THE BALLAD OF THE ALAMO–LEARNING HISTORY THROUGH SONGS #2 BY CHERYL PIERSON

Hi everyone! In the first post of this series (The Battle of New Orleans—Learning History Through Songs #1) I mentioned that these ballad-type tunes were popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s, with Marty Robbins and Johnny Horton being two of the best-known singers of this type of songs.

The Battle of New Orleans was penned by an Arkansas school principal, Jimmy Driftwood, who wrote it in the hopes of making learning more fun for his students.

But what about The Ballad of the Alamo?

This theme was written by Ukrainian-born composer Dimitri Zinovievich Tiomkin (May 10, 1894 – November 11, 1979). He was a Hollywood film score composer and conductor. According to “Lyrics”, he is considered “one of the giants of Hollywood movie music.” Though he was musically trained in Russia, he is best known for his westerns, a genre “where his expansive, muscular style had its greatest impact.” Tiomkin received 22 Academy Award nominations and won four Oscars, also according to “Lyrics”.

Dimitri Tiomkin

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38069784

I can see why! He also wrote The Green Leaves of Summer (also from the John Wayne BATJAC production of THE ALAMO, as well as the theme for the movie Do Not Forsake Me from the movie HIGH NOON, and among other favorites, the theme song for Rawhide!

Tiomkin had a way of putting sweeping musical scores together with some “killer” lyrics—and with Marty Robbins recording The Ballad of the Alamo, it was a sure-fire winner! Though this song has been covered by other artists, and inspired other songs about the Alamo as well, the original Marty Robbins version is incomparable. Recorded in 1960, it became a “crossover” hit, spending 13 weeks on the pop charts and ranked high at #34, at one point.

THE BALLAD OF THE ALAMO–Marty Robbins

Imagine, telling the entire story of the Alamo in one story-song. With its haunting melody combined with unforgettable lyrics, this piece stands tall among these songs that teach history through music.

“In the southern part of Texas/Near the town of San Antone/ There’s a fortress all in ruins that the weeds have overgrown…”

The words go on to describe what’s left of the battle scene briefly and the men who were there, as they “…answer to that roll call in the sky.”

Switching gears to what actually happened, the next verse takes us to the action:  “Back in 1836/Houston said to Travis/Get some volunteers and go/Fortify the Alamo…”

The story is told in full—how Santa Anna called for surrender and Travis “answered with a shell—and a rousin’ Rebel yell.” Santa Anna issues his decree: “ ‘Play Degüello,’ he roared/ I will show them no quarter/Every one will be put to the sword!”

I still get chills at this line: “One hundred and eighty-five/Holdin’ back five thousand…” The days are counted off to mark time quickly, and then the sad fact that the “…troops that were comin’/ Never came, never came, never came…”

FALL OF THE ALAMO by Robert J. Onderdonk

By Robert Jenkins Onderdonk – 1. transferred from en.wikipedia, original is at the Texas State Archives2. A Glimpse of History in Modern San Antonio., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7843901

Of course, we know how the story ends. But Tiomkin brings the lyrics full circle when he starts the final verse with the same lines as the first verse, then diverges and lets us see what the cowboy sees, as if we are there with him.

In the southern part of Texas

Near the town of San Antone

Like a statue on a pinto

Rides a cowboy all alone,

And he sees the cattle grazing where a century before

Santa Anna’s guns were blazin’ and the cannons used to roar

And his eyes turn sorta misty,

And his heart begins to glow,

And he takes his hat off slowly…

 

To the men of Alamo.

To the thirteen days of glory

At the siege of Alamo…

 

Here’s the YOUTUBE link if you would like to hear this wonderful retelling of this battle. I can’t even imagine having to perform this in a concert setting as I’m sure Marty Robbins had to do quite often. It’s very difficult to sing, though the logical progression of events make the words easy to remember.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eyu3OIn5A00

http://<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/Eyu3OIn5A00″ title=”YouTube video player” frameborder=”0″ allow=”accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture” allowfullscreen></iframe>

Here’s a favorite memory. When my son was in elementary school in fourth grade, his teacher called me one night to tell me that when they’d started talking about the battle of the Alamo in class in history, Casey seemed to already know all about it. She said, “Well, what do you know about it, Casey?” Having heard this song about a million and one times in the car, he said, “Back in 1836, Houston said to Travis…Get some volunteers and go fortify the Alamo!” After some questioning, she was amazed that he remembered so much, and it sure brought a smile to my face.

