Two musical evocations of a famous William

When he was a small boy living in the slums of New York City in the early to mid 1860’s, it probably never occurred to William Henry McCarty, Jr. that his life would one day inspire several pieces of music, among them a ballet (1938) and a popular song (1973).  The composers of these two works–both, like McCarty, born in New York City–were Aaron Copland and Billy Joel.

And McCarty, who was also known as William H. Bonney, is certainly best known as Billy The Kid.

The one known surviving photograph (a tintype) of Billy The Kid
The one known surviving photograph (a tintype) of Billy The Kid

McCarty/Bonney’s life was short—he was killed when he was 21–but eventful, that is to say hardscrabble and violent. His father was out of the picture early, and his mother moved the family in fits and starts across the country, first to Indiana, then Kansas and Colorado, and finally to New Mexico. Orphaned after his mother died of tuberculosis in 1874, the teenager tumbled into petty theft and the life of an outlaw. He was a gunman in the Lincoln County War, gambled, rustled livestock, survived a number of brushes with the law, and escaped from jail at least three times before being shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett in July of 1881, in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Shortly after the shooting, Garrett wrote a biography of McCarty, the hugely embroidered The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid. The book, along with a number of subsequent dime novels and movies, helped turn McCarty into an American anti-hero.

The two pieces of music I highlight here are from different eras, and different genres, but they both successfully convey–again, in different ways–the feel of the American West.

Aaron Copland was commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein to create a “cowboy ballet” for his dance troupe, Ballet Caravan, a forerunner of the New York City Ballet.  The one-act work was first performed in Chicago, in a two-piano version (!), in October of 1938.

The Cast of "Billy the Kid." Featuring Erick Hawkins, Eugene Loring, and Lew Christensen, center, 1938. Photo George Platt Lynes. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. © Estate of George Platt Lynes.
The Cast of “Billy the Kid.” Featuring Erick Hawkins, Eugene Loring, and Lew Christensen, center, 1938. Photo George Platt Lynes. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. © Estate of George Platt Lynes.

The version for full orchestra premiered in New York in May 1939; in 1940 Copland extracted a concert suite from the ballet, and it’s in this form that the music is most often heard today.

Copland Billy The KidThe suite has six movements; here are Copland’s own descriptions of what he’s composed, along with time notations of where they begin in the YouTube recording below (the performance is by the Cincinnati Pops, conducted by Erich Kunzel).  (I’m not wild about the visual accompaniments, but it’s the only complete,  uninterrupted performance on YouTube that I like; others are broken into segments).  The piece is just over 20 minutes long; you can sample the different sections using the time cues I’ve given, but the piece is obviously best experienced when you listen straight through from beginning to end.  You’ll be rewarded if you do!

1)  “An introductory prelude, ‘The Open Prairie,’ presents a pastoral theme harmonized in open fifths that gives the impression of space and isolation.”

2)  “The second section (starting at 3:25), ‘Street in a Frontier Town,’ is lively and full of action; for western flavor I used quotations from ‘Great Grand-Dad,’ ‘The Old Chisholm Trail,’ and ‘Git Along Little Dogies’ (but not in traditional harmonies and rhythms), a Mexican dance featuring a theme in 5/8 [time] and ‘Goodbye, Old Paint’ introduced by an unusual 7/8 rhythm.”

3)  “The third [slow and quiet] section (starting at 9:30), ‘Card Game at Night,’ has a sinister sound … and segments of ‘Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.’”

4)  “Gun Battle,’ the fourth movement (starting at 12:37), makes generous use of percussion … rhythmic action instead of simulated gunfire.”

5)  “The fifth (starting at 14:50), ‘Celebration After Billy’s Capture,’ depicts the townspeople rejoicing in the saloon, where an out-of-tune player piano sets the scene.”

6)  “‘Billy’s Demise,’ the final section of the Suite (starting at 17:02), makes use of material from the introduction (heard at 18:28), but with different coloration to convey the idea of a new dawn breaking over the prairie.”

Billy Joel’s “The Ballad of Billy The Kid” was the last cut on the first side of his LP Piano Man, released in November of 1973.  It’s by far my favorite song on the album.  It’s important to note that this is a heavily fictionalized version of McCarty/Bonney’s life.  Among other things, ‘The Kid’ was not from Wheeling, WV; was not a bank robber; was not hanged; and was not a legend in his time (his greatest fame came after he died, with the publication of Garrett’s sensationalized biography).  Despite this, though, Joel successfully evokes the West, most obviously with the clop clop of the percussion block representing horse’s hooves and the ruminations of the harmonica at the beginning, but also with the sweep of the strings, and the sequences of ‘dueling’ brass and piano (2:53-3:15 and 5:00-5:22).  (As always with Joel, there’s some great piano playing throughout, whether it’s specifically Western in flavor or not).

No doubt many people long assumed–as I did– that the Billy from Oyster Bay  that’s mentioned at the end of the song is Joel himself, but it isn’t; it’s a bartender friend of his.

From a town known as Wheeling West Virginia
Rode a boy with a six-gun in his hand
And his daring life of crime made him a legend in his time
East and west of the Rio Grande
Well he started with a bank in Colorado
In the pocket of his vest a Colt he hid
And his age and his size took the teller by surprise
And the word spread of Billy the Kid

Well he never traveled heavy,
Yes he always rode alone,
And he soon put many older guns to shame
Well he never had a sweetheart
And he never had a home
But the cowboys and the ranchers knew his name

Well he robbed his way from Utah to Oklahoma
And the law just couldn’t seem to track him down
And it served his legend well
For the folks loved to tell
‘Bout when Billy the Kid came to town

One cold day a posse captured Billy
And the judge said string him up for what he did
And the cowboys and their kin
Like the sea came pouring in to watch
The hangin’ of Billy the Kid

Well he never traveled heavy,
Yes he always rode alone,
And he soon put many older guns to shame
Well he never had a sweetheart
Tho’ he finally found a home
Underneath the boothill grave that bears his name

From a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island
Rode a boy with a six-pack in his hand
And his daring life of crime made him a legend in his time
East and west of the Rio Grande

The Rio Grande in New Mexico (photo by Ron Gardner)
The Rio Grande in New Mexico (photo by Ron Gardner)

Trivia tidbit: In the 10 month-long life of this blog experiment of mine, the most viewed post thus far has been the one I made on 5 September, also about a work by Copland, also with that wonderful wide open sound.

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