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Robert Clarence (Bob) Nolan

Clarence Robert Nobles

April 13, 1908 - June 16, 1980

 

 "Maybe clouds fill your skies, maybe tears fill your eyes

 But your spirits will rise if you sing!"

 ("Who's Gonna Help Me Sing? by Bob Nolan)

 

 

Singer, songwriter, actor and poet, Bob Nolan was instrumental in creating "Western" music, a uniquely North American art form. Cool Water and Tumbling Tumbleweeds are two of his best-known songs but they are only the tip of the iceberg. Many of his compositions had no root at all in European Folk music or in Country / Cowboy music. They were often pure poetry set to unusual melody - completely original - painting a landscape in music. The new sound caught the public's imagination. Contemporary musicians began to imitate, western movies picked it up and the new genre was popular for thirty years.

 

 

 

• The Myth and the Man

• A Brief Family History

• 1908 - 1931

• 1931 - 1935

• 1935 - 1940

• 1940 - 1941

• 1941 - 1942

• 1942 - 1943

• 1944 - 1946

• 1946 - 1949

• Retirement Years

 

        Because Bob Nolan's small family broke up early and grew in four different directions, we have allotted 2 separate sections for Bob plus one for his brother, Earle, and one for each of his parents, Harry and Flora.  Click on specific names to follow the person in whom you are interested. Each page has a song embedded in it.

 

The Nolan Family:

Bob Nolan

Harry Nolan (father)

Flora Nobles Hayes (mother)

Earl Nolan (brother)

Mike Nolan (half brother)

Mary Nolan Petty (half sister)

Roberta Nolan Mileusnich (daughter)

Calin Coburn (grandson)

 

INTRODUCTION: THE MYTH AND THE MAN

        Because Bob Nolan was a private person who preferred solitude to social life, he has become something of a mystery or legend. A natural disinclination to explain himself to anybody plus a propensity for spending long periods of time alone in the mountains or desert, labelled him a "recluse" in the minds of fellow entertainers. Historians picked up on the word because they could find so little personal information about him.  Nearly sixty years after he left film and stage, he remains a hero to his fans. Hero or recluse - which was he? Both.

        His undeniable talent for painting the high prairie and desert in simple, powerful words and putting into verse emotions we all share set him apart from the average Singing Cowboy of his day. His good looks and good manners romanticized that image. His detractors were few.

        While men liked and respected him and children and the ladies loved him, those who lived or worked with him longest felt they did not ever really know him. His personality baffled them. His second wife, Clara, was heard to say, "I lived with him for over forty years and I still don't know him." His grandson considered him an ordinary man with extraordinary talent. His daughter felt that he was always searching for something more - a key to life. Roy Rogers, even after fifty years, thought that he was unknowable - "Bob was Bob." On the other hand, Lloyd Perryman, expecting nothing of him and accepting him as he was, became his closest friend.

        I came to know Bob Nolan through the memories of his friends and family so  I cannot state unequivocally that this mini biography is the real Bob Nolan. I can let his friends speak of him and I can tell you something about his background but I arrived on the scene far too late to meet him face to face. I began to research his life in 1994, fourteen years after his death. Perhaps this distance allows me to be objective. I have faithfully recorded the facts as we found them and I will let the facts speak for themselves. You be the final judge.

       People can be uneasy with those they cannot classify. Since they did not know just how to label Bob, they called him eccentric, an enigma, a hermit, knowing that none of those tags quite fit.

        According to those who knew him (and each knew a slightly different side of Bob) he was friendly but basically shy, attractive, opinionated, courteous, kind, moody, modest, idealistic, reticent, and articulate. He had a fine sense of humour and of the ridiculous.  All agreed that he was a physically strong man, even into old age. Without ever demanding it, he was given respect and loyalty. He was uncomfortable with praise or adulation. Bob Nolan hoped the public would think well of his songs but he was indifferent to what they thought of him personally.

        He was not at all interested in his past or in keeping records and admitted, "I don’t go back to the past too much. I sometimes go back to try to find out what happened at what time, but I don’t live in the past at all. It repulses me no end to have people come up to me and say, Hey! I knew you when... and take me back thirty or forty years. It’s very repulsive to me to start or even begin to live in the past." As a result, he was not overly-concerned with correct dates, times or names on documents and this created a challenge to Bob's grandson and I who were attempting to chronicle his life. Aside from the well-publicized years he spent with the Sons of the Pioneers, the paper trail he left was faint indeed.

