Friday, July 3, 2009

John Stewart + Marty Robbins + Roy Rogers + Frederic Remington + More - "Dogies Lament"

Another cowboy song, you think. Another fluffy bit of album filler, you say (and Allan Shaw et al. in The Kingston Trio On Record did). A forgettable Trio effort that pales in comparison to their best work, you opine.

And beyond the standard disclaimer of "each to his own" - not hardly, I would say. Not only is "Get Along, Little Dogies" (called "Dogies' Lament" by the Kingston Trio and others) a legitimate bit of classic Americana, worthy of notice by the many wonderful artists included here, but the KT's recording from one of its best albums, New Frontier, is itself a fine performance and a very interesting point in the long recording career of that group.

First, the song itself. I'd guess that many, perhaps most, of us knew this song before the abovementioned KT recording from late '62-early '63. It was certainly a staple of children's TV shows, recordings, and school music appreciation classes. I knew that I had heard it in several versions long before New Frontier. I'm sure my family had a 78rpm of Burl Ives doing it, I can remember Win Stracke (whom I've mentioned in these posts frequently) did it on his after-school show, and I'd bet that several other children's records in our family included it as well.

Not surprisingly, the song leaves cattle country and comes to America at large through the Lomaxes, father and son. John A. included a version in his 1910 collection of cowboy songs, and Alan had versions in the several different editions of his Folk Songs Of North America (1947). Both Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers can be credited with popularizing it in movies (as below), and both Burl Ives and Pete Seeger recorded it on vinyl in the late 1940s.

I never really cared to understand what a "dogie" was, but for my 11th birthday I received a copy of the '47 Lomax book above. Its explanation was that the term for a cow derives from "dough-guts," cowboy jargon for a yearling animal, often orphaned, whose distended belly resulted from eating grass prematurely and whose underside reminded the cowpokes of sourdough bread dough.

Whatever the term's origin - our earliest version today is from the 1940 film West Of The Badlands, starring the erstwhile Leonard Slye of Cincinnati, who of course had re-invented himself as (with Gene Autry) the personification of the Singing Cowboy - Roy Rogers:



I cannot adequately express my delight at finding this on YouTube. For me, as for millions of American children, Roy Rogers was my hero even before Davy Crockett. When my dad would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I'd invariably reply "Roy Rogers." (My mother added that when I was told that there was only one RR and I'd have to pick some other line of work, she swore that I'd say "God.") This video is a reminder of what a beautiful voice Roy had - several of the background singers were at one time or another members of the group associated with Roy and from which he emerged as a solo star, the Sons of the Pioneers.

Now what is notable about the Kingston Trio's 1962 version is this. "Dogies' Lament" is a Dave Guard Trio song done by the Stewart Trio. By that I mean that it is absolutely, 100% a traditional song, and the KT had been moving steadily away from those after Guard's departure. What's more, the guys give this a respectful and generally straightforward reading that demonstrates a clear understanding of the song's roots. But with a Guard-type wrinkle, they change the accompaniment. Where Rogers and most of the others below (Seeger excepted) are doing a basic C-F-G7 chord progression, on the verses the Trio is using a C-Dm7-Em7 progression - for non-guitarists, a closely associated set of chords but which give just a hint through the minor sound of the "lament" that you hear most clearly in Pete's version:



John Stewart has the perfect baritone voice for this number, and the Trio's version may well be the most authentically traditional currently available (ironic point, of course). I threw together the video above with illustrative paintings from the great Frederic Remington, whose fervent attempts to record Western life before it disappeared (he died in 1909 at 48) became the template from which virtually all of our modern images of the Old West come. When Hollywood started making Westerns, it was to Remington they went for the "look" of the movies.

Of later artists, who could do a cowboy song better than Marty Robbins? This version is from a short-lived TV series starring Robbins in 1965 called The Drifter:



That may be the smallest six string guitar I have ever seen.

One of my children's records above had a version similar to this one from Pete Seeger, with a distinctively "lamenting" minor key to begin the chorus:



After hearing this next version, I'm almost ashamed to say that I knew nothing of Elton Britt. With Rogers (and Jimmie Rodgers before that), Britt helped to popularize yodeling as a part of American folk tunes. He was an excellent singer, and I love this recording:



And a spare, straightforward rendition by one of my all-time favorite folksingers, Woody Guthrie's boon companion Cisco Houston:




By whatever name you call it, the "Dogies" song is an authentic link to our shared American past and the mythos that best expresses our image of ourselves - which makes it a fine choice for a Weekend Videos for our nation's birthday. A happy 4th of July to all!

Playback Note

YouTube has significantly upgraded its playback capabilities, but to save bandwidth it has made the low resolution 360p the default playback mode (on some videos, even - shudder - 240p). For best results on these and all YT videos, check in the lower right-hand corner of the video screen with the cursor to see if playback in 480p, 720p, or hi-definition is available. It will take a few seconds for the video to reload in the new res0lution - but it will be well worth it.

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