was never anything like essential viewing, and the theme doesn’t ring any bells It starts with the rapid firing of the rifle of the title, as did the show. The music was written by Herschel Burke Gilbert, and the lyrics – which you can read here – came from the pen of Alfred Perry.

Frankie Laine’s theme from Rawhide has to be one of the most recognizable of all television themes, never mind westerns. The music came from the pen of Dmitri Tiomkin with words by Nate Washington. It evidently wasn’t, however, the theme that the show started with when it hit the air in 1959. ClassicThemes.com notes that there is a theme credit in the archives for composer Olliver G. Wallace and orchestrator/arranger Paul Van Loan. The website’s editors speculated that the success of Johnny Western’s recording of “The Ballad of Paladin” from the CBS show Have Gun, Will Travel might have spurred the producers of Rawhide to find a song to similarly help brand the show, and the results was the Tiomkin/Washington classic. All-Music Guide says that the song “was a huge pop hit” for Laine, but I wonder about that, as it’s listed in the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits. Maybe on the country charts. The song did make the Top 40, however, in what I assume was an instrumental version by Link Wray and the Wraymen, reaching No. 23 in early 1959.

Note from 2022: There’s no trace of Laine’s version of “Rawhide” on the country chart, either. Note added May 27, 2022.


			

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