Bob Dylan’s “Brownsville Girl” begins with the lines
Well there was this movie I seen one time
About a man riding across the desert and starred Gregory Peck
He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself
The townspeople wanted to crush that kid down and string him up by the neck.
Well the Marshall now he beat that kid to a bloody pulp
As the dying gunfighter lay in the sun and gasped for his last breath
“Turn him loose let him go let him say he outdrew me fair and square
I want him to feel what it’s like to every moment face his death.”
Dylan keeps coming back to the film, as it frames his recollection of a previous romance, defined largely by Brownsville Girl’s willingness to provide a fake alibi for him when he is mistakenly thought to be a real gunfighter (“It was the best acting I saw anybody do”). The relationship is over now, and though he can’t quite explain how things turned out he will see Gregory Peck in anything just to try to make sense of the world again.
There’d be much to say about broken masculinities and scripted identities here, but I ain’t in that game no more, babe, so you’re gonna have to connect the dots yourself.
I’m reading Do You, Mr Jones? Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors, which identifies the film as The Gunfighter (1950). In it Gregory Peck plays Johnny Ringo, loosely based on a real person of the same name. I haven’t seen it, as far as I can remember, but this clip promises greatness (and “there has been a surprising number of natural deaths in his immediate vicinity” is a jewel of genre-appropriate laconic wit):
I don’t recall the film, but I know the name – Ringo. Not because of my encyclopedic knowledge of US frontier lore, mind. Rather, my favourite singer of all time is Tapio Rautavaara: Finnish actor, Olympian and almost-Tarzan* who for all intents and purposes was Finnish country music through the 40s, 50s and 60s. In 1956 Rautavaara recorded this magnificent piece, told from the point of view of the sheriff who sees redeeming goodness in the feared outlaw, and is mortified to be credited with killing the man:
The song (is it a song? technically it’s probably a spoken word piece**) is a translation of Lorne Greene’s “Ringo” from 1954:
Greene, for those of you playing at home, also sang the Bonanza theme song. The Bonanza theme song is reported to have enthused me, as a toddler, to sing along as best I could (“Hossit soi, aa-maami!”). There is a distinct Wild West inflection to much of my childhood.
I think what I’m saying is that I’m basically Gregory Peck.
Or, rather, that when I launch my midlife country/folk music career it will be part of an established pattern. I won’t be able to explain exactly how things turned out that way, but I have a feeling listening to everything Rautavaara sang will help me to try to make sense of it all.
*There is a persistent rumour that Rautavaara was asked to replace Johnny Weissmuller as Hollywood’s Tarzan, but it’s just an urban legend. Throw that into a conversation when you want to shatter a Finn’s childhood.
**I have a tendency to try to call everything spoken word, for reasons that someone else will need to decipher for me.