Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The last of the singing cowboys

Just last weekend I saw Herb Jeffries on an episode of the Virginian TV show. I was intrigued when he was listed as the main guest star in the cable guide because I'd heard of him as the star of all-black westerns and, as far as I knew, the only black singing cowboy during the heyday of the genre. It was odd to see him in living color, as they used to say, since as the obituaries have noted following Jeffries' death this week at age 100, he was quite light-skinned for his historic role, by virtue of his very mixed ancestry. He could have passed for white fairly easily, and reportedly sometimes did -- while The Virginian had a good record of casting black actors in non-race conscious roles -- but Jeffries chose to star in race films. Better to reign than to serve, I suppose. I'm tempted to call his westerns an alternate universe, but what they really show is that the singing west was an all-American dream in those Depression years, when a new frontier, accessible by automobile if necessary but best enjoyed on horseback, was what we all seemed to need. Here's a clip of Jeffries singing his western theme song, "I'm A Happy Cowboy," as uploaded to YouTube by SyberkaPL.

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