BOB NOLAN: EARLY LIFE AND CAREER (1908 - 1931)
Bob seldom spoke of his mother to his friends and family. He said he remembered nothing at all about her yet he wrote this line into a song, "I call for mother all in vain. I never even knew her name. Why, tell me why?" Had he blocked out every memory of his mother? After all, he was 8-and-a-half years old when she took him to New Brunswick. He should have remembered her easily. Why did he refuse to speak of her in later years? His younger brother, Earle, searched for and eventually found his mother when he was sixteen. From then on, Earle kept in touch with her until she died. Bob did not.
Flora Elizabeth Hussey, was born in Belfast, Ireland, moving to Canada in 1889 with her father, Frederick Hussey; mother, Louisa Jenkins Hussey; and brothers, Frederick, Percival and Waldon Hussey. She was working in Winnipeg, Manitoba, as a stenographer when Harry Bayard Nobles arrived in town to find employment as a tailor. Harry had dark brown eyes, dark brown hair, a ruddy complexion and was 5 feet 5 3/4 inches in height. He was cheerful and kind, "a very stocky guy," remembers Roy Drachman, "well-built and, by gosh, he was strong as the devil!" Harry and Flora were married on January 1, 1906, and Bob (Clarence Robert Nobles) was born on April 13, 1908 in Winnipeg. (More details in Flora Elizabeth Nobles.)
In 1912, by now a family of four after Earleís birth in 1911, they moved to Vancouver and remained there until 1915 when the marriage failed. The family returned to Winnipeg where Flora found employment as an operator for the Manitoba Government Telephones. Harry left the boys with her and spent some time with his own parents back in New Brunswick before crossing the border into the United States, leaving the name "Nobles" behind him permanently. As "Harry B. Nolan", he looked for action in the American Southwest and joined the US Army in 1917.
Harry and Flora Nobles
(Photos courtesy of Jean Nolan Krygelski)
Working conditions for women in Manitoba in the early 1900s were well defined. By law, a married woman with dependent children was not allowed to work away from home and children. To complicate matters, Winnipeg was experiencing labour problems and the Manitoba Government Telephone Company was involved. In the summer of 1916, Flora was forced to take the children to her husband's parents, Charles and Ella Jane Nobles, in Hatfield Point, New Brunswick. She intended to come back for them when she was better able to support them. When she said goodbye to them, she did not realize that she would never see her eldest son again.
Note: According to McAlpine's Gazeteer (1904), Hatfield's Point was a farming settlement (with post office) in Kings County, Springfield Parish, NB. The nearest port of entry and banks were in St. John, all other connections were in Norton, 11 miles away. Norton (pop. 250) contained 3 stores, 1 hotel, 1 sawmill, 1 grist mill, 1 carriage shop and 1 church.
View of Belleisle Bay from the Nobles' window.
Photo courtesy of David Folster
Harry was bitter. Although it is difficult to understand the attitude from a distance of over one hundred years, divorce was perceived as a shame to his whole family. The boys' grandparents tried to erase Flora's memory. For the three years the boys lived on the homestead, they were absolutely forbidden to speak their mother's name. Her letters never reached them. No attempt was made to explain their mother's apparent desertion. Young Bob was convinced that his mother had abandoned him and the hurt remained with him for the rest of his life. He did find a measure of peace in the deep woods behind the house, a place he called his wildwood. Earle, three years younger and more adaptable, became his grandmother's favorite but Bob held himself quietly and politely aloof from everyone.
Bob's "wildwood" on his grandparents' homestead in New Brunswick.
(Photo courtesy of Marsha Boyd Mitchell)
Bob or Clarence, now 8 years old, started school the Fall of 1916 at the Hatfield Point School. (The microfilm did not show his grade.) His teacher was Clara M. Tingley and the list of his classmates contained one of his young aunts, Mabel Spragg, and some of his cousins. Miss Tingley taught all the grades and her pupils ranged in age from 6 to 17 years of age. Bob and Earle attended school sporadically for Bob was needed to help with the chores on the farm and, after all, school was low on his grandfather's priority list. Bob's attendance was significantly lower than that of the rest of his class. In his early years with the Sons of the Pioneers, Bob was chosen to copy all the lyrics for the trio to use during rehearsals and broadcasts. Possibly due to his lack of early schooling, his spelling ability wasn't what it should have been and Bob wryly told his friend, Bill Bowen, "In the middle of a song, Timmy would startle us by breaking into laughter at the way I had misspelled some word." His spelling never did improve and this failure always annoyed and embarrassed him.
In later years, he often spoke of the beauty of the forest country in New Brunswick. He also admitted that, during those years, "We probably had one month out of the year that we went to school and it was five and one-half miles and I trotted the whole distance, half of the time with a Canadian lynx stalking me all the way." Forty years later Bob told a friend, "Oh, what a beautiful country. I don't think there's a more beautiful country in the whole of God's creation than that."
The little boys did make friends with the neighbour children, the Boyds, but there was no opportunity to get close to the other children in that rural community. Their grandfather kept them too busy. Their entertainment was simple Ė their young aunts liked to gather around the piano and sing together. They did have a gramophone but there was no radio in that home yet.
