Posted in: Film music, Westerns

“Somebody’s Fiddle”: Traditional Music in “The Searchers”

Martin Pawley has barged into Charlie McCorry’s wedding to Martin’s childhood sweetheart Laurie Jorgenson, and the two have waded into a typically Fordian brawl—momentary comic relief from the darker concerns of most of The Searchers. Suddenly, Charlie interrupts the fistfight: “Somebody’s fiddle!” he cautions, picking up an overlooked musical instrument and handing it hastily out of harm’s way before Martin lands the next blow. It’s not the only, but probably the most audacious, announcement of the almost-sacred importance of music to this world and this film.

We’ve known it from the outset. In barely two minutes of film time, before the first word of the film is spoken, four pieces of music are thrown at us, each one dramatically distinct and loaded with information.

First, we hear what analysts have dubbed the “Comanches” theme, a powerful, full-voiced fanfare that evokes the traditional “Indian” music convention of the western film score, and startles us by supplanting the production company logo music that we’d normally expect in a studio film made in 1956.

After this short attention-getter, which firmly establishes the notion that this film will have something to do with Indians, we hear an acoustic guitar introduction and a sung ballad (written by Stan Jones and sung by The Sons of the Pioneers), the “title tune” of a film that came from an era in which it was common for a movie to have its own originally-composed theme song. Because this song has words, we need no prior experience of film or cultural heritage to grasp what it conveys, and add it to the “Indian” motif we heard first:

What makes a man to wander?
What makes a man to roam?
What makes a man leave bed and board
And turn his back on home?

At this point, we’ve seen nothing but an adobe brick wall, but we already know we have a film set in Indian country about a self-imposed exile, a wanderer whose motivations are mysterious and provoke questions.

Now we see a black screen and the simple legend “Texas 1868.” And we hear a third musical theme. And this is where the analysis gets subtler. As the white lettering disappears, we realize that the blackness is the dark interior of a house. Its door opens onto the spectacle of a harsh but breath-taking western landscape, and as it does so, a solo guitar segues into a string rendition of the gentle, haunting tune “Lorena”—the biggest hit of 1856, and a song still known and honored a century later, when The Searchers was released. A plaintive lament to a lost love, “Lorena” became one of the key songs of the Civil War era, and was especially popular with the soldiers of the Confederacy, with whom it was most associated. The alert and culturally aware viewer, then, at one minute and thirty-eight seconds into the film, can add to the information already collected the fact that the rider approaching through the sagebrush and tumbleweeds is a Civil War veteran, one who fought for the South.

And in case there was any doubt, the next thing we hear (at 0:02:05) as the rider nears the ranch house, whose denizens gather on the porch to watch his approach, is the once-rousing Southern anthem “Bonnie Blue Flag,” played now in melancholic, dirge-like tempo. The war is not only over, it is lost, and this man regrets it—is, in fact, filled with regret.

And we hear the first spoken word of the film: “Ethan?”


My father had a conviction that, in war, the losing side always has the best songs.

As a career Army officer, he had a right to have a theory on that subject, and this one was based on the wars he knew best: the Second World War, in which he served; and the American Civil War, on which he read and studied with fascination most of his life.

It’s a legitimate question, of course, whether any song can be identified as belonging to one side or other other. “Lili Marleen” was introduced in Germany in 1939, but acquired as many American and French fans as it did German ones (Marlene Dietrich version here). The Italian pop song “Tornerai,” written in 1933, was re-imagined by the French as “J’attendrai” and popularized both by chanteuse Rina Ketty and by jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt before and during the war. In numerous different versions, it was known and loved by soldiers on both sides (and is recognizable to film enthusiasts for its conspicuous use in Das Boot and Il Conformista).

“Lorena” was in a sense the “Lili Marleen” or “J’attendrai” of the American Civil War—the archetype of the sentimental love song that enthralls the soldiers of both sides amid the life-changing horror and hopelessness of war. “Lorena” was published in 1856—exactly a century before The Searchers was released. (One of many versions of “Lorena” on YouTube here.) It is to this song that Steiner’s score and Ford’s film owe most of their emotional potency.

Though “Lorena” originated in the North and was popular with both sides, its primary significance remains as an anthem for the Confederate Army. As such, it stands alongside “Dixie” and the stirring “Bonnie Blue Flag”—two tunes that were emphatically not equally popular among the soldiers in blue. It was seriously proposed at the end of the Civil War that “Lorena” had so filled Confederate soldiers with homesickness, loss, and regret as to lower morale, reduce their effectiveness as a fighting force, and thus contribute to the loss of the war. (Similar claims were made about the acid rock US GIs listened to in Vietnam.) During the Civil War some officers on both sides reportedly banned the singing of “Lorena.”

