What do Westerns mean to me? A declaration in two parts about Music, Story, and Activism

I’ll admit that the idea of participating in #Western106 is a bit of a struggle for me.  I sympathize with Maha Bali’s most recent post on this subject. I can see the political implications of Westerns as a genera and I’m not in agreement. I’m not a fan of violence. But I pride myself on turning things on their side – so I will need to stretch for this one… That’s ok – stretching is good for you.

I do have a few things to draw upon and so I figured I would reflect here in week 1 of #Western106 on some of those things.

Part One: Music and Story

I grew up on Country and Western music and I loved it – no really. There’s a childhood story about me from around age 7, falling for a little boy next door to my grandparent’s place. That is till I told him of my love for Country music and he expressed that he was not a fan. Apparently, I could tell right then and there that while our time up to that point had been sweet that we had no future and I had to call it off.

Why did I love the music so much? Well, for me, it was all about the stories. It is here where I might be in good shape for #Western106 as an iteration of #DS106 – for how can we have digital stories without stories.

You might say that all songs tell a story of some kind but I would argue that some Country and Western music (that which is often tied to a more classic approach) really takes its time to paint a picture. I figure not all you will know what I am talking about so I made this YouTube playlist of some of the Country and Western story songs from my childhood to demonstrate what I mean by this:

This laid a foundation for me and as I started to listen to other types of music that tried to convey a feeling or a mood. No matter the abstraction, I was always looking for the story.

I struggled with this as a teenager when I tried listening to music that was more popular among my peers.  The only way I made sense of it was to eventually embrace the abstraction. I realized that some of the more popular songs (among my age and socioeconomic status) were telling one part of a story or telling the story in a non-liner way… I also realized they were telling a different type of story…

Part Two: Activism

Okay, so I’ve got the aspect of story in Country and Western music on my side while I start #Western106 but it is not the only thing; I also have Tom Robbins.

In my last #Western106 post I touched on Even Cowgirls Get the Blues which I plan to use as my anchor in this course. I would like to unpack it a little bit as we go along. I am still struggling to re-read the book. I did re-watch the movie. The first time I read the book I was traveling through India in my mid 20’s – it has been awhile.

Today, as I think about Westerns and merging it with Cowgirls this idea of the outlaw pops up and for me I’m asking how it relates to activism. How are they different and how are they alike? When do we justify law breaking in terms of breaking new ground and making a point?

Let me give you some context as it applies to Cowgirls. You see there is this take-over, this occupation, this coup of a ranch (the Rubber Rose Ranch) as a part of the book/movie. And it is not non-violent there are guns involved. The cowgirls take over this ranch which was developed as a type of high-end beautifying retreat for women looking to loose some weight, get facials and manicures, and such. The cowgirls are offended by this type of working over of women to make them all look (and smell) the same and so they take over the ranch from it’s lawful owners. I find myself cheering for the Cowgirls and rooting for them.

Cowgirls is a story of fiction and the ranch is just a metaphor (in my interpretation) for ideas that women need to fit some standard of beauty. The ranch in this case is like an assembly line where women can go through certain steps and come out conforming on the other end. The take over of the ranch by the cowgirls is a direct assault on the ideas of a singular beauty standard of all women. Throughout the book a profile of each of the cowgirls breaks while a parallel story is told to highlight their uniqueness, their quirkiness, and their “flaws” (which are often celebrated).

Of course as I’m reading this I’m thinking about this real ranch out West that is being occupied. Here I don’t find myself rooting for the ranchers. I realize they feel wronged. I realize that they are trying to make a point. I’m not so against their methods as I am their reasons. Here again, issues of ownership are at stake but it is not ownership of one’s own body it is ownership of land and resources where they feel entitled and think that the larger governmental body has over stepped. This is not a metaphor. To recognize any ownership of land that these ranchers might claim, for me, would be difficult as I would go back further to recognize another right of land. Enter the Indians into this western story.

Resistance as an act of reclaiming.

Resistance as and act of entitlement.

How about a lack of resistance as an act of beauty?

Part Three: Wait I thought there were only two parts? (well I said we were going to stretch, didn’t I?)

Yes, I know I thought there was only going to be two parts too but alas I’m more of a hitchhiker than a cowgirl and you never know where the road is going to take you.

This weekend I find I’m also confronted with another story that I can’t help but tie in as I think about outlaws and as I think about activism.

This story requires a disclaimer to fit into #Western106. A disclaimer that Jeffrey Keefer and Terry Elliott helped me with:

Everybody is West of something.

The story I want to bring to your attention to is that of Philippe Petit, French wire walker that tempted fate in 1974 (by traveling West) to walk across a wire he strung between the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Why would someone do that?

After being arrested for the act Petit said “There is no why. It’s just when I see a beautiful place to put my wire I cannot resit.”

Of course this story is on my mind because I rented The Walk. I highly recommend it as it is beautiful in its cinematography as well as its storytelling.

I bring it up here because I think that there should be a place for an outlaw who is called by creativity in an open online course about storytelling with a theme that spends a fair amount of time with outlaws. I think it is important – if we are going to talk about story and the creation of story in the context of a rebellious genera to ask about breaking the rules.

I’ll let Philippe end this post talking about his book Creativity: The Perfect Crime with NPR. He says the book is an “outlaw confession” and states that “his journey has always been a balance between chaos and order” which really makes me smile.

10 thoughts on “What do Westerns mean to me? A declaration in two parts about Music, Story, and Activism”

  1. U reminded me of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues! A friend got it for me on my bday once and I never got round to reading it. It was a really thoughtful gift coz of my love for country (had cowgirl as a nickname until my guy friends said if made me seem naughtier than i intended?!?) and blue as my fave color. Don’t ask why i never actually read it. Gonna go dig it up now even though I know the plot (love it! So sorry i missed reading it oh…20 years ago?)

  2. I love Jeffrey’s quote of everyone being West of something or somewhere .. hmmm … you know, I don’t think I ever read Cowgirls, for whatever reason … maybe it might be time to track it down in the library …
    Kevin

  3. Great post – your flow of thoughts had me saying YES all thru it. Seems western is really a very flexible and open theme with many trials to explore and connect.
    Your thoughts to music brings to mind that western is a time spanning way of looking and telling about life and has continued over the years with basic pillars remaining in place but updated with each generation.

    and yes – when is someone an outlaw and when are they someone with courage and vision seeing no other way to make a difference. Can someone be branded an outlaw because they are the disruptors or the innovative?

    1. Thanks for coming by Kathy. I do find the question about what makes an outlaw and what makes an activist an interesting one. But I’m also interested in breaking the rules in any creative process. These rules get set in any medium and in any genera. Yet every so often we find someone who is brave enough to take a leap and they end up taking the genera in another direction – and things grow.

      It’s pretty awesome.

  4. I love how you tie in a story from your childhood about country music. It really draws the reader in. I also agree with you that country music is special in that each song tells a story. That is the real reason I also like country music. While the top songs of today may have a good beat to them, they all don’t tell a good story.

    1. Great to see you here Natalie! I’m not sure what happened to the idea of song as a storytelling medium. It is kind of sad. Maybe someone will bring this art back through #Western106.

  5. I like your view on the myths of the west. The stories are full of stereotype roles for women, and for men.
    The real cowboy was mostly a Mexican or a former slave, but in the film the hero is a white male and the bad roles are for colored persons.

    1. Thanks for coming by untertaker. I suppose that’s why I struggle with the genera. It is fun to think of it outside the box though.

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