Although Bob claimed to have good memories of the time he spent on the old homestead, he never did go back to see his grandparents. His grandfather died in 1935, just when Bobís career was on the rise. His grandmother lived eight years longer. She always looked for him to return but he never came. The three years he had spent with his grandparents had been a sad and confusing time.
Photo courtesy of David Folster
(Matilda Urquhart, whose name is on the headstone, was Charles and Ella Jane's youngest daughter.)
In the Summer of 1919, when Harry heard that Flora was preparing to return to New Brunswick to reclaim her boys, he wrote an urgent letter to his sister, Fannie, asking her to take them home to Boston with her until he was well enough to send for them. So Fannie appeared at the old homestead without warning one afternoon and left with the boys early the next morning. Little Earle cried; Bob said nothing. Their surname was changed to their father's adopted name of "Nolan" and their mother was never able to find them. She had no recourse because, unhappily, Harry was legally well within his rights under Manitoba law at this time. Custody of the children was always given to the husband. The wife had no rights and, indeed, was not even legally considered a "person".
While the boys lived in Boston with their aunt, Bob attended school for two years until, in 1921, Harry finally sent for him. Fellow researcher, Grace Thompson, learned more about the school the Nolan boys may have attended:
"I have a sister that lives in Malden so while there, we went to the library and the high school directly across the street. Knowing Fannie's address in 1920, I was inquiring as to which school a child would have attended if living at that address. Of course, we don't know positively where the boys were living other than in MA. If they attended the appropriate school for that address, it would have been the Belmont School. The Belmont School has been converted into lofts. Those Nobles were at so many different addresses!!! We don't know if they lived only with Fannie or were farmed out to the other aunts/uncle."
Belmont Elementary School, 2009
Belmont Elementary School, 2009
Bob began school in Tucson as Clarence Robert Nolan, an impressionable thirteen-year-old torn from thick, green woodland country and replanted in the Sonora Desert. It was initially a shock but, at the same time, it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the desert. He never tired of talking about the desert, or high prairie, and his love for it moved right into his songs. In later years, he recognized it as his true unchanging love, his mistress. Humans disappointed, yes; his desert, never. After he got over the first shock, Bob Nolan said,
"The desert and prairie country's first impact on me - you see I was brought up in the backwoods of Canada and after the First World War I came to Tucson, Arizona, right from the backwoods of Canada out to the desert. It was an entirely new phase of life for me as, I say, coming from the north country down to the desert. It looked like nothing, this flat desert land. After I'd been there for about 6 months I fell in love with the beauty I couldn't see when I first came. It was awe-inspiring, to say the least, to wake up in the morning and see the sun shining through millions of drops of dew. It was just outstanding! I mean I spent so many hours out there on the desert all by myself. I was just a kid of 13. I'd walk right out into it and just stay there all day if I didn't have to come home."
Earle joined Bob and his father three years later. Harry had remarried and his job as a tailor allowed him to rent only small houses or apartments. Life was a constant struggle with debt and there never seemed to be enough food for the growing boys.
1921 saw Bob starting school in the seventh grade at Safford Junior High School, transferring to Roskruge Junior High the following spring. An outstanding athlete, he progressed normally through the grades, graduating from the 12th Grade in Tucson High School on May 25, 1928. During the summer holidays he had worked as a lifeguard at the Wetmore Pool. Wetmore was more than an Olympic-size pool. It featured outdoor movies, a roller rink, a picnic park and a dance hall with a spring-suspended double maple floor so it was a gathering place for young people. About this time he started riding the rails, looking for work and seeing the country. He summed up his feelings in the line of a song when he wrote, When I feel the urge I gotta travel anywhere the tumbleweed blows.... Bob devoured the books of Richard Halliburton - tales of travel and true adventure like "The Royal Road to Romance", and these books fed his own urge to move on, always move on. He had a romantic heart in all senses of the word "romance" Ė love of adventure and the idealistic pursuit of that elusive, perfect love.
High School. (The Calin Coburn Collections ©2004)
For some reason, Bob let friends and interviewers believe that he had attended the University of Arizona for a time and studied harmony structure, etc. The University has no record of it although a careful search was made. His brother Earle confirmed this, "Bob was not too interested in continuing his studies." He was, however, a member of the Arion Club in Tucson High and his name is listed with the glee club in the 1928 school yearbook, The Tucsonian. His interest in harmony structure and love of harmony singing may have had its roots there.
The Tucsonian, 1928.
(The Calin Coburn Collections ©2004)
One of the secrets of the success of the Sons of the Pioneers was their precise breathing, timing, tone control and well-matched vocal coordination. This does not happen naturally; it is a learned and practiced skill. To someone listening closely to Bobís solos in the Standard Radio transcriptions of 1934, it is obvious from his articulation and timing that he had been given expert training somewhere along the way. The musical instructor of the Arion Club may have been that expert. It has been suggested that the musical director of Columbia Pictures, Morris Stoloff, was the one responsible for the training but the Sons of the Pioneersí harmonies were tight and true a full year before their first Columbia film.
