There was a time when Cowboys and Indians were a major force in American popular culture. Close to half of the top rated TV shows in the 1950s and early ‘60s were westerns. Names like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Have Gun Will Travel, and Maverick are still part of our consciousness. More than half the motion pictures filmed in the 1930s and 40s were westerns, most of which were made cheaply and quickly. They rarely lost money and they were the birthplace of major stars like John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry. Cowboys were not realistically portrayed, but Indians were the big losers. Most of what Americans knew about Indians was fed to them by Hollywood screenwriters who typically knew as much about real Indians as they did life on Mars. But those Indian stereotypes struck a chord with American audiences and for years our vision of Native Americans was shaped by what we saw and heard in movies, radio, TV, and in the comic books.
Outlaws and Hanging Songs
From its earliest days, America was a nation of laws. At least it tried to be. Obviously it wasn't always successful, especially in the old west. If the stories and songs that remain with us today are any indication, America's outlaws were much more colorful then its law-abiding citizens. These are songs about men who broke the law and the fate that awaited them. It was important that they were caught and punished if only to reassure us that we were living in a safe and just world.
The gas chamber and the electric chair hadn't yet been invented, or were just plain impractical. In their place, what better way to off a bad guy than by stringing him up on a gallows or a tree. Indeed, hanging had a lot to recommend it. It was low-tech and it was sure to draw a crowd. Public hangings were not simply small-town entertainment in the old west, they were also a deterrent – a way to remind those wide-eyed crowds that lawbreakers would be caught and punished. Even after public hangings became illegal, our appetite for watching crime and punishment could be satisfied by a double feature at the neighborhood movie theatre. These days, streaming videos have just about put the neighborhood cinema out of business but, one way or the other, America's appetite for watching outlaws get their comeuppance (or hearing songs about them) remains unchanged. We may need our fellow citizens to be lawful and decent, but when it comes to entertainment, we still can't get our fill of bad guys and hanging trees.
This collection of songs contains a special bonus: a deep look at the roots and followups to the megahit song Tom Dooley. This record by the Kingston Trio spent 21 weeks on the Billboardcharts in 1958 and is largely responsible for triggering the boom in folk music that overtook the industry shortly afterwards,