Don’t Fence Me In…

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don’t fence me in

When I heard Gene Autry, America’s favourite cowboy, was a 33rd degree Mason, I was disappointed. On reflection, I don’t know why I was either surprised or disappointed. They say you should never meet your heroes and, while Autry was never a hero of mine, I admired him for no apparent reason other than I’d heard him sing, ride a horse and save the girl, all in the same movie. Meeting your hero, I suppose, means knowing too much about them because they’ll always let you down. Why? Well, because they’re shorter than you thought or they’re mean to young boys and old women.
Nothing’s ever what it seems and sometimes things take on new meanings, too. Like that song, Don’t Fence Me In that Cole Porter bought from highway engineer and poet, Robert Fletcher for $250 in 1932. The song was commissioned as a cowboy song for a movie called Adios, Argentina, that was never made.
It got its first public airing in another movie, Hollywood Canteen, in 1944, when it was sung by Roy Rogers. Back then, it was just a simple cowboy song. But for others, it meant much more than that. Robert Fletcher, who wrote the lyrics of ‘Don’t Fence Me In’, later went on to chronicle much of Montana’s history for the State tourism agency and in the ’50s, he was invited to write a history of the cattle industry in Montana by the Montana Cattlemen’s Association. It was called Free Grass to Fences.
That’s a title that was as meaningful as ‘Don’t Fence Me In‘, when you consider Montana’s cattle barons were as involved in the Johnson County war of 1884, unleashing an army of hired vigilantes on homesteaders to exert their control of grazing rights and the open range.
The song was recorded by many artists, including Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters, ex Talking Head, David Byrne and even Apu, from The Simpsons. But perhaps its most ironic use was by an East Berlin radio station, Ops, who broadcast it nightly as their theme tune, directed at American GIs stationed in West Berlin, shortly after the erection of the Berlin Wall.
It’s not the first time, either, that a popular song has been misinterpreted or misappropriated, or both.
Two classic examples of such songs spring to mind, Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA.
Guthrie was a folk singer and labour activist in Depression era America and wrote the song in 1940 because he was tired of hearing Kate Smith sing Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’ every night, on the radio. The song has since become one of America’s favourite and best known folk songs.
It was first recorded in 1944 by Moses Asch of Folkways records and became a hit for The Weavers. Their version excluded two of Guthrie’s original verses that, if recorded then, might’ve carved a completely different history for the song and its author.
Guthrie, a vocal opponent of corporate America, titled the song, God blessed America For Me and one of those verses addressed the restriction of freedom imposed by private property.
Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing —
God blessed America for me.
[This land was made for you and me.]

In another verse, Guthrie comments bitterly on the Depression era destitution of working class people,

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people —
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me.
[This land was made for you and me.]

Then there’s Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, itself a damning indictment of the treatment meted out to post Vietnam war veterans, who felt ostracized, abandoned and betrayed, returning home, from a war they never wanted, to unemployment and being ostracized in their own country by the same Government that sent them to fight in the first place.

“Born in the U.S.A.”Springsteen said, ” is about “a working-class man” [in the midst of a] “spiritual crisis, in which man is left lost…It’s like he has nothing left to tie him into society anymore. He’s isolated from the government. Isolated from his family…to the point where nothing makes sense.”

Analysts of the time thought Springsteen’s song echoed blue collar sentiments of the day but others contrasted the song’s upbeat chorus to the downbeat and damning lyrics.

Born down in a dead mans town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up

The album, Born in the USA, was released in 1984 and became an instant hit. That same year, Ronald Reagan’s campaign staff made overtures to Springsteen to use the song in the President’s re-election campaign. Needless to say, Springsteen declined.


39 thoughts on “Don’t Fence Me In…

  1. Excellent commentary, Dermott. I often wonder if politicians understand the lyrics behind some of the songs they want to use in selling themselves. I often wonder if politicians understand a lot of things.

    • Marketing is one of the industries that was born and took off in the 20th century. As the man says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, When the Legend becomes Fact, Print the Legend’. There was some ambiguity to Springsteen’s that could be exploited by Reagan and poor old Woody Guthrie could’ve been hauled in front of Sen Joe McCarthy’s UnAmerican Activities Committee if his full song was released. Politicians understand the superficiality of all that and don’t give a shit about the details.