Bob was always fooling around with something. He played the ukulele in grammar school and then the guitar. And he wrote a lot of poetry. Cool Water was first written as a poem when Bob was attending Tucson High School. Later when he helped form the Sons of the Pioneers singing group, he added music.
During the summer he rode the freights doing all kinds of odd jobs on ranches and in small towns. I remember one of his early songs was Riding Free on the Old SP humming a Western Tune. That title sort of sums up Bobís life back in those days.
When I was growing up and going to school, Bob was singing and playing the guitar in Los Angeles vaudeville shows. He doubled in a gymnastic act. During the summer he was a lifeguard at Long Beach. I think Bob first became serious about singing when he was in school here [Tucson], though. He worked at the Circle J Ranch down near Patagonia. At night, heíd put on a dude-ish outfit, get out his guitar and sing his songs to the ranch guests.
I wasnít surprised when I heard about [Bobís first job on radio]. But I was when the group started to appear in movies. I saw the first one down at the State. It seemed funny to see Bob on the screen. Since then I see their movies every time they come to town.
I visited him in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. Felt like a country boy when he took me out to the movie set. Couldnít take the late hours, either! (Earl Nolan to Judy Friedman, Arizona Alumnus, June, 1949)
Bob told William Bowen, editor and publisher of The Pioneer News (a North Hollywood Sons of the Pioneers fan club magazine) that he wrote a poetry column for the Arizona Wildcat called Tumbleweed Trails. A search through the back issues of the Wildcat from 1927-1930 found no evidence of such a column. However, he may have been thinking of the Tucson High School newspaper, The Cactus Chronicles. He was definitely a member of the staff of The Tucsonian, the high school yearbook.
(The Calin Coburn
Bill Bowen also said that Bob seldom mentioned the fact that he was a Tucson High star athlete. On the Badger track team in 1927, he finished second in the Arizona state track meet with a vault of 11 feet 7 inches. Like his young brother a few years later, Bob could have entered the University of Arizona on an athletic scholarship but he was involved as a passenger in a motorcycle accident that partially severed his Achilles tendon. He then turned to weight-lifting and swimming.
Throughout high school, a very pretty co-ed named Pearl figured largely in his life and they spent a lot of time together. To support a family meant a steady job and work was already scarce. He hitched free rides on freight trains back and forth across the country, not only looking for adventure but looking for work. At this time, he was not yet thinking of a career in music - just any job to keep food on the table.
Clarence Nolan and Pearl Fields
(The Calin Coburn Collections ©2004)
On July 7 1928, less than two months after he graduated from Grade 12, Bob married his high school sweetheart, sixteen-year old Tucsonian, Pearl Fields. Bob was barely 20. A daughter, Roberta Irene, was born to them thirteen months later but the marriage foundered almost from the beginning. Bitter letters from Pearl to her friends in Tucson describe a young husband who would not settle down to a traditional job as his wife thought he should. A fledgling musician could not support a family and Bob was in California, thinking seriously now of making music his career. Pearl was living with her parents in Texas and already considering divorce.
There was a brief reconciliation in Los Angeles in 1930 but the marriage failed completely in those grim early-Depression days. Pearl left him for good and refused to let him see their daughter for nearly 15 years. Some of his songs betray the heartsick loneliness of a father kept out of his child's life. Bob said he wrote The Touch of God's Hand at this time, too.
Bob and his first wife, Pearl.
Left: Clarence and Pearl
Right: Pearl with little Roberta
(The Calin Coburn
The story of the Sons of the Pioneers was told in full by Ken Griffis in his original book, "Hear My Song - the Story of the Celebrated Sons of the Pioneers" (1974, 1994). We strongly urge you to read the book. It is our opinion that, without Mr. Griffis' extensive interviews with each member, the original Sons of the Pioneers themselves would be faceless names today. Every history or biographical sketch you read about them has been influenced by these interviews. We owe him a large debt of gratitude. The following outline of Bob's career leans heavily on "Hear My Song", and is a thumbnail sketch of Bob's years with the Sons of the Pioneers told from his perspective. We have used Bob's own words and photos as much as possible. For information about each film, please go to Filmography.
Although Bob wrote poetry and loved to sing, he never dreamed he would make such a large mark in the entertainment field. It did not occur to him that he would create a pure American art form: western, not cowboy music. He had no idea his songs would become known internationally and would live on for more than eighty years. All young singers dream of being stars but in Bob's case it was a combination of talent, hard work and being in the right place at the right time that sent him to the top of his field. His place in the sun was an uncomfortable one but he did enjoy it for a while. Then he endured it for seventeen long years; seventeen years in the public eye. Seventeen years of the most extreme pressure. Seventeen exciting, noisy, people-filled, spot-lit years in the life of a quiet man who craved solitude. A man who had to battle mike fright daily. For seventeen years his name was everywhere, and then he disappeared. The only way to understand how the weight of these years bore him down is to list what he did. Then you may understand why he vanished from sight for almost thirty years. Unfortunately, it is only a partial list....
Bob as lifeguard with friend, Flash Whiting.
(The Calin Coburn Collections ©2004)