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Lawrence Hopper (New Jersey)

(author of "Bob Nolan: A Biographical Guide and Annotations to the Lyric Archive") email: larryhxl11@optimum.net


"He is an American intellectual gadfly. He knows more about more than most and less about little than many."



They Sing of the West: Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers

Blue Prairie and Tommy Doss

Tumbling Tumbleweeds: Evolution of a Western Standard  

KMSU - Mankato MN interview by Ron Affolter

Story of a Demo: The Sons & Daughters of the Pioneers

On the Banks of the Sunny San Juan (evolution of a song)         



Photo - John Saunders



Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers


                Most of us can remember sitting in a darkened theater watching those great B Westerns of the 30s and 40s, enjoying vicariously the thrills of the chase, the gunfights and those rotten ‘bad guys.’ But when the fighting stopped and the action slowed, many of us remembered the cowpokes who always seemed to have a guitar and a fiddle and a ready arrangement to sing for us. In many of those westerns that group of singing cowboys was the Sons of the Pioneers.

                Country singer Marty Robbins remembers, “The Sons of the Pioneers originally started ‘way back in the 30s, the early 30s, and I think that Roy Rogers is the only one that is left. But them and Gene Autry really had an influence on my life because I would see their movies and want to be one of them, or somebody like them.”

                Roy Rogers is the one person who was a part of those early days and helped found the Sons of the Pioneers. He’ll tell you the story in a moment but first we must realize that time has passed and though we remember names, and scenes, and glorious action on the screen, things have changed and that change is reflected in a song Roy recorded a few years ago, Hoppy, Gene and Me. To get the story of the Sons of the Pioneers, I called Roy at his museum in Apple Valley, California. This is the story he told.


Roy: Well, I came to California in the early 30s and there was a little radio station in Inglewood, California, which was just a few miles up the road from where we lived. They had a program every Saturday night called The Midnight Frolic and it was an amateur show and anybody could get on it. So my sister practically drug me up to that radio station ‘cause I was scared to death and when they announced my name why she practically pushed me out onto the stage and I got out and I sang and yodeled and played mandolin and guitar.

They took my name and address when I finished and about two or three days later a fellow called me from a group called The Rocky Mountaineers and I joined the group - but I was the only singer in the group. They were all musicians. So I talked them into running an ad in the paper and see if we couldn’t find a fellow that could sing tenor or harmony and stuff like that. Bob Nolan answered the ad.

I never will forget the day that he answered it. He was a lifeguard at the Santa Monica beach, down at the ocean, and those days we had the Red Cars (like the streetcars we had in the earlier days?) and he rode the old Red Car as far as the end of the line, as far as he could go, and then he had to walk I don’t know how far. But I guess he figured he was gonna impress us so he had to get a new pair of shoes. When he arrived, he knocked on the door and we were all there waiting. He had a pair of shoes in his hands and a blister about the size of a dime on each heel! Of course, we got a kick out of that and Bob came in and we sang some songs.

And so he joined us and we worked as the Rocky Mountaineers and we needed a third one in the group for singing. He said he had a friend down at the beach and maybe we could get together and make a trio. So he brought a fellow by the name of Bill Nichols up with him. About 5 or 6 months of that Bob quit and went to Bel Air Country Club caddying because we weren’t even making enough money to live on.

So we ran another ad in the paper and Tim Spencer answered the ad. And so Tim and Slumber (Bill Nicholls) and I - we nicknamed him “Slumber” - we worked together for quite awhile and finally The Rocky Mountaineers broke up and we joined another group called The International Cowboys. A fellow named Benny Nawahi had a group and he had some Mexican boys in it and cowboys from Texas.

We had an invitation to go on the road and kinda on a barnstorming trip in 1933 and one of the fellows on the radio station there sold us on the idea. He was selling time on the radio station and he said he thought he could make us some money if we went on the road and played some of these little theaters down through New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. So, Tim and Slumber and I, we got two other guys by the name of Cyclone (our fiddle player) and Cactus Mac, the most well-known at that time. We went on the road as Cactus Mac and His O-Bar-O Cowboys and for about three months we ate all the jack rabbits between Arizona and New Mexico and down into Texas. Finally raked up enough money to get back home and then we broke up.

