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

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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.

THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS–LEARNING HISTORY THROUGH SONGS #1 by Cheryl Pierson

When I was growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, “story songs” were very popular. Even though radio stations had their “3-minute limit” for song length back then, there were some exceptions. And many of these songs were amazingly concise, able to tell the story, and also evoke emotion from the listener. It didn’t hurt to have a catchy melody to keep us all tuned in, or to be certain we’d run out and buy a 45 single record to have for our very own!

Many of these ballads were connected to movies—whether the theme or other music that was used in conjunction with a movie release.

Marty Robbins and Johnny Horton were two of the most prolific balladeers of those times, and two of my favorite singers. I’m not sure in this case what came first—the “chicken or the egg”—because I was just a tyke when many of these songs gained popularity, so of course, I loved those singers and the songs, as well.

One of the most popular songs of this type was The Battle of New Orleans by Johnny Horton. If you’ve ever tried to sing along, you will know this is NOT the easiest song to perform!

The importance of the Battle of New Orleans (January 8, 1815) was not in the outcome of the War of 1812, but in the morale of the American forces as they were able to push back the British and keep them from gaining control of a major American port. This song contains the “high points” and is fun to sing (or TRY to sing!)—and easier to remember than memorizing names and dates from a history book. It was the battle the propelled Major General Andrew Jackson to national fame, and the last major battle of the war of 1812.

The song was written by Jimmy Driftwood, and received the Grammy for Best Song of the Year (1959) and Best C&W Song. Who was Jimmy Driftwood, you ask? According to Wikipedia, here’s the scoop on the melody and the lyrics, and a school principal who wanted to make learning history more interesting:

The melody is based on a well-known American fiddle tune “The 8th of January,” which was the date of the Battle of New Orleans. Jimmy Driftwood, a school principal in Arkansas with a passion for history, set an account of the battle to this music in an attempt to get students interested in learning history. It seemed to work, and Driftwood became well known in the region for his historical songs. He was “discovered” in the late 1950s by Don Warden, and eventually was given a recording contract by RCA, for whom he recorded 12 songs in 1958, including “The Battle of New Orleans.”

The Battle of New Orleans has been covered by many other artists, including Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, but none achieved the level of success that Johnny Horton’s version did. With a rasp in his voice, a twinkle in his eye, and his enthusiasm for the song, it’s easy to understand why The Battle of New Orleans skyrocketed, where it spent six weeks at number one on the popular charts, and ten weeks at the top spot on the country charts!

“The Battle Of New Orleans”

In 1814 we took a little trip
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip’
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans
And we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans

We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’
There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago
We fired once more and they began to runnin’
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

We looked down the river and we seen the British come
And there must have been a hunnerd of ’em beatin on the drum
They stepped so high and they made their bugles ring
We stood beside our cotton bales ‘n’ didn’t say a thing

We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’
There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago
We fired once more and they began to runnin’
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

Old Hickory said we could take ’em by surprise
If we didn’t fire our muskets till we looked ’em in the eye
We held our fire ’till we seed their faces well
Then we opened up the squirrel guns and really gave em
Well we

Fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’
There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago
We fired once more and they began to runnin’
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

Yeah they ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles
And they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn’t go
They ran so fast that the hounds couldn’t catch ’em
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

We fired our cannon till the barrel melted down
So we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round
We filled his head with cannonballs and powered his behind
And when we touched the powder off the gator lost his mind

We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’
There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago
We fired once more and they began to runnin’
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

Yeah they ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles
And they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn’t go
They ran so fast that the hounds couldn’t catch ’em
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

Hup, 2, 3, 4
Sound off, 3, 4
Hup, 2, 3, 4
Sound off, 3, 4
Hup, 2, 3, 4
Sound off, 3, 4

This song is included (of course!) in the 1960 album by Johnny Horton called Johnny Horton Makes History, containing all his other story-songs about different actual historical events and those that “might have been”—a wonderful collection.

Here’s a video of Johnny Horton performing his chart-topping song, and having a little fun with it. Do you remember this song? Does anyone love these story-songs like I do?

https://youtu.be/mjXM6x_0KZk