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08 March 2005

Gene Autry's Cowboy Code

We've rapped about the Girl Scout and Boy Scout mottos, laws and oaths, and it seems to me that if you obey these codes scrupulously (and can handle a little boredom and uniformity), you will be healthy, prosperous, successful, and a credit to your community, your family, your gender and your species.

(btw, Mike was right, my age-addled memory was wrong: a Boy Scout pledges to be mentally awake, not alert.)

Here is another code for living, another modus vivendi, and though it seemingly advises Cowboys how to conduct themselves, it was really for Little Wannabe Living Room Cowboys packing cap guns. It's from the official Gene Autry website, and mentions Saturday matinees, so this Code probably dates from the 1930s or 1940s; it was probably included when you wrote away and joined the Gene Autry Fan Club.

If that's accurate, read this Code closely -- it's actually a highly advanced, sophisticated, progressive social and political set of rather high expectations for Americans in them days.

I draw your attention particularly to Rule 5, which is by no means meaningless goody-goody fluff. Until the 1960s in the USA, racial segregation was the unchallenged law in about half the states, and throughout the South, white authorities and their unofficial auxiliaries prevented blacks from voting, even if they had to murder people to do it. The Cowboy Code seems to be a very early and unique proto-spark that presaged the Civil Rights movement. Some little buckaroos may have blossomed into Freedom Riders.

Adults are always trying to fill the brains of millions of little kids with social and political messages; compare the Gene Autry Cowboy Code with this group's Kinder Kode. These duelling kiddie messages were historically contemporary; with a little travelling, you could end up following either code.

Hell -- it's progressive (maybe even controversial or suspiciously radical) for today. But I think Rule 10 gets Gene off the hook with the House Un-American Activities Committee or Homeland Security. But notice how closely Rule 5 seems to reflect a Message of Tolerance for All, no matter how different they may be -- very near the firestorm going on in Scouting right now.

Regardless of who actually wrote it, I suspect it reflects Gene's own sincere beliefs. He had a very long show-biz run, and I know of absolutely no hint of scandal about him (unlike Lash LaRue). Gene took the enlistment oath live, on his nationwide radio show, and flew all over the world as a sergeant with the US Army Air Corps during World War II, doing a real soldier's real jobs -- only at the end of his service did he shift to entertainment duties with Special Services. He was a straight-shooter.

Gene had a magnificent smile, and the older he got, the more he smiled. When the little glowing box came along, he was among the first to realize that it would demand an inexhaustible supply of Low-Budget Cowboy Fodder, and built an assembly line to crank out Saturday kiddies' shows for CBS. He ended up owning a major league baseball team (the California Angels) and most of the land in Southern California, becoming one of the richest men in America. He created three museums that have evolved into The Autry National Center; they have a top-notch reputation with scholars and historians. In 2002 the Center expanded to include The Women of the West Museum.

There is every possibility that Gene Autry's record sales surpass the Beatles'. In the wonderful Texas Swing or Western Swing constellation, whose deity is the brilliant and delightful Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, Gene's just a minor star -- he gives new meaning to the word "adequate." But he had a knack for pleasing a mass audience. "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine," his breakthrough smash, was the recording industry's first Gold Record.

But Christmas rolls around every December, and that means that Christendom will be enthusiastically listening to Gene singing "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer" for at least another millennium. "Here Comes Santa Claus" remains another Yule smash, and in Springtime, "Here Comes Peter Cottontail (... hoppin' down the Bunny Trail, hippity-hoppity Easter's on its way ...").

In 1940, America's movie theater owners voted Gene the No. 4 top box-office draw, after Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. A metric shitload of little buckaroos were sending away, opening the envelope, and vowing to live by the Cowboy Code.

I neglected to mention Champion, World's Wonder Horse.

My favorite of his movies, a matinee serial called "The Phantom Empire" (1935), has Gene and his fellow singing cowboys battling an evil secret empire of alien Muranians who live in caves with rich radium deposits far beneath Gene's dude ranch. According to this synopsis, Radio Ranch has an odd codicil in its mortgage: Gene and his singing cowboys must sing and broadcast every night, or they will lose Radio Ranch (to a sleazy non-cowboy villain in a suit secretly fronting for the Muranians). So most of the plot involves schemes to prevent the cowboys from singing and broadcasting.

Gene Autry's Cowboy Code

1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.

2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.

3. He must always tell the truth.

4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.

5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.

6. He must help people in distress.

7. He must be a good worker.

8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.

9. He must respect women, parents, and his nations laws.

10. The Cowboy is a patriot.

© Autry Qualified Interest Trust


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