Have you ever been to the Alamo? We went one year, and it’s one of the most moving places I’ve ever been. You can definitely feel the presence of those men who fought and died there.

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A native Oklahoman, I've been influenced by the west all my life. I love to write short stories and novels in the historical western and western romance genres, as well as contemporary romantic suspense! Check my Amazon author page to see my work: http://www.amazon.com/author/cherylpierson
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32 thoughts on “THE BALLAD OF THE ALAMO–LEARNING HISTORY THROUGH SONGS #2 BY CHERYL PIERSON”

    • I have some pictures of my parents when they were very young in front of the Alamo–I think that was before any of us kids were ever even born. I always wanted to go see it (and we lived in Oklahoma, so it wasn’t like it was clear across the country!” but we never did do it when I was living at home. HOWEVER…hubby was raised in WV and though he was in the Navy for 6 years before we ever met, he’d never gotten to see it either. So we took a vacation and stopped off in San Antonio for a couple of days and then went on to Padre Island/Corpus Christi for a few days when our kids were younger. I’m so glad we did that!

  1. I have never been to the Alamo.

    I’m very familiar with the Marty Robbins’s song.

    Those songs by Marty and Johnny were, in an odd way, a precursor to the Schoolhouse Rock songs we learned in the 70s and 80s. History and education set to music.

    • Denise, I never thought about them being a precursor to those Schoolhouse Rock songs, but you are absolutely RIGHT. That is a great connection to make! If you ever get a chance to go see the Alamo, I hope you will go. I would love to go back again.

    • Debra, if you read the words to this song, it’s amazing to me how much is captured! And the tune is really great, too. I love the way at the end where they use a few bars of “Taps” –the Alamo is one of those places that is very hard to describe.

  2. Right you are about these ballads, Cheryl. I learned them growing up, and still remember them to this day. When I visited the Alamo for the first time, it was as if I had been there already. I was admittedly a little disappointed that it was in the middle to the city, rather than on a bleak plain, though! You’ve brought back many pleasant memories, and remind me as well about how much I miss ballads. (A relative with my name died at the Alamo)

    • John, reading your comment gave me chills–when you think of how Marty Robbins describes his songs El Paso, El Paso City, and Feleena–he mentions in the song El Paso City (present day) he feels he’s ‘been there’ in another time. I am a believer–there are places I’ve been that made me feel as if I was already familiar with them, too. And goodness–having a relative with your same name die there gives you a “soul connection” for sure. Like you, I was not expecting the Alamo to be in the middle of the city–I guess we should count ourselves lucky that it has even been preserved at all through the years. I listen to these ballad songs a lot–they are so familiar they bring comfort, and they are just lots of fun. Glad you came by, John!

  3. I have never been to the Alamo. I love Marty Robins and always have also Johnny Horton. Love their story telling. Listening to your YouTube video and another favorite came on after with Willie Nelson Always on MY Mind.

    • Quilt Lady, I don’t think there has been anyone better than Marty Robbins and Johnny Horton in the “ballad song” category–maybe we should add Gordon Lightfoot? But Youtube has my “number”– they’ve made up a great playlist for me with so many favorites! LOL Yes, I love Always On My Mind, too!

  4. I’ve never had the opportunity to see the Alamo. I have been to Oklahoma for my son’s graduation from basic training. I was able to visit Geronimo grave while there.

    • Charlene, we live about an hour and a half from Lawton, so we try to go down there to Ft. Sill 2-3 times a year. We didn’t get to go at all last year, but are looking forward to it again this year, to visit Geronimo’s grave. That cemetery is one of the most peaceful places I have ever been. Across the road from it, there is a smaller cemetery filled with graves of Indians, too, though most of Geronimo’s men were buried in the cemetery where he is buried. I would love to know the history of that other smaller cemetery, too. Also, Quanah Parker is buried in a third cemetery there on base. Thanks to your son for his service to our country!

  5. Thank you for your post today. I used to sing history to our two kids and they would sing along. Our daughter knows a lot of history because of this method. So does our son, In fact Richard went on to get both his bachelors and masters in history.

    • That is wonderful, Lori! It’s just amazing what kids can learn from so many various sources. I got my minor in history–loved it so much. And I discovered that if I took English literature classes and history classes from the same time period each semester, it all tied together so much better and made learning both things so much easier! I’m glad you enjoyed the post–I am loving these Learning History Through Songs blogs. LOL

  6. Songs that relate historical events are among my favorites. I also get chills every time I hear this song. It has a way of bringing the events to life! Thanks for sharing, Cheryl!

