Singing cowboy

Statue of Gene Autry

A singing cowboy was a subtype of the archetypal cowboy hero of early Western films, popularized by many of the B-movies of the 1930s and 1940s.[1] The typical singing cowboys were white-hat-wearing, clean-shaven heroes with the habit of showing their emotions in song.

Around the campfire, the original cowboys sang of life on the trail with all the challenges, hardships, and dangers encountered while pushing cattle for miles up the trails and across the prairies. While much of what is included in the genre of "cowboy music" is "traditional," a number of songs have been written and made famous by groups like the Sons of the Pioneers and Riders in the Sky and individual performers such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Michael Martin Murphy, and other "singing cowboys." Singing in the wrangler style, these entertainers have served to preserve the cowboy as a unique American hero.

The image of the singing cowboy was established in 1925 when Carl T. Sprague of Texas recorded the first cowboy song, "When the Work's All Done This Fall." A year later, John I. White became the first representative of the genre to perform on a nationally broadcast radio show, but the full popularity of the singing cowboys was not reached until the spread of sound films.


Ken Maynard

Ken Maynard was the screen's first singing cowboy. He first appeared in silent motion pictures in 1923 and in addition to acting also did stunt work. His horsemanship and rugged good looks made Maynard a cowboy star. He recorded two songs with Columbia Records before making his first film with a musical soundtrack. He sang two songs in Sons of the Saddle (1930).[2]

John Wayne

Early in his career, John Wayne appeared as "Singin' Sandy Saunders" in Riders of Destiny (1933) and seven more films for Monogram Pictures.[3] Wayne's version of the singing cowboy was much darker than the later ones; his ten-gallon hat was black instead of white and he'd chant about "streets running with blood" and "you'll be drinking your drinks with the dead" as he strode purposefully down the street toward a showdown.

The films were successful and made Wayne a star after several failures, but he refused to renew his contract in 1935,[4]:129-130,138 although he did continue making nonsinging Westerns for Monogram's successor, Republic Pictures. Because Wayne could not sing, his filmed songs were dubbed by the son of director Robert N. Bradbury, making the obligatory personal appearances a continuous embarrassment for the young actor.[3][4]:128 Wayne also emphasized authenticity in his westerns and knew that real cowboys did not sing or wear Singin' Sandy's elaborate costumes.[4]:128,131-132

Gene Autry

While other western actors, such as Wayne and Clint Eastwood, only dabbled in singing roles, some actors became known mainly for their parts as singing cowboys. The most famous of them was Gene Autry, and the moniker "the singing cowboy" usually refers to him in particular. When Wayne declined further singing cowboy roles, Republic looked for a replacement. Autry was chosen because he was the one candidate who could both sing and ride a horse.[3] The choice was so successful that, at the time of his death in 1998, Autry was still on the top 10 list of Hollywood western box office moneymakers.[5]

Autry first rose to popularity as a singer, but his acting career started off quickly with the 1935 film serial The Phantom Empire, and he became a prolific star. Autry's early popularity, both for his radio and film performances, quickly paved the way for a multitude of imitators, but most attempts didn't get close to his success.

Autry, and later Roy Rogers, appeared in contemporary western settings rather than the 19th century wild west era. This allowed the stars to appear in modern clothing alongside motorcars, airplanes, and telephones. In The Phantom Empire, Autry spends time singing on the radio at his "Radio Ranch" as well as battling an ancient civilisation with a race of robots who live beneath the earth.

Autry was also the first sound motion picture cowboy star to use his own name as the main character in a film,[6] a practice soon emulated by Rogers.

Roy Rogers

Autry's status as the top singing cowboy was never in question until 1937, when disagreements made him temporarily walk out on his contract with Republic Studios. The studio's chosen replacement, Roy Rogers, who had previously appeared only in minor roles (including a memorable appearance opposite Autry while still billed under his real name, Leonard Slye), quickly grew popular when given the chance to star. By the time Autry returned, he found himself challenged for top movie singing cowboy status by the blossoming career of his new rival Rogers, although Rogers never neared Autry's juggernaut level of record sales. When Autry enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Roy Rogers became the "King of the Cowboys," competing head-to-head with Autry for the rest of the decade, however, they DID appear together in the 1935 motion picture, The Old Corral however, this was Rogers' second film.

Tex Ritter

In 1936, Edward Finney of the recently formed Grand National Pictures decided on a singing cowboy for their studio and screen-tested Tex Ritter, who began a series of films with the studio beginning with Song of the Gringo.[7] Ritter recorded "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darlin'," the movie title-track song for High Noon (1952). The song became a hit and received an Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song, for 1953.

Grand National Films

With the fame of the operetta Rose-Marie and singing cowboy films, a series of films with actor singer James Newill playing a singing Mountie, Renfrew of the Royal Mounted, were released by Grand National between 1937 and 1940.

Singing cowgirl Dorothy Page made three films for Grand National Pictures in 1939.

Into the sunset

Other notable actors who became famous as singing cowboys were Jimmy Wakely, Warner Brothers' Dick Foran, and Rex Allen, who didn't start his career until 1950, when the popularity of the genre was waning. Herb Jeffries made four films beginning with the intriguingly titled Harlem on the Prairie. Nonsinging cowboy actors such as Buck Jones[8] complained that producers would find it too easy to pad out the length of a film with songs rather than action, characterization, or plot exposition.

With the advent of television, the making of B-movies dropped off and the era of singing cowboys was coming to an end. Autry and Rogers went on to star in The Gene Autry Show and The Roy Rogers Show, respectively, but the series' runs ended by the close of the decade, and the singing cowboy gradually ceased to exist in popular culture except as an exercise in nostalgia. Though he did not appear in the film, Tex Ritter sang the continuing ballad of High Noon.

The singing cowboy image has since been parodied, most notably in the 1985 film Rustlers' Rhapsody, with Tom Berenger portraying a stereotypical singing cowboy, and in the Pixar film Toy Story 2.

Other singing cowboys


  1. ^
  2. ^ Phillips, Robert W. Singing Cowboy Stars. Salt Lake City: Gibbs-Smith, 1994. pp 14-16.
  3. ^ a b c Peterson, Richard A. (1997). Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity. University of Chicago Press. pp. 84–86. ISBN 0226662845. 
  4. ^ a b c Roberts, Randy; James Stuart Olson (1997). John Wayne: American. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0803289707. 
  5. ^ Gene Autry's obituary at
  6. ^ p.61 Harmon, Jim & Glut, Donald F. The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury 1978 Routledge
  7. ^ p.44 Fernett, Gene Hollywood's Poverty Row: 1930-1950 1973 Coral Reef Publications
  8. ^

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