        So the following pages are not an attempt to analyze the man or explain why he was who he was. Bob maintained his personal privacy to the end, even to this day when his personality is still the subject of controversy. In place of a full biography, this chronology is a simple list of the facts of his life as we discovered them, illustrated with as many photos as we could find. His friends and family were generous with their opinions while agreeing that they never really knew him. They all felt that there was something more behind that courteous, kindly facade  that kept them from stating,  "I knew Bob Nolan." Perhaps the answer is, after all, found only in the words of his songs. (Elizabeth Drake McDonald)

 

A BRIEF FAMILY HISTORY

        In 1783, after 140 years of farming in Long Island and Dutchess County, NY, Bob Nolan's forebears were forced to leave everything behind them and, as United Empire Loyalists, move to what is now New Brunswick, Canada, following the cessation of the American War of Independence. Arriving in November with no shelter awaiting them, the family settled near what is now Hatfield's Point, in the parish of Springfield, King's County. They suffered the harsh North Atlantic winter in tents. Eventually, their family (including a son-in-law) was granted 2000 acres of land in recognition of their loyal service to the Crown and the loss of everything they had owned. This land is still known as "Spragg's Grant" or simply "The Grant".

        One hundred years later, Ella Jane Spragg married Charles Knowles Nobles in Hatfield Point. They had 8 children, one of whom was Harry Bayard Nobles, Bob Nolan's father. 

        In 1906, Harry Nobles, then a young tailor, married an Irish girl three years his senior (Flora Elizabeth Hussey) in Winnipeg, the capitol city of Manitoba. During the six years they lived in Winnipeg, they had two boys - Clarence Robert and Michael Earle. Harry worked at his trade, becoming a partner in his own business, Conner & Nobles, by 1909. In 1912, the little family moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, where Harry worked again as a tailor in a dry-cleaning establishment.

        The marriage foundered and they all moved back to Winnipeg. Flora took a job as a Manitoba Government Telephone operator and Harry disappeared from view until 1917 when he joined the U. S. Army with a new name - Harry B. Nolan. In the summer of 1916, finding it impossible to support her children on her own earnings, Flora took them for a temporary stay to her husband's parents on the homestead in Hatfield Point, New Brunswick. Before she could return for them, the little boys were moved to Boston and their name was changed to Nolan. She was unable to find them again.

        After World War I ended, Harry moved his two boys temporarily into the custody of his sister Fannie Florence Nobles McCoy in Boston where they went to school for approximately a year.

        Because of his health, Harry made a home in Arizona and eventually sent for his boys, beginning with his eldest son, Clarence Robert, in 1921.  Flora Elizabeth Hussey Nolan Hayes died in Portland, Oregon, in 1938 and Harry B. Nolan died in California in 1948.

        Clarence changed the order of his names to Robert Clarence and became famous in the 1930s and 1940s as "Bob" Nolan, co-founder of the Sons of the Pioneers with Roy Rogers and Tim Spencer. He appeared as actor/singer/songwriter in nearly 100 films for Columbia, Republic, Paramount, Warner Brothers and Universal. He is remembered chiefly for his songs, "Cool Water" and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds", the Sons of the Pioneers radio programs, his second lead roles in the Columbia / Charles Starrett films and the Republic / Roy Rogers films of the 1930s and 1940s.

        Bob Nolan married Tennie Pearl Fields in 1928 and they had one daughter, Roberta Irene. He married Clara (P-Nuts) Brown in 1942. Roberta had one son, Calin Ray Coburn (1953). Calin had one daughter, Cayleen and two sons, Miles Ray and Connor Nolan. Note: Bob's brother, Earl Nolan, had one daughter and so the line of the name "Nolan", borrowed by Harry B. Nobles in 1917, has become extinct.

 

My dad was a very quiet man. He never volunteered any information but, if one asked, he would answer any question. I'm afraid I didn't have the foresight in my younger days to ask about his past. He would not only have answered but elaborated once the subject was broached. (Roberta Nolan Mileusnich)