Another good cowpuncher has gone to meet his fate, guys!
Late in the second semester of my History of Western Music class we hit on a couple of late Romantic/early 20th century American composers, and of course we had listening tests (recurring theme, no?). From this time period came one of the great hits of the entire course, at least for me and my friend Bekah, who still listen to it on occasion and giggle like idiots. It’s a song by Charles Ives called “Charlie Rutlage,” and it was so incredibly popular at its premier (I remember this from the class as being at a World’s Fair in 192…4? But the internet may or may not disagree) that it had to be repeated twice.
Sure, it’s funny that a pianist and vocalist, generally a stately bass or baritone, are performing in their fancy concert dress a song about the death of a cowboy whose “relations in Texas his face never more will see.” There are quite a few lines that crack me up for precisely this reason. I especially like the bit where the vocalist describes the horse crushing Charlie, as depending on the musician the accompaniment can get so wildly uncoordinated that I sometimes feel the pianist could have just banged his head against the keys and gotten the same results.
But the real highlight of the piece? The yodeling pianist.
No seriously, watch! This is one of the only recordings I could find and it’s really hard to hear the yodel, but if you turn it up and watch the pianist’s mouth move IT’S THERE. It starts with the lyrics “he went forward one morning.” Trust me.
Awesome, right? Yip-ee-tie-yay, Yodeling Pianist! I wish I could post my recording; it’s so beautifully clear and obvious.
But here’s what really, really kills me about the song: SO MANY PIANISTS CHEAT. “Moi?” they say. “A musician? An artiste? I DO NOT YODEL!” And then they just play the yodel notes in chords on top of the accompaniment. Jerks! Spit on Ives’ grave, why don’t you?!
(And if you don’t believe me that the pianist is actually supposed to yodel, listen to the recording on this YouTube video; the pianist in this one also cops out, but the sheet music scrolls by as it plays and the yodel is clearly written into the piano part.)