John Wayne films aren’t especially known for their soundtracks. All they need is some bouncy melody behind a horse chase, a few tender violins for the love scenes, and some raucous orchestrations for the fisticuffs, and everything’s fine. But things turn south pretty quickly when the producers decide to add some narrative-driven theme music, because a) the plots don’t generally require any advance scene-setting from the singer and b) mostly they’re just plain bad songs. Today we take a look, er, listen, to two of them, from the openings of North To Alaska (1960) and The War Wagon (1967).
North To Alaska It’s a lively tune to be sure, sung with gusto by 35-year-old Johnny Horton just months before his tragic death in a car accident. Horton was a country crooner who adopted a rockabilly style after the mid-fifties success of Elvis Presley. He also became known for his saga songs—tunes that told a tale, like “Sink the Bismarck” and “The Battle of New Orleans.” The theme song to North To Alaska certainly fits right into that category. But the words? Well, first off, the lyrics tell us about “Big Sam” (John Wayne) and his partner George heading to Alaska in 1892, but in the opening scene, titled “Nome 1900,” it seems that Sam and George left Seattle for Nome three years earlier. So that’s a miss. The background singers going “mush, mush, mush,” is pretty inane, so that’s a miss. It’s telling that the song’s composer and lyricist aren’t given screen credit.
Opening theme song to North To Alaska, sung by Johnny Horton.
The War Wagon The first words sung by the back-up vocalists sound like something from an old Saturday Night Live skit: “Look at those horses! What are they draggin’? Heavily guarded. What is that wagon? War wagon, what is it for? War wagon, loaded with gold.” Again, it’s not as if the relatively straightforward plot needs any pre-explanation. The song does have one thing going for it, however, and that’s the singer, Ed Ames. Some of you Baby Boomers may remember Ames for his recurring role as Mingo, Indian friend to Fess Parker in TV’s Daniel Boone. That alone makes Ames OK in our book, but he was also with the Ames Brothers, whose 1950 hit “Rag Mop” still pops up on oldies stations now and again. As a solo artist, Ames struck gold with “My Cup Runneth Over” in the early Sixties.
Opening theme song to The War Wagon, sung by Ed Ames.
Verdict “North To Alaska” wins as the more egregious song. Its silly lyrics and Johnny Horton’s then-trendy country-rockabilly style are grating to the modern-day ear (even though Horton did have a minor hit with it on the song charts). And while “The War Wagon” has a lot to dislike, it also has the smooth tones of Ames, which gives it some credibility. Apologies to those of you who prefer “North To Alaska,” but you can always leave a comment below.