December 21, 1934. Montana families continue their struggle against the one-two punch of prolonged drought and the Great Depression. The headlines of the Helena Independent capture the concerns of the day: “BUSINESS RECOVERY PROGRAM ATTACKED“; “RELIEF BOSS OPPOSED TO DOLE PLANS“; and “NEEDY PULL PARADE IN NEW YORK IN BARRELS“.
Also, “VIGILANTES ARE TO CURB MOBS IN SHELBYVILLE.”
The Shelbyville of this headline is not in Montana but Tennessee. The county courthouse in Shelbyville had been destroyed by a fire, set by members of a 500-person lynch mob, and local businessmen formed an armed vigilante group to help the national guardsmen maintain order. There had been “three unsuccessful attempts to take [Ernest] K. Harris, young negro, on trial for attacking a 14-year-old white girl, from the courthouse,” the AP reported. The judge halted the trial as the guardsmen resorted to riot guns and bayonets to fend off the mob, and the defendant — dressed in “trooper attire” — was rushed away to Nashville. The mob set fire to the courthouse hours later.
• • •
That same day, in the basement of the Masonic Temple at Jackson and Broadway, just a short walk from the South Main Street offices of the Helena Independent, a book of poetry is published by The State Publishing Company. Its title is Corral Dust and its author is 49-year-old Montana surveyor, highway engineer and poet Robert “Bob” Fletcher.
Corral Dust consists of 38 western-themed poems with titles such as “Across the Divide” and “Open Range”, the latter of which closes with this verse:
Just give me country big and wide
With benchland, hills and breaks,
With coulees, cactus, buttes and range,
With creeks, and mountain lakes,
Until I cross the Great Divide,
Then, God, forgive each sin
And turn me loose on my cayuse
But please don’t fence me in.
Film producer Lou Brock obtains an advance copy of this poem and decides that a song called “Don’t Fence Me In” would be aces for Adiós, Argentina, his next Fox musical. Brock contacts Fletcher and asks him to compose a cowboy song based on “Open Range.” Fletcher knocks out a song and sends his effort to Brock, who shares it with Cole Porter, the Broadway songwriter he has signed for the musical. Brock urges Porter to buy the rights to “Don’t Fence Me In” from Fletcher. A deal is struck faster than a scalded cat.
• • •
Monday, January 7, 1935. Cole Porter writes Bob Fletcher to thank him for his gift (a copy of Corral Dust) and to share with Fletcher his reworked version of “Don’t Fence Me In.” Porter spruced up Fletcher’s original lyrics and set them to new music. The two versions are shown below — placeholder symbols are used to align similar phrases.
Give me land, lots of land,
Stretching miles across the West,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me ride where it’s wide,
For somehow I like it best.
I want to see the stars,
I want to feel the breeze,
I want to smell the sage,
And hear the cottonwood trees.
Just turn me loose,
Let me straddle my old saddle
Where the shining mountains rise.
On my cayuse
I’ll go siftin’: I’ll go driftin’
Underneath those Western skies.
I’ve got to get where
The West commences
I can’t stand hobbles
I can’t stand fences,
Don’t fence me in.
Oh, give me land, lots of land
under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide
open country that I love
Don’t fence me in
Let me be by myself
in the evenin’ breeze
Listen to the murmur of
the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever
but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in
Just turn me loose,
let me straddle my old saddle
underneath the western skies
On my cayuse,
let me wander over yonder
till I see the mountains rise
I want to ride to the ridge
where the west commences
Gaze at the moon
till I lose my senses
Can’t look at hobbles
and I can’t stand fences
Don’t fence me in
A cayuse is a range-bred horse and hobbles are leg restraints for horses, mules and cattle. The line Can’t look at hobbles may make for good meter but is an odd way to express the singer’s disdain for them. Perhaps Porter meant to say Slip off the hobbles / Let me jump the fences but was in a hurry to finish the song before his upcoming world cruise.
