The young lady pushed her way into the shop, lugging an old guitar case, not realizing that she was carrying an armload of nostalgia for this aging man, raised as I was in the mid-twentieth century. I had been expecting her arrival, since she had called earlier to see if I was interested in the guitar, but I wasn’t prepared for the trip down memory lane that the beautiful instrument evoked. When I opened the seventy-year old case, the name just jumped out at me; “Gene Autry”, the cursive letters spelled, scrolling gracefully along the fingerboard in a script made to look like a rope lasso on either end. Gene Autry. The name brings back memories of cowboy movies, and cowboy television shows, and cowboy songs. Well, even a few songs we don’t always associate with the King of Cowboys, but we sing them every year. Before Gene, no one had ever sung about that mythical reindeer with a red nose, who went by the name of Rudolf. Although he didn’t write that song, he did pen “Here Comes Santa Claus”, as well as making “Frosty the Snowman” a huge success. Is it any wonder that they made beautiful instruments with his name on them?
I remember reading Gene Autry adventure books, based on his radio and television shows, which exemplified honor and fairness, along with a good dose of gun play and suspense thrown in. What red-blooded American kid could resist the animated narrative, which fed on the dreams and imagination born of a partial knowledge of our not-so-distant history. I say partial, because the romantic version we were fed was a good bit shy of the full truth of life on the range. Hunger and hardship were the rule rather than the exception, with no laws and little protection from malicious enemies, save the rifle and side-arm, which the cowboy carried, not for enjoyment, but for survival. It was not romantic in any sense of the word, but our short memory made it so and every one of us would have happily abandoned our tame life of school and church and family for a shot at it.
At that time, our understanding of the life of the perpetual foe of the cowboy, the Indian, was a bit askew as well. We have come to learn, in the ensuing years, of the hardship these native Americans endured, much of it at the hands of a power and land hungry new nation, ready to use trickery and force to achieve its goals. Yes, there were unspeakable atrocities committed by the Indians, but the same must be said of the new residents who, in large part, viewed the natives as sub-human and herded them into strange lands, allowing many to die of starvation and disease along the way. Is it any wonder then, that the Cowboys and Indians were pitted against each other, both in fact and in legend?
I’m chuckling as I write this; not because of the history of sadness and bad blood between the two races, but because we think nothing today of the two living side by side. On any given day in my store, you may see Cherokee men and women looking at instruments and printed music, right beside the Cowboys of our day, the rough and rugged men and women we have dubbed “rednecks”. Cowboy boots, sometimes a cowboy hat (more often a NASCAR cap these days) and jeans; all the regalia of the range rider of old, but there are no drawn guns, no scalps taken, just music made and polite words spoken.
For several months now, we’ve also been privileged to have on display in our store, some very fine Native American flutes. Hand made by a good friend of the Lovely Lady and myself, they are amazing instruments of beauty, both aesthetically and musically. Wonderful creations of highly flamed maple and dark-grained walnut, the haunting melodies which emerge when blown skillfully (not by me!) are reminiscent of another civilization. They are a constant source of conversation and admiration, both of the concept and implementation of an ages-old art. The Indians have been making these for generation after generation, long before our ancestors set foot on these shores. It’s apropos that they live in harmony, side by side with the cowboy inspired instruments and western-style music so popular in our culture.
The beautiful Gene Autry guitar now belongs to the music store, awaiting restoration to its earlier glory. I doubt that it will ever be pristine, nor do I think it will achieve legendary status as a money-making investment, but I’m grateful for the memories of days of cowboy boots, fringed vests, and cap guns, if nothing else. It was a different time, with fewer deadlines to meet, more fun things to do, and a whole lot less stress.
Maybe it’s time to teach the grandkids some new (old) games. I wonder if they’ll want to be the Cowboys, or the Indians…
“I’m back in the saddle again;
Out where a friend is a friend;
Where the longhorn cattle feed
On the lowly gypsum weed;
Back in the saddle again.”