The terrific song Back in the Saddle was released today in 1939. It would become Gene Autry’s theme song over his long career and I imagine a day has not gone by that someone somewhere hasn’t at least sung the refrain.
A true Georgia born showman, Ray Whitley, wrote the song and Autry bought it off of him for $200.00. Whitley was one of those guys that did a little bit of everything. He served in the Navy, ventured up to New York where he worked on the construction crew building the Empire State building. He could snap the tip of a cigarette off with a bullwhip. He designed the guitar that would become a staple of Gibson’s line the Super Jumbo and during the depression he began to sing to make some money on the side. Whitley ended up co-hosting a radio program called the Village Barn Dance with another young man named Tex Ritter and the two eventually made their way to Hollywood. Whitley appeared in at least sixty films and as Doug Green says someone missed the boat by never casting him as a lead. His last film role was as the manager of James Dean’s character in Giant in 1956.
Country music historian Dorothy Horstman interviewed Whitley about Back in the Saddle Again and this is the story he told her: “My producer from RKO Studios called about 5:00 AM and said they needed another song for a 7:00 AM session. When I hung up and my wife Kay asked who was on the phone I said ‘I’m back in the saddle again; they need another song.’ She said ‘you already have the title.’ After an hour I had the first verse finished and as I left said ‘I’ll add a whoopie-ti-yi-yay or something when we record it.”
Ray Whitley’s music is pretty tough to find these days so I’m going to post what I have and hope the prairie dogs have mercy on my giving-away-old-cowboy music for free soul. Be sure to check out Whitley’s original version of Back in the Saddle Again. Not only does it have some hot instrumental breaks, but the melody is subtly different from the way Autry would eventually sing it.
Back in the Saddle Again, Ray Whitley
Just a Little Cough Drop, Ray Whitley
Come On Boys We’re Riding Into Town, Ray Whitley
You’re Barking Up the Wrong, Ray Whitley
Trailin’, Ray Whitley
Post Script ~ People don’t like cowboy music like they once did. It’s become something of an acquired taste from our fading past. It can come off as corny these day with the over-sized hats and piped shirts and certainly comes from vaudeville as much as it did from any moonlit prairie night. The music though while largely representative of the old west rather than being born from it truly does capture the other worldliness of the country’s canyons and deserts and the wistfulness of home during lonesome nights. It also captures the freedom of riding off once again for, well, whatever is out there beyond the sunset.
I’m reminded of the Jimmie Rodgers lyric “when a woman gets the blues she hangs her little head and cries, but when a man gets the blues he jumps a freight train and rides.” Cowboy music, like train songs, have long been associated with men and it’s been a man’s pleasure to roam free. Women on the other hand, after seeing the shackles of life get songs to sing like I Never Will Marry:
I never will marry or be no man’s wife
I expect to live single all the days of my life
The shells in the ocean shall be my deathbed
The fish in deep water swim over my head
No wonder Patsy Montana wanted to be a cowboy’s sweetheart instead.