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ELIZABETH DRAKE McDONALD

 

I have been asked over and over again how I became involved in searching for and archiving Bob Nolan's work. I think the best way to explain will be to go back to my journals:

 

November 14, 1996 (Journal entry)

                Iíve been indulging in an unabashed orgy of nostalgia.  I canít think of any other way to describe it.  Last week I got a book from California called Hear My Song, the Story of the Celebrated Sons of the Pioneers by Ken Griffis, and it chucked me right back headfirst into my pre-teen years at the old Ryall house in 1954.

                From some place in Kamloops that carried sheet music, I had bought two song folios when I was about 11 or 12. I must have been attracted by the pictures of the cowboy on the front of Bob Nolanís Original Cowboy Classics because Iíd never heard of the Sons of the Pioneers.  Anything ďcowboyĒ fascinated me then.  I was wearing cowboy boots and western cut clothes and I would have carried my rifle around with me if Mom had let me. I did wear a Bowie knife on my belt after school. I wore my long hair yanked back and tied at my neck with a black shoelace. I was a real trial to my mother.

                I had been taking piano lessons from Enid Finn but I was an indifferent student and I had hated practicing.  But now, with these two songbooks of beautifully written music enchanting me, I began to practice in earnest.  This music was pure romance and mood and it blended perfectly with my Zane Grey diet of honesty, integrity and my own joy in living. I never considered that this was unusual because I saw my parents living by the same standard.  I do know that I couldnít stand Elvis Presley and, at the time, it was a steady diet of Elvis and RockíníRoll for kids my own age.

                When we finally got a record player, it was a good oneóa lovely hi-fi in a handsome dark wood cabinet. It cost Dad $200, a lot of money at the time.  We had waited so long because Mom and Dad always saved up and paid cash for everything. 

                Then, Dad bought a Sons of the Pioneers LP.  I was so disappointed at first with Bob Nolanís voice because it was different from anything Iíd heard before. It took a little mental readjusting but, before too long, his voice became the Sons of the Pioneers to me.  My brother and sister and I very quickly learned all the words to those songs and we experimented with harmony.  We had no instruction because, although Dad could sing all parts, he was too tired when he came home from work to teach us.  Manyís the argument Gloria and I would have over the dishes, standing with our hands in the cooling dishwater, singing those songs till Dad would holler from behind his paper in the livingroom, ďOK, you girls, get to work!Ē

                As I grew to be a teenager, this western music continued to mirror my changing moods.  I always was a solitary sort of child and so, when loneliness would strike, I would go sit on the fence near the horses in the dusk and sing.  At that certain time of the evening in the summer, when twilight is settling into stillness, I still think of the words of Night Falls on the Prairie and I can still hear the horses lipping and champing their hay.  And the crickets starting up.  And the quiet coolness falling.

                I taught myself the chords, first on the ukulele, then on the guitar, from those two song folios and I practiced until the fingertips on my left hand were rock hard.  This was Momís old guitar but the year I left home for Victoria, they gave me my own guitar for Christmas. There is nothing like a guitar for the times you are lonely but prefer your own company.

                So, last week while I read Hear My Song, all those old moods and memories came flooding back.  I dug out the old tapes and listened to them all again.  I listened while I read about the hard work and hours of practice it took to perfect this three and four-part harmony, about learning to start and end a word or phrase together, breathe at the same time, sing as one voice.  Try it sometime.  It isnít easy.

                And I saw that Bob Nolanís poetry, put to his perfect musical accompaniment, had influenced my life a great deal. His were songs full of hope, peace, nature and the exultant joy of just living. They told me it was okay to feel as I did about the lovely land. It was okay to ride and shout and sing. I didnít have to be like anyone else. It was okay to be me.

                Paul Robeson said to Harry Belafonte at the beginning of the younger manís career, ďArt should not only show life as it is but as it should be.Ē  Thatís what Bob Nolanís music was to me.  It outgrew the vehicle of the cowboy and became my own creed while I was growing up.  I guess all music does that for young people. Iím glad I fell under the influence of Bob Nolan instead of Elvis Presley.  I know I was happy.

                Robeson also told Belafonte, ďGet them to sing your song and theyíll want to know who you are.Ē  True enough.  Tell me more.

 

 

 

 

 

The following is a bit of a joke on me - an ironical joke. A disappointment, a failure, too, but still a joke. Consistent and conscientious hard work doesnít always spell success, you knowÖ..

 

 

