Sunday, March 08, 2009

Girls Of The Golden Myth

The Good Sisters, Millie and Dolly, were a popular duo in the 1930s and 40s, singing in beautiful close harmony about the mythical American West. Their manager had them dress in cowboy outfits, claimed that they were from the little ol’ town of Muleshoe, Texas, and named them (after the Puccini opera) The Girls of the Golden West. They really were sisters, that much is true; but they were from East St. Louis, not Texas, and their real names were Mildred and Dorothy Goad. Nevertheless, accompanied by Dolly’s guitar, they sang like angels and had the rare ability to be able to yodel in harmony, became stars of the Boone County Jamboree and Midwestern Hayride, and recorded sixty-four tracks for RCA-Victor. They sang with plangent nostalgia for a West that had never quite been, already hazed by the silverlight of Hollywood.

Compare the wistful sentiment of ‘Let Me Sleep On The Edge of The Prairie’, in which the land provides a lovely grave site (albeit with the caveat ‘bury me deep, O so deep, that coyotes and wolves will not find me’), with the existential terror implicit in ‘O Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie’ (sung here by Carl T. Sprague). This ballad was one known to and sung by working cowboys, and first published by cattleman Jack Thorp, who spent some twenty years collecting cowboy songs and poems, in Songs of the Cowboys (1908). Based on a sailor’s ballad ‘The Ocean Burial’, aka ‘Bury Me Not In The Deep, Deep Sea’, a dying cowboy pleads with his companions not to abandon his body in the unpeopled wilderness, scared that the coyotes will harrow his bones, fearful that his soul will be forever trapped in that dreadful place. But his companions are practical men, and can’t spare the time or energy to heed 'his dying prayer’ and confess that they buried him where he died ‘in a narrow grave, just six by three’. It’s a stark, merciless vignette.

For the real cowboys, the prairies were as wide and boundless and as untameable as any ocean, a place they visited to work, but not to make any kind of home. For the Girls of the Golden West and others who burnished into the myth, the wilderness is analogous to Heaven; they’re content ‘to look up into those high mountains, until it’s time to arise once again’. The West of the myth is a place where ‘the deer and the antelope play, and seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day’; a boundless frontier blessed with abundant beauty where simple hard-working folk lived upright lives of enviable freedom and adventure. Within a generation, while men who’d worked the range yet lived, the myth supplanted reality. It would take a couple of generations more before the bones of historical reality would begin to work their way back to the surface.

The pulps of modern science fiction (H. Gernsback, prop) were coeval with the first great flowering of popular recorded music in the 1920s and 30s. But unlike the songs of the west, sf was shrouded in its own myths from the outset, and continued to add to them during the Golden Age of John W. Campbell Jr’s Astounding Stories. Those myths cling yet. The future is an homogenous place where technology works, and empowers those who comprehend it. Where scientific problems are best solved by iconoclasts who become deservedly rich and powerful because they precisely fill the hero-shaped holes in their stories. Where it’s the destiny of humanity to conquer the galaxy and lay low fearsome aliens, or prove to wise ancients that we are somehow unique - we laugh, we cry, we hiccup! Where there are a million worlds that will be all the better for a sturdy dose of Western capitalism. Where the means always justifies the ends, and death is optional. And so on, and so on.

A plethora of writers have attempted to counter the comforting fogs of myth with a bracing dash of reality, or subvert them with satire, or use their cover to smuggle in some uncomfortable truths. But even hard sf falls back on the seductive haze - how much easier it is, after all, to imagine that aliens have conveniently cached magic technology within easy reach, or that sturdy ships can flit from star to star in the blink of an eye. Small wonder, then, that we too often recoil from the inconvenient truths revealed by Actual Science, when we should rush eagerly to embrace them, and make them our own, and use them in all kinds of inventively subversive ways.

We are beginning to understand, thanks to the unblinking camera eyes of robot probes, exactly what Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn look like. We know that they can’t support a direct transposition of the old American frontier. We know that they are stranger and more exotic than we ever dreamed; that they will radically change anyone who attempts to live out there, and out old political models simply won’t do. The songs of the Golden Girls of the West are beautiful and beguiling, and the truth is as pitiless as the coyotes of the lone prairie. But I know which I prefer.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Paul. Very interesting.

March 09, 2009 8:12 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

P.S. What strikes me most.
Sometimes it seems that there's no such different countries as Russia and the USA. But after listening to "Bury Me Not..." - I remembered that there's popular Russian folk song "Steppe, steppe is all around" about dying coachman and the lyrics, the mood of it is very close to this cowboy song. Common problems (work in the vast plains) - common topics of songs.

March 09, 2009 8:35 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Hi Sergey - I deleted a duplicate of your first comment. Hope you don't mind. And thanks for letting me know about that folk song. Were the steppes considered a kind of frontier, in nineteenth century Russia?

March 10, 2009 1:58 pm  

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