Gene Autry's Propaganda on the Range

Gene Autry
Autry promotional photo, 1942

One of the progenitors of the American archetype of the singing cowboy, Gene Autry was active in an often-overlooked arena of popular music with propagandistic content, Country music. Autry was well established as one of the faces of the new generation of western film and music stars having already scored hits with the singles "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine" and his signature song, "Back In the Saddle Again." each of these songs and many others were popularized through Autry's prolific acting career, by 1941 Autry had starred in forty films, almost always playing the tough and virtuous singing cowboy character he was known for. Aurty extended this paragon-of-the-west character through hisnationally-syndicated weekly program, Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch where he would sing, perform radio dramas and wax poetic on a patriotic lifestyle with halmarks such as his "Cowboy Code" which was a list of ten commandments for young people to follow covering everything from respecting one's elders, advocating against racial intollerance, and swearing allegiance to the nation and its laws.

On the July 26, 1942 broadcast of Melody Ranch in a patriotic spectacle Autry performed “Private Buckaroo” before signing his enlistment papers live on-air. During his enlistment, Autry primarily served as an entertainer continuing his radio program but changing its title to Sgt. Gene Autry. During the War, Autry continued to make appearances in numerous films singing songs such as “God Must Have Loved America” and “Any Bonds Today?” As with many other artists, Autry’s music also served to stoke jingoist and anti-immigrant sentiment with popular songs such as “Don’t Bite The Hand That’s Feeding You” from the 1942 film Bells of Capistrano:

If you don't like your Uncle Sammy
Then go back to your home o'er the sea
To the land from where you came, whatever be its name
But don't be ungrateful to me!
If you don't like the stars in Old Glory
If you don't like the Red, White and Blue
Then don't act like the cur in the story
Don't bite the hand that's feeding you!

The above lyrical excerpt reflects a widespread anti-immigrant sentiment present in the United States during the war that supported an isolatioist perspective on american involvement. It should be noted that songs with anti-immigrant and racist themes were in no way limited to country music at this time period, swing and novelty songs that stoked hatred and anxiety remained popular throughout the nation. Autry's music and films were a significant element of the tide of popular culture's unwavering support of the war effort. Autry became a kind of symbol for patriotism and its complexities at the time representing a nostalgia-driven character who espoused seemingly unassailable morality.

The collection includes sheet music and recordings of "God Must Have Loved America" as well as a number of Autry's hits of the time.

Sources Cited

Cusic, Don. “Gene Autry in World War II.” In Country Music Goes to War. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2005. Pages: 43-57.

Daniel, Wayne W. “Hayloft Patriotism: The National Barn Dance during World War II.” In Country Music Goes to War. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2005. Pages 81-101.