• • •
Earlier that mild January morning, the New York Times was delivered to Cole Porter’s 41st-floor suite in the Waldorf Astoria. An article on the back page (“COSTIGAN DEMANDS ANTI-LYNCHING LAW“) gave an account of an 800-person rally held the previous day at the Broadway Tabernacle Church, a twenty-minute walk from the Waldorf. At the rally, Colorado Senator Edward Costigan and five other speakers urged Congress to pass the Costigan-Wagner Act, which would make lynching a Federal offense.
The tabernacle’s pastor, Dr. Allan Knight Chalmers, read the text of a telegram to be sent to Franklin D. Roosevelt, soon to enter the third year of his presidency. The telegram said, in part, “We sincerely trust that your omission of specific reference to lynching in your opening address to the Congress … does not mean any lessening of interest on your part.”
The “many Negroes” at the rally had likely read the latest New York Age, the influential African-American news weekly, especially the article “NAACP REPORTS ONLY 16 LYNCHINGS FOR ’34“. Though a decrease from the 28 lynchings in 1933, this number was still double the figure for 1932, the year Roosevelt was elected.
• • •
“Don’t Fence Me In” may sing like a lazy trail-ride ballad, but its folksy style belies the songwriting skill behind it. The Fletcher/Porter rhyme scheme is playful yet elegant:
(AA)BC (DD)BC EEEC
K(LL)M K(NN)M OOOC
where (XX) denotes internal (same-line) rhymes and C is the refrain Don’t fence me in. Arguably, the internal rhymes (e.g., saddle/straddle, wander/yonder) are what gives this song its character and makes it fun to sing. That, and cayuse, of course.
While Porter’s melody is cowhand-friendly, his chords are more show-tune than saloon. For starters, the song is written in F, one of the less popular keys for guitar-based music. (One doubts he wrote it for ukulele.) And Porter bedecks it with a panoply of chords:
I (and variants)
C7 C9 C9aug
So, we may conclude that “Don’t Fence Me In” gave scant expression to the passions and personal circumstances of the urbane Cole Porter… or did it?
• • •
Adiós, Argentina was never finished. By the spring of 1936, Lou Brock had signed on with Universal, and his ailing project hobbled from Fox to Paramount, where it eventually died. The last mention of Argentina in the trade press was a March 24, 1936 item in Film Daily, which noted that Waldorf Astoria’s house orchestra, led by Xavier Cugat, was invited to Hollywood to appear in the film.
This meant that “Don’t Fence Me In” would be not be recorded for commercial release for nearly ten years, when Warner Brothers (who now owned the rights) featured the song in its 1944 musical revue, Hollywood Canteen. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters were the first to record it, but six other artists — The Three Suns, Kate Smith, Hal McIntyre, Sammy Kaye, Gene Autry, and Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights — would scramble to release their own renditions before year-end. (Roy Rogers, the singing cowboy who famously performed the song in the film, did not record his version until 1948.)
The swoony Bing Crosby/Andrews Sisters recording would be the biggest hit — it reached #1 on the singles chart on December 23, bumping “I’m Making Believe” by Ella Fitzgerald and The Ink Spots from the top spot. It remained the best-selling record in the U.S. well into February 1945.
• • •
November 21, 1934. As Bob Fletcher prepares to send his song to Cole Porter in New York, 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald takes her spot on the Apollo Theater stage and gazes toward the restless audience. It is “Amateur Night in Harlem” and Fitzgerald, by the luck of her draw and by dint of her talent, has earned her first opportunity to perform on stage — and for a live radio broadcast no less. She sings two numbers in the style of well-known jazz vocalist Connee Boswell, and Ella wins the contest by audience acclaim. [Boswell, who was white, was in turn inspired by blues singer Mamie Smith, who was black.]
By February 1935, Fitzgerald would score her first week-long engagement as a vocalist. Soon, with the help of other band members, she would manage to move off the streets, give up dancing for spare change, start to bathe regularly, and buy new clothes. By June, she would cut her first record with the Chick Webb Orchestra.
• • •
February 7, 1956. Ella Fitzgerald walks into the Capitol Records studio in Los Angeles to begin work on her Cole Porter Song Book project. She is the first black artist to record “Don’t Fence Me In”, eleven years after the song made its debut. Her rendition favors cabaret and cabernet over cowhide and trail rides.