    • Hi Jan! I’m like you–I can’t listen to this song, no matter how many times I’ve heard it before–without getting chills. It is just so masterfully done, from the lyrics to the musical score, to the performance by Marty Robbins–all aspects of it are wonderful. I’m always amazed by songwriters who can tell such amazing stories in a few short verses.

  7. I have been to the Alamo many times. I remember Marty Robbins song very well, and had the record, which I wore out. In grade school in the 1950s, we learned of the Alamo battle from first grade on. Texas history was taught before American history and you couldn’t find a child that didn’t know the history of Texas. My grandson, who is now 25 had to learn on his own about the Alamo; it was hardly touched on when he was in school, and that is sad. PC is trying to re-write our history. God bless Marty Robbins and Davy Crockett.

    • Phil, I agree with you–history is being rewritten, but also being forgotten. My kids are in their early 30’s now, but when they were in school, I was shocked at the short shrift given to so much history in their textbooks. I think the Vietnam War had about a page devoted to it. So much of it is just skimmed over or not even brought to light. Yes, I’m with you! God bless Marty Robbins and Davy Crockett, for sure! Thanks so much for coming by today!

  8. I’ve never been to the Alamo, though it’s on my bucket list! However, I’ve heard the song more times than I can count! I have it on at least two of my Marty Robbins’ CD’s. One of my favorites of his is Big Iron.

    • Oh, I love Big Iron–well, I have to confess, I never met a Marty Robbins song I didn’t love. LOL So many good ones! I hope someday you will get to go to the Alamo–it’s really an amazing place.

  9. Hi, yes, I have been to the Alamo at least a couple of times, and yes, I agree with you, you sure can feel the presence of the men who fought and died there. The song is very pretty and very touching. Wow, how Proud you must have been of your son, how special. Have a great week and stay safe.

    • Hi Alicia! I love this song, but it sure makes you appreciate what a great performer Marty Robbins was! LOL Aw, yes, good memories of when my kids were little. That sure surprised me. You just never know what they are paying attention to and retaining! LOL I would love to go back to the Alamo. It’s a place that you really can’t “take in” in just one visit.

  10. I have never been there but i know the history of the Alamo and the brave men who fought and died

  11. When he was in the Army my husband was at Ft Sam Houston. We have photos he took of the Alamo and like others I was very surprised at the number of skyscrapers and other buildings surrounding it. I have never been there. History is one of the subjects that seems to be put aside to allow time for all the other things our schools are required to teach, today. Our kids and grandkids have learned much more history from visiting museums and historical sites than they did in school. Of course there is another half century of events to learn about than when I was in school.

  12. Hi Alice, you hit the nail on the head–history does seem to take a backseat to so many other subjects these days. It’s hard to cram so much into the school days! I agree that visiting museums sometimes is a much better guide to history than what they are able to learn in school. I think it’s so important to foster a love of learning anything, really, but history is sooo influential on what comes later in our world of today. Very important stuff!

  13. I know I must have heard the song more than once, but it isn’t as familiar as The Battle Of New Orleans.
    We went several years ago and like many were surprised. Very few pictures reveal the true location of the mission. It is in the middle of the city almost completely surrounded by high rise buildings. It is a rather incongruous sight. It was an interesting place to visit.
    One thing that is seldom mentioned when the Alamo is discussed are the survivors. True, the combatants were all killed, but there were about 15 women, children, servants, and slaves present that were not killed. One slave fought with the defenders and was wounded. He got away and was the only defender who survived. For his service, he was returned to his owners family and slavery.
    Thank you for the information on the composer. I found it very interesting. He wrote many songs I like.

    • Patricia, Dimitri Tiomkin wrote MANY scores for westerns that, once you learn his style, you can pick out. His music is always so haunting. One of my fondest memories is learning to play The Green Leaves of Summer that was used in The Alamo movie that John Wayne put out. I practiced to learn that on the piano because I knew my dad liked it. He’d come in sometimes and ask me to play it for him. It is truly a beautiful song with such touching lyrics and the music is unforgettable.

      I agree–I wish we knew more about the survivors of the Alamo. They have just kind of been pushed aside and forgotten, and how sad about the slave that was returned to slavery! HORRIBLE. I’m always so glad to see you! Thanks for stopping by and commenting–glad you enjoyed it. XO

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