The Searchers takes place in Texas in 1868. “Lorena” is never sung in the film, and there is no suggestion that the film’s characters know the song 12 years after its first publication—though it is highly likely that they did. Instead, Ford and Steiner use this song—and “Bonnie Blue Flag”—only in the score. This has led many viewers of the film to assume that the tunes are part of Steiner’s original work, and thus to miss the subtle and soaring achievement of the composer’s use of both themes as a cultural subtext, a touch of musical heritage and historical nuance that claws at the heart of the mystery that is Ethan Edwards.

Ford’s and Steiner’s use of these themes fixes the film in its time and place, and identifies Ethan with the emotional nostalgia of veterans of the defeated Confederate Army. This is not just subtle subtext; it is central to the character of Ethan and to the film’s narrative. And it is not an uncommon theme in western films. O’Meara in Sam Fuller’s Run of the Arrow and Howie Kemp in Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur also exemplify the dislocated, emotionally wrenched Civil War veteran. Ethan Edwards, like Howie Kemp, has lost a woman, lost land that he left behind, suffered much that remains buried in mystery, and harbors unfathomable anger that can ultimately be calmed only by the gentle touch of a woman—a young woman of the next generation, a woman who despite what she has suffered harbors promise and hope as an alternative to the hero’s sense of irredressable loss. The anguish of returning veterans was an aspect of war kept largely out of the public eye until Vietnam. But the mental and emotional disconnects felt by such men were already sufficiently familiar that an audience of the 1950s would have readily related the troubled, antisocial personalities of Ethan Edwards and Howie Kemp to those of many veterans of World War II and Korea—even if the audience did not pick up on the film’s musical cues.

Would audiences of 1956 have been more likely to recognize in the film’s musical score nuances that are lost on most of today’s viewers of The Searchers? Did the music say more to me merely because I was an Army brat, with some sense of military history and the music that underlay it? Or were the songs of the Civil War period more familiar then than now? Whether they were or not, viewers who did know the tune were likely to have responded to the way in which its lyrics, though never sung in the film, are given a visual presence in some of Ford’s turning-of-the-earth compositions. The song’s opening lines nicely encode the passage of time and changing of seasons that are so critical to the film’s imagery: “The years creep slowly by, Lorena; the frost is on the grass again …”

Sure as the turning of the Earth

In our own day, Ken Burns has done his part in making even the most post-modern audience familiar with the marches, ballads, and laments that provided the real soundtrack for the Civil War, including those that serve to underscore the moods and memories of the characters in The Searchers. But already during the Fifties, record albums of Civil War songs were readily available, and traditional songs of the period provided a rich crop resource for contemporary folk singers and pop artists alike. Mitch Miller and his chorus had a smash hit with “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” (see clip)

Indeed, the use of that more familiar tune in The Searchers‘ wedding dance sequence (at 1:32:14) is part of a pattern of “traditional” spirituals, folk songs, and dance tunes form, in Steiner’s score for The Searchers, a matrix of source music that is true to the film’s time and place. Songs actually sung or played by characters in the film (“diegetic”) are often echoed in Steiner’s score, providing a basis from which new themes develop. The prototypically Fordian anthem “Gather at the River” (see clip) is sung at the funeral of the Edwards family (0:23:38), interrupted by Ethan’s “Put an amen to it!”, and then repeated in the score as Ethan prepares to depart to search for the girls (0:24:07). The same device recurs when Charlie McCorry gloatingly improvises new lyrics to “Skip to my Lou,” (see clip) to emphasize Martin’s persistent absence (“Gone again—skip to my Lou” at 1:17:04), and Steiner’s orchestral score echoes the refrain as the scene shifts from Laurie’s house back to Martin and Ethan on the road again (1:17:29). These are but two of several examples in the film and many in Ford’s oeuvre of diegetic music becoming extra-diegetic.

Another traditional piece likely to have been familiar to audiences of the day, if only because of its use in previous films, is the Irish jig “Garry Owen,” whose second life was as the regimental song of the 7th Cavalry—conspicuously sung in They Died with their Boots On (1941, for which Steiner also wrote the music) (see clip) . A stirring rendition of the “Garry Owen” is heard in The Searchers at 1:12:40, as a returning troop of cavalry rides into the fort.

This rich texture of traditional songs, together with Stan Jones’s haunting title song, gave Max Steiner more than enough fabric from which to weave perhaps his greatest score; and if he actually originated comparatively few of the film’s musical themes, he certainly made all of them his own, giving them, the film, and himself a kind of greatness rarely touched in the annals of film music.

A final note: On recordings of the soundtrack to The Searchers, either in complete form (available here) or in an excerpted suite, the finale is always the end title of the film, followed by a reprise of the opening bars of the “Comanches” theme that opens the film. However, this is not true of the film itself, which ends on the fading of the final notes the “Ride Away” refrain to the title song. More’s the pity, because ending the film with the same motif that began it would not only provide musical bookends that would amplify the visual bookending Ford employs with his opening and closing shots but also underscore the endurance, perhaps even the final domination, of the outside world of the Comanches to which Ethan is consigned at the end of the film.

© 2009 Robert C. Cumbow