Monday, November 10, 2008

Sing Along, Kids: Mitch Miller: "The Yellow Rose of Texas"

There can be no doubt, by now, that the apex of the 50s has happened – because Mitch Miller, demigod of all things utterly and completely square, has appeared (some might say finally, others not) here. By ‘apex’ please do not misunderstand my meaning. If there is any orchestrator/producer/tastemaker that typifies the 50s tendency towards fussiness, soppiness, jollity (forced or no) and utter and complete safety, it is, indeed, Mr. Miller. There are probably many reasons why this song was such a hit – its repetitiveness lends towards more washerwoman/policeman whistling, its martial tone is jaunty and odd for what is ostensibly a love song; marching bands all over Texas (and beyond) must have played this in their tooting horns and shrilling pipes glory, with the drummers, as ever, in nearly brutal uniformity. That is what the record sounds like: a marching band with a male chorus singing the praises of the ‘yellow’ rose, while the women join in on the chorus, the whole thing utterly hearty and yet somehow also heartless. Is this what so many wanted? Yes. Why? I am not at all sure. How many UK buyers of this single knew that ‘yellow’ was in reference to the ‘high yellow’ skin of the black woman who is being sung about, whose story is that she either was taken or went voluntarily over to the Mexicans, to act as a distraction so the Texans could attack and win over the army? (She was with the general, or so the story goes.) Probably very few. The martial drums hint at the war, but there is no mention of the story as such, and in fact the heroine sounds like someone walking by the river (the Rio Grande?) waiting for her man to come back from Mexico, as opposed to someone being awaited.

I usually don't have much to say about these songs personally, I know; my own experience of Texas, as such, was brief - on a cross-country trip our family went through the very top part, which I recall was flat and dusty. My father (a Nebraskan) didn't like Texas or Texans in general - he bore them no ill, exactly, but he didn't think they were very bright. (I am thinking he must have formed this opinion while in the Army.) Mitch Miller was not, to put it mildly, the music he or my mother enjoyed, and in any case I was born too late to see his "Sing Along With Mitch" series of follow-the-bouncing-ball proto-karaoke episodes of cheery Americana. I was also too young to know that he had turned down Buddy Holly (a Texan, need I add) in his role as a Columbia Records producer and instead promoted Johnny Mathis. I cannot look back and not call Mr. Miller "The Man" for all his efforts to keep American music on the straight and narrow, but he certainly knew that a lot of people did too like music that was jaunty, regular and yes, easy to sing along with, by yourself or en masse. "The Yellow Rose of Texas" evades the real story of Emily West, for a more general 'we men fight for our noble women' message that was more than palatable in the Cold War; America feels its oats and goes western-crazy and the UK, always open to the 'exotic' US, follows suit. (My father died twenty years ago, but his opinion of Texans would more than likely be the same, given the current administration.) This song is everything good and bad about the 50s; in fact I am going to stretch it and say it pretty much sums up the 20th century, for the most part. Dear readers, things can only get better from here.

1 comment:

Billy Smart said...

The popularity of 'The Yellow Rose Of Texas' in 1955 - Miller's was the most successful of three versions to hit the charts - is partially attributable to the song's use in John Ford's film 'The Searchers', released that year.