  2. Ok Mr Hayes ….I will tell you why I like this post …firstly the title and the picture of the refugee camp at Calais ….the thought of these fences going up makes my heart bleed and blood boil …so that’s what grabbed me into the article first ( but I’m sure you’re skilled at the old ‘headline/visual’ combo with your past experience)
    However THEN …unexpectedly the article is about the misappropriation of songs and lyrics ….Hmmmm yep this one also gets me …I must admit MY views re the best or should I say worst examples of this are the exploitation of the American soul artists of the 1950’s and 60’s whose music preceded and WAS the influence of rock and roll ( just ask Elvis …Oh sorry you can’t …he’s dead ….allegedly 😉 :D:D …. but still) …..ANYWAY at least Elvis was one of the few that acknowledged where his musical influences came from and I understand he was respected by both black and white artists alike …..BUT on the whole these guys were ripped off ….most dying prematurely …impoverished and penniless ….look at Sam Cook!!!?
    Hmmmm …..and it may be sacrilegious to say but the ‘Rolling Stones’ were TERRIBLE by way of ripping off black artists ….WELL ok …maybe not the stones personally but the white man corporate machine behind them …..
    Governments, Politicians, Corporate Machine …’s all one and the same ….they don’t give a shit as long as the power remains where it remains and the cash keeps rolling on in
    Yep ….I’ve gone off on a tangent a bit with my reply:D:D:D:D
    ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ …..a great title that works on a number of levels …..’food for thought posts’ with a sense of socio/political realism are always the ones that get me:D:D:D
    And now getting back to my ‘less is more’ zen like experiment …I’m seeing if it will help stop my head and heart exploding:D:D:D

    • The ‘Stones were not, in fact, the worst of them and helped Chess artists from the ’50s, like Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters, by recording and attributing the song rights’ correctly. This story was prompted by another blog I read this morning about how fences were good and friendly things and made good neighbours. I disagreed and wrote this. Obviously, I was making a point about fences/barriers/ borders but I was also trying to say, nothing’s ever what it seems. Hence, the background to Don’t Fence Me In but also Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land and Springsteen’s Born in the USA, both songs misappropriated for political purposes. I agree with you regarding how musicians were exploited but that’s a different issue, another blog. Thanks for the comment. If I’d given it enough thought, I could’ve found more examples.

    • Oh, regarding ‘soul’ music influencing rock n roll, I don’t think so. Rock n roll’s roots come from the blues and American folk and country music. Gospel and rhythm n blues is where you’ll find the roots of soul music, with, surprisingly, a little country thrown in if Ray Charles, Rev Al Green, Solomon Burke and the aforementioned Sam Cooke are anything to go by.

      • Nah ….disagree on that one ….without the old black gospel music those country folk would still be plincky plonking on their old banjo’s and a whining like dawgs:D:D:D 😉

        And we’d better not even go there on the dance moves 😉

      • I did say gospel and your phrase ‘country folk’ is illustrative of my other point, and I’ll go further and point out how the movement of ‘country’ people, both black and white, moving to the industrial cities, particularly New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit in the ’30s and ’40s, contributed to the development of these musical styles, cross influences and technological advances. Did I tell you I’ve worked for Q, Select, Mojo and Rolling Stone ?

      • Oh bloody hell Dermott ….no you didn’t …but I might have guessed :D:D:D
        I look foreward to your posts on the subject …I love music and the history of popular music genres
        Oh …and did I tell you I lived in Chicago and was a student at the Chicago art institute for a time:D:D:D
        Haven’t ALWAYS been ‘Blog On!!!!’ …..Hmmm well actually …yes I have …a bit …maybe ….but am working on myself:D:D:D

      • Well, then, you were right on hand to study tremendous artists like Howling Wolf, Buddy Guy, Etta James, Muddy Waters and Little Walter, to name just a few. I posted a three part story/blog about spending five days on tour in the US with U2

      • Actually Dermott …I’d love to …get all your photo’s out etc and listen to your stories ….bring you back down to earth a bit tho too ….folk are folk it means nothing to me …I meet superstars every day of my life …..well ….some wonderful characters …superstars to me:)

      • Don’t get the wrong impression here. I gave all that shit up years ago and it was just a job, too. I’ve only ever published two of those stories from the past – U2 and ShaneMcGowan – and that was part of a blogging Uni course I was doing. I write my own stuff, now

  3. I’m not being very ‘zen’ am I :D:D:D
    Sorry Dermott …have had a pressing day ….will get back to it …do like your thought provoking banter tho

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