Monday, March 1, 2010

Herb Jeffries - the Bronze Buckaroo



This is Herb Jeffries singing “Flamingo”, in his silky baritone as only he can do it.

Mr. Jeffries, still with us at 98 years of age, holds a unique place in film history. He is considered the first black singing cowboy. He rode fences on a most curious range, an industry sitting on the fence about a nation divided by race.

Born Herbert Jeffrey of mixed-race African and European ancestry, he was a band vocalist with Duke Ellington in the 1940s. In “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams - the Story of Black Hollywood” by Donald Bogle (One World-Ballantine Books, NY, c. 2005), he is described as a bit of a nightclub heartthrob who headed to Gower Gulch like so many others looking for a back door into Hollywood (see this previous post on Gower Gulch), and the B-westerns.

His “Harlem on the Prairie”, shot in ten days, was touted by Variety as having much “box office promise… as a novelty, for the colored theaters, it’s surefire.” It was called the first Negro musical western, and that would launch a new genre. Below, we have Herb Jeffries from “Harlem Rides the Range”.



A strange, surreal prairie it was for a light-skinned mixed race man, the forerunner of a new genre that was meant to play only to what Variety called “colored theaters”. Black audiences were given a singing cowboy hero at last. He sang better than Gene Autry, but would not reach Autry’s iconic and financial stature.

There were few blacks in the other B-westerns that played to mainstream (non-segregated theaters), though as mentioned in this previous post on Autry’s “The Singing Cowboy”, the blacks in his movies were usually not demeaned by stereotype. However, seeing few African-Americans in westerns may have left audiences of the day, and for a generation afterward, with the impression that the Old West was a homogenous place, as segregated a place as the schools in Little Rock before the showdown of 1957.

In her memoir “To See the Dream” (Harcourt, Brace and Company, NY, 1957) by Jessamyn West on the filming of “Friendly Persuasion” (which was discussed in this previous post on books on movies), the author ponders the reaction of a little white girl about black cowboys. When two teenaged boys, one white and one black, visit Miss West and excitedly discuss their future dreams, the black teen declares he wants to be a cowboy.

Miss West is especially interested in the reaction of the little girl, who is her neighbor. The child dismisses this young man’s goal in life as silly because, as she declares with authority, there are no Negro cowboys. Jessamyn West gently plays devil’s advocate and ruminates that cows do not care about the color of the skin of whoever rides herd. But, the little girl is adamant. It makes no sense to her. There just are no Negro cowboys.

Will Rogers, famed “Ziegfeld Follies” self-styled cowboy comedian and folk hero, and movie star in his own set of B-films, was taught how to be a ranch hand by a former slave. The little girl, and much of America, probably didn’t know that.

At that time, tales of African-American pioneers in the west, and the Buffalo Soldiers in the U.S. Cavalry got little play in the history books, and not a much of even a footnote in the movies.

But, Herb Jeffries, called The Bronze Buckaroo after the title of one of his films, represented the possibility of there being such a thing as a black hero in the wild west, if only to segregated audiences.

When he was in his 80s, Mr. Jeffries recorded an album of cowboy songs in Nashville, called “The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again)”, and continued to perform live even into his 90s at jazz festivals, and at benefits to raise money for autism research. That surely makes him a hero.

In 2004, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

Below, we have the Bronze Buckaroo singing “Payday Blues” from “The Bronze Buckaroo” (1939). For more on Herb Jeffries, have a look here at his website.

8 comments:

Buffalo Soldier 9 said...

Keep telling that history:

Read the novel, Rescue at Pine Ridge, "RaPR", a great story of black military history...the first generation of Buffalo Soldiers.

How do you keep a people down? ‘Never' let them 'know' their history.

The 7th Cavalry got their butts in a sling again after the Little Big Horn Massacre, fourteen years later, the day after the Wounded Knee Massacre. If it wasn't for the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, there would of been a second massacre of the 7th Cavalry.

Read the novel, “Rescue at Pine Ridge”, 5 stars Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the youtube trailer commercial...and visit the website http://www.rescueatpineridge.com

I hope you’ll enjoy the novel. I wrote it from my mini-series movie of the same title, “RaPR” to keep my story alive. Hollywood has had a lot of strikes and doesn't like telling our stories...its been “his-story” of history all along…until now. The movie so far has attached, Bill Duke directing, Hill Harper, Glynn Turman and a host of other major actors in which we are in talks with…see imdb.com at; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0925633/

When you get a chance, also please visit our Alpha Wolf Production website at; http://www.alphawolfprods.com and see our other productions, like Stagecoach Mary, the first Black Woman to deliver mail for Wells Fargo in Montana, in the 1890's, “spread the word”.

Peace.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for commenting, Buffalo Solider 9, and best of luck with your many interesting projects related to these little-known stories of the American west.

John Hayes said...

Excellent post! Jeffries has an amazing voice; he does sing better than Autrey. Another black man who had dreams of being a cinema cowboy was the folk-blues singer Leadbelly. He wrote at least a couple of songs with an eye to this--"Out on the Western Plain" & "Cowboy Song," both of which are available on some of the Smithsonian Folkways collections. But although Leadbelly is a bigger name overall than Jeffries, he never broke into the cinema.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, John. That's true about Leadbelly being the bigger name, and maybe because some of his recordings have been preserved. Though I've heard his recordings, I really didn't know he wanted to break into the movie cowboy business. Thanks for passing that along. I wonder why he never made it?

Of course, Jeffries had the matinee idol looks, and I suppose the camera, and Hollywood, was more concerned about that than anything. Even talent didn't matter as much as looks, though to be sure, Jeffries had both.

John Hayes said...

Hi Jacqueline: I suspect looks were certainly a factor. I did notice that Jeffries was quite light-skinned. Unfortunately, this was a big deal to the arbiters of official culture, & was a factor in African American culture too for that matter. Leadbelly was quite dark. It's disturbing to suggest this had a bearing, but given the cultural climate it might have been a factor at least.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Actually, I was thinking more just his general rugged good looks, the strong jaw, the eyes. The whole man's man, ladie's man aura he projects. His being light-skinned as part of the reason of his being chosen for this kind of role went right over my head, but you're right. It certainly could have been a factor.

Eric said...

But the still elegant Jeffries remembers with clarity the films, the filmmaking and the urgency that drove him forward.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Eric. Mr. Jeffries is someone fans of old movies should learn more about, and continue to enjoy his talent.