Monday, July 14, 2008

Blood All Around

The most valuable contribution of Country Bear Jamboree to the representations of American culture in the Magic Kingdom is its' resuscitation of Vaudeville and Vaudeville records - from the ambiance, the interaction of acts, and the forced interaction of rowdy audience and performers via the theater's talking mounted heads - this is perhaps the only modern survival of one of America's most potent and important cultural institutions. Make no mistake, many of the artists who shaped American popular culture in those heady days when entertainment was first starting to be recorded in "real time" documents began as vaudevillians: Billy Murray (The Denver Nightingale), Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and innumerable others. What's even more remarkable is that Marc Davis and Al Bertino snuck this history lesson in right under the noses of Disney guests and it has remained essentially unremarked on for 35 years. In presentation, especially in the use of a "host" bear, the mode of the show is not unlike that predecessor of Vaudeville, the Minstrel show.

The show also documents a wide variety of styles of what eventually became what we think of as "country" music, but which originally was folk songs like Big Rock Candy Mountain and Red River Valley, became "cowboy" music like Blood on the Saddle or, more familiarly to Disney fans, Blue Shadows on the Trail. It eventually became some of the songs represented in the show like Tears Will Be The Chaser For Your Wine. But many of the songs represented in the Bear Band show date from the 1920's. Pretty Lil' Devilish Mary, Fractured Folk Song and Mama Don't Whup Lil' Buford all date from this era. So does Blood on the Saddle.

Even more importantly, the show uses many of the performers who were actually there for the roots of that kind of music, including Ernest Van Stoneman, Dallas McKennon and Tex Ritter. And although the songs in the second half of the show are mostly from the decade surrounding the opening of the attraction, their vocalization and arrangement is clearly meant to insist on their status not as "Country Music", which even back then tended to be garish and overprocessed, but as a continuation of the longer legacy of truly American music, folk music and cowboy music. When Bertino wrote in the introduction to the show that it would be "...songs from Americana", he wasn't kidding. To those who recognize that's going on in the show in terms of instruction through entertainment, it is a remarkable panorama of American music.

I recently ran across a very fun account of Tex Ritter's relationship to Disney regarding their use of "Blood on the Saddle" and, knowing that many Disney fans were unlikely to find this themselves since it's hiding in the unlikely location of a 3 LP Tex Ritter career retrospective set from 1973, did my best to record the relevant vocal portion (Ritter vocally introduces all of the songs on the set) and attach it to a transfer of the music portion done by somebody who actually owns a USB turntable. It doesn't sound perfect but it is listenable, and affords an opportunity for Disney fans to familiarize themselves with a proper version of a song likely generally encountered only through Country Bear Jamboree:

As a bonus, I've done the same for Ritter's two other most famous records for those unfamiliar with Ritter's booming voice:

Tex Ritter - High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me) w/ vocal introduction (3.6 MB MP3, 4 mins)
Tex Ritter - Jingle Jangle Jingle w/ vocal introduction (3.4 MB MP3, 3 min 43 secs)

I post this partially in an effort to clarify a misconception about the role of the Big Al character in Disney circles. Although the performance certainly is dreadful, "Blood on the Saddle" is intended to be a comedy song with its' out of tune guitar and outrageously stressed syllables. The joke is that the song is awful rather than, say, Ritter or the bear character, which is minor point but one lost if the audience does not know that the joke is the song itself. If one were to locate the 1937 Ritter film "Hittin' the Trail" where he actually sings "Blood on the Saddle", she can observe Tex puff up his mouth to spit out each syllable for comic effect. If then one watches the Big Al figure's original 1971 animation she will notice how faithfully Davis replicated this motion as best he could (with comic exaggeration).

Teddi approved.

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These songs were originally released by Capitol on record, although their rights currently seem to be in dispute, so please remember that these are presented here for edification / reference purposes only and no money has been earned by posting this material.


Eric Scales said...

Interesting post Foxfur. As a totally wierd coincidence I posted a Big Al entry on my blog yesterday as well and titled it "There was blood on the saddle". Great minds think alike! Keep up the great work.

Ed South said...

Wow! That was a great post! One of my non-Disney interests is Vaudeville so it's really interesting to see how CBJ works in this history lesson.

Geoff Carter said...

I've always seen the CBJ as the middle stop of an Appalachian road show -- the performers have gotten to know one another and have taken to calling each other out and putting each other down, but they're not yet so road-weary that any of those barbs break the skin. Er, fur.

The CBJ has backstory. It's easy to believe that the players of the CBJ have a life that extends beyond the 15 minutes during which we intersect with it. That's damned good storytelling.

Beautifully said, Foxxfur, as always. Thank you for not giving equal time to the "vacation" and "Christmas" overlays, which are abominations before God.

FoxxFur said...

One of the worst things about the 80's CBJ shows - besides their panderousness, affirming rather than subverting our modern expectations of "Country Jamboree" - is that they have become THE show for Disney fans of a certain number of demographics. I know Disneylandites who come to WDW and are all pissy that CBJ isn't the Vacation show because that's Country Bears to them. Which is pretty depressing.