Music About the Alamo Through the Years
Artists of every type have tried to define, preserve or remember the Battle of the Alamo. The heroic fall of the tiny Texian and Tejano garrison to an overwhelming force of Mexicans on March 6, 1836, has been depicted on stage and screen, in prose and poetry, on canvas and in sculptures. And it has been commemorated in music.
A decade after the garrison was wiped out, the Alamo was invoked in songs aimed at garnering support for the U.S. war with Mexico.
In the 19th century, songs about the Alamo and its major figures, particularly Davy Crockett, sought to immortalize the defenders and demonize the Mexicans, especially General Santa Anna. In fact, songs about Crockett were written and performed during his lifetime. By 1834, Crockett had become a national celebrity. Books and plays had been written about him, and his autobiography was a best seller. Inevitably, he was acknowledged in music, including “Go Ahead: A March Dedicated to Colonel Crockett.” Blackface performers incorporated his name in minstrel songs on stages throughout the land, most notably “Zip Coon” and “Pompey Smash,” which attributed near-superhuman feats to the congressman from Tennessee.
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Because of Crockett’s celebrity and the public affection he enjoyed, Crockett’s death at the Alamo was a particularly painful blow to many Americans. His image was quickly elevated in songs about the Alamo.
A decade after the garrison was wiped out, the Alamo was invoked in songs aimed at garnering support for the U.S. war with Mexico, 1846–48. Many songs of the period cast the war as an extension of the Texas war and cast particular scorn on Santa Anna, still the perfect foil as he again led his country’s forces into battle.
The 20th century introduced sound recordings of Alamo music. Some of the songs have nothing to do with the battle, but instead invoke romantic rendezvous in the shadow of the old mission-fortress. “When It’s Moonlight on the Alamo” and “Across the Alley from the Alamo” used the Alamo as an unlikely spot for such encounters, while “Heroes of the Alamo” attempted to rally support for U.S. entry into World War I.
No Alamo song had quite the impact of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” written by George Bruns and Tom Blackburn to link scenes in the Walt Disney 1950s Davy Crockett television series. Fess Parker, who starred as Crockett, recorded no less than four versions of the song, one of which reached #5 on the pop charts. Four versions reached the top 20 in 1955 alone, including Bill Hayes’ chart topper. Over the years, more than 100 artists have recorded the ubiquitous ballad.
Classical composers weighed in as well, including Don Gillis, who composed the tone poem The Alamo in 1947 as a tribute to the defenders’ sacrifice. Later, some of Hollywood’s top composers provided musical backdrops to the Alamo story, most notably Dimitri Tiomkin who created the memorable score for John Wayne’s 1960 epic The Alamo. Tiomkin teamed with lyricist Paul Francis Webster to produce four songs for the film, including the Oscar® nominated “Green Leaves of Summer.”
John Lee Hancock retained composer Carter Burwell to score his 2004 screen version of The Alamo, and Burwell’s music is restrained and rather subdued throughout, creating an appropriate atmosphere for the doom that awaits the Alamo defenders. The score lacks any signature songs, like “Green Leaves of Summer,” but pieces like the six-part “Battle of the Alamo” complemented the on-screen action that Hancock choreographed so vividly. Like the film’s best scene, the album’s best track is the emotionally captivating “Deguello de Crockett,” a simple but effective juxtaposition of Mexican military music and Tennessee fiddling.
The opening decade of the 21st century has produced new Alamo music from the likes of such diverse artists as Asleep at the Wheel, K.R. Wood, Riders in the Sky, and Tom Masinter. And, no doubt, new songs will be written that help us “remember the Alamo.”
Allen J. Wiener & William R. Chemerka are the authors of The Music from the Alamo: From 19th Century Ballads to Big-Screen Soundtracks (Bright Sky Press, 2009). Allen previously authored The Beatles: The Ultimate Recording Guide. William is founder of the Alamo Society, editor of The Alamo Journal, and author of Alamo Anthology.
What’s your favorite song inspired by the Alamo? Share your thoughts in the Comments box below.