November, 1999  
    In 1996, when I started to seriously look into the music of Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers, I realized that I couldnít tell the singers apart. I thought Doss was Nolan, I didnít know who Curtis or Carson were at all. I didnít know much beyond the fact that I was determined to preserve Bob Nolanís songs and to try to understand why he wrote them.
    How was I to go about it? Well, since the children had all left home and my husband was in a logging camp all week, I had nothing but time to myself. (Although my days involved a lot of heavy physical work, my thoughts were free.) I decided to immerse myself not only in Bob Nolanís songs but in the Pioneersí music. I needed to know who these people were.
    Here I was, 53 years old and I was an expert in nothing. I had a craving to learn all I could about one subject, one field. I deliberately chose Bob Nolan because, although his songs had been a part of my life since I was twelve years old, I knew nothing about the man himself. Was he really a Canadian? Was he a cowboy? What kind of person was he? What had happened in his life to make him to write songs the way he did? They were different, very different.
    I turned off the radio and turned on the stereo. Fortunately, there was so much recorded Sons of the Pioneersí music that it never became boring and I never tired of their voices and blend. Using the discographical information from Hear My Song, I began to sort out the voices and became familiar with them. I started buying Roy Rogers videos and in them I saw the Pioneers for the first time - saw them in action, heard them speak, learned their mannerisms.
    But this still wasnít enough. In order to really understand Nolanís songs and their background, I had to learn more about the time he lived in Ė what was happening in the world then? When a person learns another language he finds that, after the first shock, total immersion is the best way to go. Could I reverse time and dive backward into the 30s and 40s?  I could try.
    So I stopped reading everything else and immersed myself in the literature, both fact and fiction, of the 30s and 40s. I didnít read anything else for about 3 years. I limited myself to what had been written at the time so I could absorb the mood and thoughts of the people who lived then. Atmosphere.
    I was already familiar with the war years from my previous reading. I sought out and talked to, listened to my parentís generation; soaked in their thoughts and attitudes and memories. I studied photographs and snapshots, listened to the current music of the time.
    I hunted down and bought every piece of recorded Sons of the Pioneers music I could find and listened to it carefully, critically. I made copious notes.  It was not enough.
Footnotes became required reading, often more interesting than the books they appeared in. I borrowed the books referred to in the footnotes of every volume I could lay my hands on; books written about the entertainment world of the 30s and 40s with emphasis on the singing cowboys and the B Western movies. I began to learn who Bob Nolanís contemporaries were and what they were doing, what they were singing, what music they danced to, what they read in the newspapers and heard on the radio.
    I wrote to everyone I heard of who might possibly help, who might have known Nolan, who might have another view on the subject. I followed every lead, no matter how small. I wrote to friends of the individual Sons of the Pioneers, families, co-entertainers, writers, historians.
    Well, it worked. Or I thought it did. Within two years, as far as reading and imagination could take me, I was living in the 30s and 40s. I knew each of Sons of the Pioneers.
    I didnít realize yet just how deeply I was immersing myself. Although there was no one yet I could talk with and share these things, they were constantly in the back of my mind. I realized I was beginning to feel an actual grief that these fellows were gone. I had come to know them as if they were members of my own  family.
    But the realization of the extent of my mental immersion still came as a shock the other day when I walked to work, still turning over some Pioneer-related problem in my mind. I walked into the library, stopped just inside the door and stared around blankly for a second or two. It couldnít have been longer than that, but long enough for my boss to ask me what was wrong. What was wrong? I didnít tell her, just laughed and went to work, but I was shaken. I hadnít recognized where I was for just that instant. My imagination was working a little too efficiently. Time to come up for air.
    So I turned the local radio back on, I began to read a variety of modern articles and books and discuss current issues. Still, I was positive I had really tapped into that earlier time.
    Then I read an article about imagination and I realized suddenly, clearly and with chagrin, that the 30s and 40s I was Ďiní were not factual times. Couldnít be.  Never would be. No, not even with all the study I had done or would ever do about them.
    Why? You simply canít go back to where youíve never been. No matter how hard I worked at it, how deeply I submerged myself in the history of the period, I could only touch the very edges of that time. In reality I understood very little. I wasnít inside Bob Nolanís head at all. I still couldnít see with his eyes.
    And so his songs remain what theyíve always been Ė a reflection of my own feelings. But isnít that why I love them? Isnít that what art is all about?
 

 

 

 

The work progressed slowly for four years until Calin Coburn, grandson of Bob Nolan, contacted me in 2000 from Nevada and opened family albums and his grandmother's personal letters. At the beginning of this monumental task, Calin knew little about his grandfather other than that "he was a nice old man". As most children do, Calin had taken his grandfather for granted and had not fully appreciated Bob's contribution to what is now a uniquely American genre. Together we began compiling and archiving all that remained of Bob Nolan's effects: photos, music, hand-written lyrics, letters and other documents. Calin scanned more than one thousand items. These scans, with my annotations, were placed into the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the John Edwards Memorial Foundation (JEMF) collection where they are open to the public and available to researchers. 

 The process of archiving Bob's work and personal artifacts caused Calin to reassess his grandfather. "I wish I'd known about all this while he was still alive. I wish I had known him better. I've learned more about my grandfather while working with Elizabeth on this project than I did in all the years before." Calin had also underestimated the love and loyalty of Bob Nolan's fans and he was astonished and gratified by the response to his website.

 Sadly, Calin passed away on March 1, 2019, just days before his 66th birthday. In 2018 Steve Weiss, head of the Manuscripts Dept of the Wilson Library of UNC, came to see Calin. He went though all that remained of Bob Nolan's effects and took all the originals. These are now in the Southern Folklife Collection, available to the public.

 

 Marty Robbins, on hearing of Bob Nolan's death, said, "ĎNolan was a true songwriting genius. He had the ability to say simply and powerfully what he felt. Iíd like to see a tribute to his music and to him as a man. He was a gentleman and a friend of mine. Many would like to see the publication of a complete folio of the works of Bob Nolan, accompanied by a comprehensive biography." (p. 23 Pioneer News No. 10-13, 1980)

 

And that, to the best of my ability, is what I've done.

 

Calin Coburn and Elizabeth Drake McDonald