Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Walt Disney and the Sons of the Pioneers

Nowadays not only is one hard-pressed to discern the difference between Country and Western music, the latter having been subsumed into the former, but one would likely be challenged to find any Country music that sounded like Country and not just weak pop music with a Southern accent. One quick way to tell Western music is the relative absence of said accent and the obligatory slide-guitar. The handiest rule of thumb is that Country music comes from east of the Mississippi while Western comes from that vast, wide country to the west. The two genres have different geographic and ethic origins, and vastly different styles when one's ear is tuned to them.

Amongst the most popular Western acts of all time were the Sons of the Pioneers. They still are, as a matter of fact. Though none of the original members remain, the Sons of the Pioneers are a designated national treasure and the longest reigning commercial musical troupe. Their origins go back to 1933 when a handsome gent named Leonard Slye joined up with Tim Spencer and Bob Nolan. In the next three years, Hugh and Karl Farr, and Lloyd Perryman joined up. Pat Brady was brought in to replace Slye when he went off to a new career in the flickers. You might be more familiar with Slye's stage name: Roy Rogers.

Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers

Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers kept a good, healthy relationship through the decades. They joined with Roy in the 1942 film titled Sons of the Pioneers and guest-starred on The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show 20 years later, with some 45 films inbetween. The Sons of the Pioneers hit the Hollywood big-time, appearing in numerous films and drawing the attention of the one and only Walt Disney.

Times were notoriously tough for Disney through the 1940's. Though Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs catapulted him to even greater fame, follow-up features like Pinocchio and especially Fantasia failed to capture the same popularity. The animator's strike struck in 1941, tensing up the studio at the same time that World War II shut off the European film market. In order to survive, Disney slimmed down its cinematic offerings, releasing a string of "package films" that anthologized shorter subjects.

Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros came out during the war, as a product of Walt's Latin American goodwill tour and post-strike vacation. These begat Make Mine Music in 1946 and Fun and Fancy Free in 1947, the latter comprised of two straightforward half-hour cartoons and the former edging towards being a pop-music Fantasia. At the time, pop-music meant Benny Goodman, Nelson Eddy, Andy Russell and the Andrews Sisters.

Disney looked to refine the format of Make Mine Music with 1948's Melody Time. Donald Duck and José Carioca of the Latin American films returned in Blame it on the Samba, the Andrews Sisters narrated Little Toot, Freddy Martin and His Orchestra provided the Bumble Boogie, and Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers sat around the campfire telling Song of the South's Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten the story of Pecos Bill.

One of Disney's tallest tales, Pecos Bill is also one of the best possible introductions to the work of Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. The piece, the climax of Melody Time, begins with a melancholy ballad entitled Blue Shadows on the Trail, indicative of the Sons' two biggest hits Tumbling Tumbleweeds and Cool Water, also released in 1948. The animation is slight, touring us around the moonlit mesas of an idealized, romantic American Southwest.

In the midst of this animated landscape, Ub Iwerks' special processes bring us around the live-action campfire of Roy Rogers, Trigger and the Sons of the Pioneers explaining to Bobby and Luana why coyotes howl at the moon. It has to do with ol' Pecos Bill and his fateful meeting with Slue-Foot Sue. Roy slips into cowboy storyteller mode, a unique narrative style that is folksy, quick-witted and extremely engaging. This story segues into the big number, a jaunty rendition of Pecos Bill's self-titled song. Controversially, a part of that song involving Bill rolling a smoke while riding a tornado was cut from the last DVD release.

If there is any doubt, I can only recommend the audio version performed by the cast for RCA-Victor records. It has moments even more inspired and drop-dead hilarious than in the film, and it is freely available from the incomparable Kiddie Records Weekly. Click on the cover below to download it.

The Sons of the Pioneers wouldn't return to the Disney fold until 1961, and then it was to be fronted by Rex Allen. Though not a member of the group, Disney Legend Rex Allen had been working steadily for the company since 1956, starring in everything from live performances on the Disneyland television series to narrating feature films to (afterwards) providing Father's voice for the Carousel of Progress to recording albums for Buena Vista Records. It was only natural that they would pair him with the Sons of the Pioneers for the short Saga of Windwagon Smith.

An excerpt from The Saga of Windwagon Smith (1961).

By the 1960's, the film market had changed sufficiently that the Walt Disney Company began to phase out their long tradition of animated shorts. Television had shifted the efforts of middle range artists towards The Wonderful World of Color, which debuted on NBC in 1961 in place of ABC's Disneyland, which had aired since 1954. Wonderful World of Color became a venue for those classic shorts to be seen again in the relatively new medium, and consequently diminished their box office draw. Though one of the last shorts to be produced (before they were resurrected recently by John Lasseter as a training ground for future feature animators), Windwagon Smith is cut from very old cloth. As a classic tall tale it hearkens all the way back to Pecos Bill, Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan.

Windwagon Smith was the story of a sea captain (who looked suspiciously like Kirk Douglas' Ned Land) who fit a Conestoga Wagon out with a deck and sails, where the wind carried it along the Santa Fe Trail. After striking an agreement with the Westport town council, Admiral Smith constructs a massive "prairie clipper" that takes him to a fated meeting with a Kansas twister. Throughout, the Sons of the Pioneers provide their musical stylings and distinctive voices to the townsfolk.

An excerpt from The Legend of Lobo (1962).

A year later, the Sons of the Pioneers supported Rex Allen once again in the unique Legend of Lobo. Though not advertised as such, The Legend of Lobo is not far removed from the "True Life Fantasy" style of film Disney introduced in 1957 with Perri. A fitting documentary in it's own right, Lobo features characters and plot imposed onto the action, which is set against the stunning backdrop of red-rocked Sedona, Arizona. Though cowboys and wolf-hunters terrorize Lobo and his kin throughout, the only voice to be heard is Allen's, narrating the story while the Sons of the Pioneers pluck their guitars.

Melody Time is due for another DVD release sometime soon (perhaps, if we cross our fingers, in an unadulterated 2-pack with Make Mine Music). The Saga of Windwagon Smith was included in the Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities collection and the Walt Disney Animation Collection 4: The Tortoise and the Hare but, surprisingly, not with the recent Disney Movie Club exclusive release of The Legend of Lobo.


Richard Harrison said...

Thanks, Cory; I really enjoyed this post.

anonymous said...

An additional note: Ken Carson was a member of the Sons of the Pioneers between 1943 and 1946, replacing tenor Lloyd Perryman, who was drafted into the Army during WWII. Carson continued to record with the group after the war although he no longer appeared on film with them, and he was the talented whistler heard on "Blue Shadows On the Trail" in Pecos Bill. He later provided the voice of the Wise Old Owl in Disney's So Dear to My Heart. One wonders if that was a consequence of the Pioneers' appearance in Melody Time.

Cory Gross said...

Thanks for the extra info, anonymous! That's great!