That same day, the headline “NEGRO CO-ED IS SUSPENDED TO CURB ALABAMA CLASHES” appears on the front page of the New York Times. Readers learn that “the University of Alabama’s first Negro student”, 26-year-old Autherine Lucy, was barred from campus “after showers of eggs, rocks and mud had marked her third day of classes.” Lucy was “spirited off campus” by Tuscaloosa police in mid-afternoon and she returned home to Birmingham. Violence continued into the night, as the mob smashed windows, burned trash, stoned the house of the university president, and pelted the police chief with eggs.
• • •
The 1935 Costigan-Wagner anti-lynching bill was blocked by Senate filibusters and died. The NAACP observed: “Roosevelt refused to speak out in favor of the bill. He argued that the white voters in the South would never forgive him … and he would therefore lose the next election.” In the 21 years from the 1934 rescue of Ernest K. Harris to the 1956 rescue of Autherine J. Lucy, 78 blacks were lynched in the U.S. — the 78th being 14-year-old Emmett Louis Till — and federal law was silent on all.
Dwight Eisenhower was as disinclined as Franklin Roosevelt to get involved in civil rights. Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, sent the following telegram to the president the day Till’s mutilated body was returned to his mother in Chicago:
THE WHITE HOUSE
I THE MOTHER OF EMMETT LOUIS TILL AM PLEADING THAT YOU PERSONALLY SEE THAT JUSTICE IS METED OUT TO ALL PERSONS INVOLVED IN THE BEASTLY LYNCHING OF MY SON IN MONEY MISS. AWAITING A DIRECT REPLY FROM YOU.
MAMIE E BRADLEY
Bradley would wait in vain, on both counts. Eisenhower never replied, and the defendants were acquitted at trial less than a month later.
• • •
“Don’t Fence Me In” was a very white song from a very white place. Of the 546,000 people living in Montana in 1934, just 1,200 were black. In rural parts of the state (i.e., almost all of it), the chances of meeting a black person were less than one in a thousand. Only 0.9% of the land — not quite lots of land — was tended by “colored” farmers, a census category that included “Indians, Japanese, Chinese and all other nonwhite races” as well as blacks. Fences, then, were mainly a white rancher’s concern.
The Fletcher/Porter composition would become a white standard — Mitch Miller recorded it in 1956, Patti Page and Perry Como in 1959, Ray Conniff Singers in 1961, Steve Lawrence in 1963 — and it remained popular well into my childhood. I grew up with Miller’s album. My all-white classmates and I sang “Don’t Fence Me In” alongside “traditional” songs like “Oh! Susanna” and “Dixie.” Nebraska author Lisa Knopp remembers tap-dancing to it. Minnesota-born climber/entrepreneur Majka Burhardt recalls singing it, when she was 8, at her father’s second wedding.
Eventually, like most cherished items of popular culture, Don’t Fence Me In would become metaphorical. Holocaust and internment camp survivors included it in the titles of their memoirs. Libertarians adopted it as a rallying cry. BMW retooled it to sell Mini Coopers. TravelNevada appropriated it for a promotional campaign. LGBT activists painted it on protest signs. (That, Cole Porter would have appreciated.)
Schoolchildren may still sing it, but “Don’t Fence Me In” isn’t Roy Rogers’ song anymore.
• • •
This is a map of North Carolina’s 10th and 11th US Congressional Districts, whose present boundaries date to 2013. That year, the Republican-controlled state legislature carved the heavily-Democratic city of Asheville into two slices — the eastern slice (in red) was tacked onto a newly-extended tongue of the 10th District, while the western fragments (in blue) remained in the 11th. This had the predictable effect of diluting the city vote and assuring that both districts would elect Republican congressmen.
Many people moved here because Asheville is a liberal oasis in a warm state. They didn’t count on giving up their political voices in the bargain. The boundaries of these districts were drawn explicitly to deny urban voters a fair say, and that isn’t fair play.
