Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Roy Rogers and the deafening silence of God

Roy Rogers: a cowboy's prayers go unanswered

"The dust has won." 
-Roy Rogers

His name seems to be rapidly fading from the public's fickle memory, but for many decades in the middle of the last century, Roy Rogers (1911-1998) was a towering American icon. Together with his (third) wife, Dale Evans, and his trusty horse, Trigger, Roy Rogers appeared in a series of television shows and movies which sold viewers -- mainly children -- a kindly, simplified version of the West in which there was no such thing as moral ambiguity. Good and evil were clearly delineated in Rogers' world, with the former always triumphant over the latter. If we think of Roy at all these days, we probably remember him smiling as he and Dale sang their signature song, "Happy Trails to You."

Funny, then, that Roy Rogers should also have recorded one of the bleakest songs I have ever heard in my life. Its name is "Dust." Give it a listen.

I accidentally stumbled upon this track several years ago in a four-disc compilation of vintage cowboy music innocuously titled Songs of the West. A whole disc of that set is devoted to Rogers' songs, but "Dust" stands in sharp relief from the others. Far more typical of Rogers' music output is this almost unbearably wholesome ode to domestic bliss entitled "Lovenworth."

How could the same man record both "Dust" and "Lovenworth" in a single career? The two songs would seem to be mutually exclusive, yet there they both are on that same CD. I've only made it all the way through "Lovenworth" maybe twice, but I've listened to "Dust" dozens of times. The song, likely inspired by the severe, disastrous dust storms of the Great Depression, paints a far more realistic version of the West than Rogers usually offered. It tells the story of a cowboy trapped in a hopeless dust storm and begging God for mercy. Or, rather, it presents this man's plight and then leaves him stranded somewhere on the plains. There is no relief at the end of the song, no happy ending to comfort the listener.

The following lyrics from "Dust" are among the most dour and hopeless I have encountered in the English language.
The cattle and the sheep,
Bedded down to sleep,
Seem to realize their fate.
The vultures in the sky
Know the time is nigh.
Will they fly away or wait?
Even the livestock have adopted the narrator's fatalistic attitude. These words could have come from Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, had that novel been turned into a musical. This is followed by the cowboy's direct appeal to God.
Oh, Lord, please ease my pain. 
Oh, Lord, where is your rain and sunshine?
God's answer, at least in this song, is not forthcoming. The cowboy returns to describing his miserable, purgatory-like fate in the dust. ("Can this be eternity?") This is followed by a bridge which rewrites and thus subverts "Home on the Range," perhaps the most beloved and comforting of all cowboy songs. In "Dust," the range has been transformed into a desolate wasteland.
Here was a home where the buffalo roamed,
Where the deer and the antelope played.
Here was a place where the cattle would graze.
The corn and alfalfa once swayed.
The cowboy will reprise his prayer later in the song, but again there will be no response. What is interesting here is that Roy Rogers was a devout Christian, while I define myself as an atheist, and yet we have both dealt with the same basic issue. We have both grappled with the deafening, even maddening silence of our supposed creator. Does he exist? If so, we want proof. Theologians may argue that God need not communicate directly with us to prove his existence, but I think that as human beings we have a fundamental need to express ourselves to others and to know that others have heard and understood us. And, yes, this includes God.

I realize this post may have been a bit of a downer, so here's a track from the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street which may or may not tackle the issue of our desire to have proof of God's existence. It's called "I Just Want to See His Face." Enjoy.

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