Who led the transformation of American popular music, the movement away from the refined formality of the Tin Pan Alley age toward the earthy vernacularism that we associate with the rock era? We think of Dylan, of course, and of Elvis before him, and when we scrunch our brows to remember their predecessors, we tend to come up with the names of figures we have come to think of as canonical: Woody Guthrie in folk music, Robert Johnson in blues. We rarely think of someone like Roy Rogers, a force of titanic influence in 20th-century pop culture whose importance is obscured now by the cheery juvenility that was the key to his success.
When Rogers was born, a hundred years ago this month, American songs were composed in notation by the professional model in the music-publishing houses of New York, and they generally sought to conjure a romanticized urban ideal. The dominant instrument of accompaniment was the piano, the symphony orchestra in a magnificent box. By the mid-1940s, the taste of young Americans had begun to shift to the sound of unpretentious songs sung in plain voices and played on the guitar—a romanticized rural ideal. Their idols were the singing cowboys of the matinees, Western musical stars such like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Herb Jeffries (the African-American “Bronze Buckaroo”), and Rogers was the most successful of them. In the annual Box Office magazine poll of top Western stars, Roy Rogers came in first place for nine years, from 1943 to 1952. Robert Johnson died in obscurity in 1938, and Woody Guthrie was a hero of the folk cognoscenti, largely unknown to the general public at the time of his death in 1967. Roy Rogers made more than a hundred movies, as well as radio shows, a long-running TV series, and records; in the process, he groomed millions of boys and girls of the mid-century to love the sound of down-home guitar songs—and to take it as a sound all their own, one their parents tended to look down upon.
Rogers came a full generation before me. By the time I first saw him, in reruns of his TV series in the sixties, he was already a quaint artifact of my parents’ time. Still, the first song my mother would remember me singing was “Happy Trails,” the Roy Rogers theme composed by his multiply-gifted singing/songwriting wife and partner, Dale Evans. Evans, a one-time chanteuse of the big-band era, gave up swing to croon campfire songs when she met Roy Rogers, and so did the kids of America.
David Hajdu is The New Republic’s music critic. His website is www.davidhajdu.com.