Saturday, October 18, 2008

Print The Legend: "Remember The Alamo"

For fans of classic western movies, it just doesn't get better than John Ford's wonderful The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The film's components are hard to beat - what's not to love about John Wayne (in one of his absolutely best performances) playing Tom Doniphon, an upright tough guy who is reduced to alcoholism and failure by an act of self-sacrifice for the woman he loves, or James Stewart as Rance Stoddard, a good man corrupted into a false success by that selfsame act, or Lee Marvin as a villainous Valance who would be a comedic stereotype were he not so casually, psychotically, and believably evil?

The film seems somehow perpetually relevant as well in its implied commentary on the nature of fame, especially in politics. Stoddard is retiring from a brilliantly successful political career as the movie ends - but a career based on a fundamental falsehood, one that contributes to the destruction of a better man than Stoddard will ever be.

Liberty Valance is also notable for one of the great tag lines of any western of that or any era - the newspaper editor's comment that "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

I'm always reminded of that line when I listen to what for many years was my second-favorite Kingston Trio song (after "Bay of Mexico"), the group's stirring performance of Jane Bowers' "Remember The Alamo," the last cut on the B side of At Large.

The album's liner notes, as I recall, identified Bowers as a "proud Texan who knows much of Texas lore" - and it is the lore of the Battle of the Alamo that we get in this excellent song.

Much, perhaps most, of what actually happened in San Antonio in February and early March of 1836 has been lost to history by neglect, personal and political agendas, and the simple passage of time. The motives of the defenders of the mission were not wholly pure (commander William B. Travis and perhaps a quarter of the Texians or Texicans were intent on creating Texas as a slave state in the Union, viewing an independent republic as only a temporary step), as many as a third of the garrison were Tejanos of Mexican descent, the garrison attempted to negotiate a surrender at least twice, and many of the casualties among the Mexican soldiers resulted from friendly fire because of the incredibly doltish plan of attack by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, which called for simultaneous assaults from three sides causing his troops to fire into each other in volleys.

Other cherished myths about the battle reflected in the Bowers' song also do not stand up to historical scrutiny - to wit: serious historians question whether or not Travis ever drew a line in the dirt with his sword (likely not), Bowie was probably unconscious and near death when bayoneted in his pallet (ouch) by Mexican soldiers who took him for a coward hiding from them, and Davy Crockett was 50 years old, alas! young neither then nor now.

I'm not sure how much of this Bowers knew, and in light of the intent of the song, I don't think it matters much. Here's the KT's version (parenthetically, my first attempt at making a Windows Movie - pardon its crudeness, but it's still better than a stationery image!):

The highlights of this outstanding recording are IMHO first the arrangement (more on that below) and second Bob Shane's incredible rhythm guitar strumming, unmatched in any other version.

I had always thought that Bowers had written this either for the KT with them in mind - but not so, as this version from 1956 by country legend Tex Ritter demonstrates:

Ritter's version, perhaps the first recorded, differs significantly in the chord structure of the accompaniment from the KT's. NBD replace the major chords that Ritter uses with some unexpected sharps and minors that create that flamenco-based sound in their version - very unusual for a banjo, BTW, and I think hugely more effective.

I always try to find an unusual version for these weekend video posts - and here's one from an Irish group called Gaelic Mist:

Surprisingly - the flower-power icon, Mr. Mellow Yellow himself, Donovan Leitch in a creditable version:

Apparently Bob Dylan also recorded this, though I can't find a video of it.

Finally - a real performance video from someone who really knew how to give a performance - Johnny Cash from a 1982 TV special. Cash recorded the song first in the 60s, and I think it's particularly well-suited to his voice and style:

The cultural value of legends, of course, is that they codify the values and beliefs of the people who tell and believe in them. What actually happened at the Alamo and how one regards it is today something of a political Rorschach test, much as is the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

But five decades ago, Jane Bowers and the Kingston Trio seemed more primarily concerned with honoring the mythic courage and sacrifice idealized in the song than in teaching a history lesson.

They printed the legend, and did an up-and-walking good job of it.


The Millbrooker said...

Great song, and you've posted some great performances. There's also a recorded version on John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett's album "Deep & Meaningless" which stands up to a listen or two. Otway isn't often taken seriously (and often doesn't take himself seriously), but here he tackles a classic song and does it his own brand of justice - try it, you might like it.

Jim Moran said...

Thanks Millbrooker! I blush to say that I don't know of Otway - but I will be sure to look this version up!