Once upon a time in the Midwest, a teacher told his 6th grade class to pipe down and watch something for social studies time.
Yay, a movie! we all think.
Only it wasn’t a movie at all. It was the Civil War miniseries by Ken Burns.
Now like many preteens, I was initially ecstatic to have something on a television screen during the school day. But also like many preteens, I was not what one would call appreciative of this thorough analysis of the Civil War. In fact, to keep myself from falling asleep, I’d count how many times “Ashokan Farewell” would play. (I distinctly remember reaching seven times in one episode.)
This was, you could say, my introduction to western period music.
To be clear, I’m not trying to denigrate Jay Ungar in any fashion. This is a beautiful string piece full of love and mourning. At one point I even learned how to play it on the violin. But in the early 90s I was a bratty kid who didn’t care and just wanted the stupid show to be over so we could get some lunch.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my mother enjoyed watching all sorts of older movies, including westerns. Yule Brenner, John Wayne, Gary Cooper–oh, they were a treat for Mom to see. Me? I had as much patience for cowboys and prairie women as I had for robots with plungers for arms.
(Gosh, I was a bratty kid, wasn’t I?)
Yet even my bratty self could never deny the epic score of those old-school westerns. Elmer Bernstein lassos you in with those opening staccato trills, brass galloping on as percussion rushes underfoot, strings sweeping across the open skies over this land of boundless possibility.
Fast-forward a decade or two, and my movie fanatic husband Bo is educating me on all sorts of cinema wonders. One viewing of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and I was hooked on the spaghetti western. I mean, that final showdown with the guitar, the trumpet, choir, bells, the literal hanging on the edge of the seat as the men’s eyes flash and fingers twitch and MY GOD WHO’S GOING TO DIE, WHOOOO?!?!
I’ve already gushed quite a bit about Ennio Morricone as well as where I spot his influence in recent soundtracks. Il Maestro is a storyteller with sound, make no mistake. His orchestras can speak for characters, tension, and setting without any help from a screen. Once Upon a Time in the West is a powerful example of this. Here the guitar strings hum with impending danger, the repeating triplet by other strings a feeling time’s relentless press onward into certain death. The dissonant harmonica not only speaks for one of the protagonists, but plays an intrinsic role in the story itself.
The guitar does seem to be one of the voices of the Wild West, isn’t it? Even in westerns with a genre twist to them, the guitar sings for the defiant free spirit of our lone hero. I love Harry Gregson-Williams’ use of the guitar to introduce us to a man without a past or name–just a wrist laser he uses to shoot down alien spacecraft.
Some epic tales of guts and determination inspire us so deeply that Hollywood’s keen to retell these stories as many times as consumer wallets will allow. A composer, however, doesn’t have to repeat what’s come before. Take James Horner–he died while developing his score for the remake of The Magnificent Seven. Thankfully, Horner’s friend Simon Franglen finished what Horner started, and we’re given a beautiful mix of indigenous and traditional instruments with a touch of a choir to take listeners back through the mists of time to find themselves cut off from civilization, lost to the raw landscape where power is brutal, and heroes the thing of dreams.
Not all stories are epic, however. Sometimes stories are just about a man and a woman trying to figure out life in a bitter, harsh land. Leonard Cohen’s music that speaks to this in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Not gonna lie–this is not an uplifting film, nor does Cohen’s music lighten its weight. His songs inspire hope for a connection, however brief, before the return of isolation and loneliness.
And then there are those rare, rare moments where Writer and Bratty Kid come together, where the frayed edges of past and present bind and wrap round the soul, warm and loving.
That moment came for me with the remake of True Grit.
Carter Burwell took “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a hymn I’ve known since childhood, and unraveled it, carefully threading its elements into various moments of his score. From beginning to end, this hymn never quite leaves the characters or the land…or us.
Thank you for joining me on this sojourn through the music of magnificent grit seen only once upon a time. If you feel another score is worth mentioning, please let me know! In the meantime, enjoy this music while reading my novella Night’s Tooth, on sale now for just 99 cents.
Mississippi River Valley, 1870s. The white man wields rails and guns to bring law to the land. But there are more than wild animals hiding in the territories, and it will take more than guns to bring them down.
Sumac the bounty hunter needs no guns to hunt any bandit with a price on his head, even one as legendary and mysterious as Night’s Tooth. But Sumac didn’t count on other bounty hunters coming along as competition, nor did he expect hunters sharing his own magical gifts.
It’s one man against a gang and a mystery, all to protect a train that must cross the territories at all costs…
Inspired by classics like For a Few Dollars More and fantasy cult favorites like Highlander, “Night’s Tooth” is a western with a fantasy edge set in the Fallen Princeborn universe.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
Bo and I visited one of the strangest–or should I say, “most creative”–places in Wisconsin. I’m keen to share my photos! (Well, and what photos I can find on the Internet that aren’t blurry.) Plus, there’s a world-building study of another western-fantasy, the official launch of my novella, some more author interviews, fun with kids, and more!
Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!