An Unlikely Pair – But It Worked!

don't fence me in

It was one of the more unusual combinations in show-biz history: a folksy cowboy star and a cosmopolitan song writer. The folksy cowboy star was Roy Rogers, billed as “The King of the Cowboys.” The cosmopolitan song writer was Cole Porter, composer of such sophisticated pieces as Night and Day, I Get a Kick Out of You, Well, Did You Evah!, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, My Heart Belongs to Daddy, You’re the Top. You’d Be So Easy to Love, In the Still of the Night, True Love, I Love Paris, Begin The Beguine, and Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love).

This unlikely pair – Cole Porter and Roy Rogers – combined to introduce the song Don’t Fence Me In, containing some of the most un-Porter like lyrics this brilliant tunesmith ever wrote. The song is about a footloose and fancy-free individual who refuses to settle down. The year was 1944 and the song was introduced in the Warner Brothers film, Hollywood Canteen.

Originally written for an unproduced 20th Century Fox musical, Adios Argentina, in 1934, the song was based on a text by engineer and poet Robert (“Bob”) Fletcher, who worked with the Department of Highways in Helena, Montana. Fletcher sold the poem for $250 to Porter, who adapted it into a song and planned to give Fletcher credit as co-writer. Porter’s publishers refused to allow that, but after the song became a hit, a habitual litigant named Ira Arnstein went so far as to sue Porter for plagiarism, though he failed to prove his case. Eventually, Fletcher was given co-authorship credit in subsequent publications of the song. Although it was one of the most popular songs of its time, Porter claimed it was his least favorite of his own compositions.

Porter’s revision of the song retained quite a few portions of Fletcher’s lyrics, such as “Give me land, lots of land,” “… breeze … cottonwood trees,” “turn me loose, let me straddle my old saddle,” “mountains rise … western skies,” “cayuse,” “where the west commences,” and “… hobbles … can’t stand fences,” but in some places, Porter modified the words to give them “the smart Porter touch.”(Incidentally, That strange word, “cayuse” in the lyrics denotes an archaic term used in the American West, usually referring to a low-quality horse or pony.) Porter substituted some whole lines, rearranged lyric phrases, added two verses, and composed his own music for it. Porter’s verse about Wildcat Kelly was not included in most of the hit recordings of the song. However, Roy Rogers did refer to “Wildcat Willy” when he performed the song in 1944’s Hollywood Canteen and Horace Heidt’s version includes the verse. Both versions are heard below.

The final lyrics of the song, including the reference to Wildcat Kelly, are as follows:
Wildcat Kelly was lookin’ mighty pale
Standin’ by the sheriff’s side
When that sheriff said I’m taking you to jail
Wildcat raised his head and cried. . .

Oh give me land, lots of land
Under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in

Let me ride through the wide
Open spaces that I love
Don’t fence me in

Let me be by myself in the evening breeze
Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in

Just turn me loose
Let me straddle my old saddle
Underneath the western skies

On my cayuse
Let me wander over yonder
Where the purple mountains rise

I want to ride to the ridge when the west commences
Gaze at the moon ’til I lose my senses
Can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences
Don’t fence me in

Though Adios Argentina was never produced, Warner Brothers resurrected Don’t Fence Me In for Roy Rogers to sing in the 1944 film Hollywood Canteen, starring Joan Leslie, Robert Hutton, and Dane Clark. The film was written and directed by Delmer Daves, and was notable for featuring over sixty movie stars (appearing as themselves) in cameo roles. The East Coast counterpart to the Hollywood Canteen was the Stage Door Canteen, celebrated in a 1943 RKO film.The basic plot of Hollywood Canteen revolves around two soldiers on leave who spend three nights at the Hollywood Canteen before returning to active duty in the South Pacific. Slim Green (Robert Hutton) is the one millionth G.I. to enjoy the Canteen, and consequently wins a date with Joan Leslie. The other G.I., Sergeant Nolan (Dane Clark) has a dance with Joan Crawford. Canteen founders Bette Davis and John Garfield give talks on the history of the Canteen. The soldiers enjoy a variety of musical numbers performed by a host of Hollywood stars, and also comedians, such as Jack Benny and his violin. Among those entertaining at the Hollywood Canteen are Roy Rogers. Don’t Fence Me In is sung by Rogers and danced by Trigger, billed as “the smartest horse in the movies.” Additionally, the song is also performed in the film by the Andrews Sisters, and played as a dance number by Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra.

Joan Crawford and John Garfield in a scene from "Hollywood Canteen"

Joan Crawford and Dane Clark in a scene from Hollywood Canteen

In 1945, the song was sung again as the title tune of another Roy Rogers film, Republic Studios’ Don’t Fence Me In, considered one of Roy Rogers best films. In the film, Dale Evans plays a magazine reporter who comes to Roy Rogers’ and George “Gabby” Hayes’ ranch to research her story about a legendary late gunslinger. When it is revealed that Gabby Hayes is actually the supposedly dead outlaw, Rogers must clear his name. Rogers and The Sons of the Pioneers perform songs, including the Cole Porter title tune.
Movie poster for "Don't Fence Me In"

Movie poster for
Don’t Fence Me In

Many people heard the song for the first time when Kate Smith introduced it on her radio broadcast of 8 October 1944. Don’t Fence Me In was also recorded by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters in 1944. The Crosby/Andrews Sisters version later sold more than a million copies and topped the Billboard charts for eight weeks in 1944–45.

Several recordings of Don’t Fence Me In charted on the Billboard charts. To listen to a version of the song, click on the song title. To download a song, right click on the song title, then right click on Save target as
Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Vic Schoen and his Orchestra Don’t Fence Me In
(Swing and Sway with) Sammy Kaye and his Orchestra, vocals by Billy Williams Don’t Fence Me In
Kate Smith, with 4 Chicks and a Chuck, orchestra under the direction of Jack Miller Don’t Fence Me In
Horace Heidt and his Musical Knights, vocals by Gene Walsh, the Sweetswingsters, and the Glee Club Don’t Fence Me In
Gene Autry (Billboard Country charts) Don’t Fence Me In
Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers (from the soundtrack of Hollywood Canteen) Don’t Fence Me In


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