• • •
May 3, 2019. Autherine Lucy Foster, now 89 years old, is assisted onto the stage of the Coleman Coliseum at the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa. Before a cheering crowd of students and faculty, she is awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. Foster’s suspension from the university had been reversed in 1988 and she returned there to earn a master’s degree in elementary education in 1991. “When I walked in this room,” Foster recounts at the ceremony, “people were joyful and looking at me peaceful-like — and that’s much better than seeing someone frowning as if they don’t want you here.”
That same day, in People Magazine: “BLACK MISSISSIPPI STUDENT CLAIMS A WHITE MALE WAS NAMED SALUTATORIAN DESPITE HER HIGHER GPA.” Olecia James, 18, filed a lawsuit in federal court vs. the Cleveland (Mississippi) School District, alleging that school officials adjusted her grade-point-average downward because she attended the “black” high school. If her “quality points” had not been discounted, James would have been class salutatorian (student with the second-highest GPA) and would have qualified for a $6,000 scholarship at the University of Mississippi.
Cleveland, a small town halfway between Jackson and Memphis, did not desegregate its high schools until 2017. James is now attending Alcorn State University, a historically black institution whose African-American demographic (92.2%) approaches that of her former high school (99.7%) prior to its closing.
• • •
Causing injury to a person based on his race became a federal crime, unconditionally, on October 28, 2009, when Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. Shepard was a white, openly-gay Wyoming student who was robbed, tied to a fence, and beaten to death by two assailants on October 8, 1998. Byrd was a 49-year-old black resident of Jasper, Texas, who was chained to a pickup truck by his ankles and then dragged along the road for miles, by a group of white supremacists on June 7, 1998.
The Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2019, introduced by Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Tim Scott, would expand the scope of existing hate crime law to include conspiracy to commit such acts. It passed the Senate by voice vote on February 14 and has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, where it awaits further action.
Regrettably, federal law will continue to treat crimes based on a victim’s gender identity, sexual orientation or disability less harshly than those related to race. One will still be able to harm a gay person because he is gay without committing a federal crime, as long as one does not cross state lines, or transport the victim across state lines, or use a weapon that crossed state lines, or otherwise interfere with interstate commerce. The reason such limitations exist is because some lawmakers — as they did in 1935 — want them to exist.
• • •
Americans have variously been fence builders, fence cutters, fence sitters, fence climbers and fenced in. But Bob Fletcher was right: we can’t stand fences. Fences deny freedom, the ultimate good we want. Though western skies and cottonwood trees are certainly worthy of song, less fear and less hate are what freedom-loving folks could use right now.
Sources and Notes
Origins of the song: The Complete Lyrics Of Cole Porter edited by Robert Kimball was the primary source, supplemented by articles from 1934-1935 issues of Film Daily, accessed via archive.org. I was not able to determine, even speculatively, how producer Lou Brock became acquainted with Bob Fletcher. Fletcher’s son has passed away and his daughter is over 90 years old, so that part of the story is likely lost.
Montana backstory: Sources included the Helena Independent (now the Independent Record), accessed via newspaperarchive.com, and U.S. Census Bureau reports from www.census.gov/prod/www/decennial.html. The 54 S. Main Street home of the Helena Independent no longer exists. It is now a pedestrian mall called Last Chance Gulch. The Masonic Temple where Corral Dust was published still stands.
New York backstory: Back issues of The New York Age, accessed via fultonhistory.com, and The New York Times, accessed via TimesMachine (subscription required), helped with dates, times and places. Details of Ella Fitzgerald’s early years came largely from Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography Of The First Lady Of Jazz by Stuart Nicholson. The first mention of an Ella Fitzgerald performance that I found (in The New York Age) was a January 19, 1933, benefit at the Woman’s Institute in Yonkers, when Ella was 15.
Music and recording: Original chords are from a copy of sheet music for sale on etsy.com. Cover version information is available at secondhandsongs.com and discogs.com. 1940s chart data is from back issues of Billboard Magazine, accessed via americanradiohistory.com.
Federal hate crime law: U.S. Code, Title 18, Section 249, accessed at law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/249. For House Judiciary Committee schedules, see judiciary.house.gov/committee-activity/weekly-schedules.