Tim Spencer, he went back to work for the Safeway grocery company and I went to work on a group called Jack and His Texas Outlaws. See, I was just on this group with another group of singers that didn’t have the blend that our original trio had so I went back to Tim Spencer at the Safeway store and I told him, I said, “Why don’t we go out and see if we can get Bob Nolan to join us and get a trio back together.”

             We drove out to the country club and told Bob Nolan what we had in mind and he said well, it sounded pretty encouraging because we’re all on a good station at the time. (A Warner Brother’s station, KFWB) They had several live shows on that station. So we got into a boarding house that cost us nine dollars a week, room and board, so the three of us holed up there and learned about three or four hundred songs which later came out on the Standard Radio Corporation Transcriptions (that’s the big transcriptions in the early thirties and forties) and that’s how we became popular as the Sons of the Pioneers."


Larry: Roy, I have a recording. Two recordings, actually. One is Kilocycle Stomp and the other is Cajun Stomp that were done in 1935 with the Farr Brothers and Len Slye, yourself.


Roy: Yes. Did you take that from the old transcriptions?


Larry: No. I’ve got it on an album called Western Swing. I think somebody came up with the old 78 and transferred it.


Roy: Well, the way they’ve rustled the songs the last few years on cassettes, and everything else.... I don’t know where you got it, but when we recorded that Cajun Stomp that was originally recorded on those transcriptions.


Larry: That was for the radio services you mentioned earlier?


Roy: Yeah. We were on that station and the manager of that station got us to record all of those songs and we ended not getting anything out of them, too. But Hugh and Karl Farr…Cajun Stomp…that was an arrangement that Hugh made with his fiddle and Karl with his guitar. Karl played the lead guitar and I played rhythm and Bob Nolan played bass.


Larry: Hugh Farr on fiddle and brother, Karl, on guitar. And a head arrangement called Cajun Stomp. Hugh and Karl have been referred to as the Joe Venutti and Eddie Lang of Western Music. Roy, beside your radio work on the Sons of the Pioneers, you also made a few movies like Rhythm of the Range.


Roy: Oh, we did Rhythm of the Range with Bing Crosby as a group and we did a comedy with Joan Davis and El Brendel and we worked in a couple of Dick Foran’s westerns and a couple of Gene Autry’s westerns  - as a group, you know.


Larry: You didn’t remain long with the Sons of the Pioneers but went off to make your own movies. How did that happen?


Roy: When we came back from the Texas Centennial, I heard that Republic Studios were looking for a new singing cowboy. So I went out there and, over a period of a couple of months, I was signed up there. I started October 13, 1937 and I made my first picture in January, 1938. I was in pictures from then on.


Larry: With your departure, that left a hole in the group.


Roy: When I went out there, I had to make arrangements to get released from Columbia and that’s when Pat Brady took my place with the Sons of the Pioneers, singing in my place.


Larry: So, though you left the group to pursue your acting career, the Sons of the Pioneers still appeared with you in many of your pictures.


Roy: Later on, after the contract was up, why, we got them out of Columbia Studios and they worked on my pictures for a long time and still, when I go on the road, I still take the Sons of the Pioneers with me. They’re a wonderful group. Down through the years there’ve been a lot of guys come and gone and some of ‘em have passed away and some of ‘em retired. But I guess I’m the only one left, now, of the original Sons of the Pioneers.


Larry: Roy didn’t completely break with the Sons, as far as recording with them. From time to time he has made records with them and in December, 1947, they recorded a song together for a Walt Disney animated short called Melody Time - Blue Shadows on the Trail by Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. The Sons of the Pioneers made many pictures without Roy as Marty Robbins remembers.


Marty: I saw most of them with Roy Rogers. I saw quite a few of them with Roy Rogers and I saw one, one time, John Wayne and the Sons of the Pioneers with Ken Curtis, I think, did a song in it—I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.


Larry: The Sons also worked on John Ford’s Wagonmaster. Ken Curtis, whom Marty referred to, is well known for his characterization of Festus on TV’s Gunsmoke. Before Gunsmoke, he put in quite a bit of time with the Sons and can be heard soloing on Wedding Dolls. Although the Sons of the Pioneers did many songs by other writers, and traditional songs whose origins are clouded in time, they often performed songs by their own resident writers, Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer. Between the both of them, they wrote hundreds of songs, Bob Nolan’s two most famous being Cool Water and Tumbling Tumbleweeds. Tim wrote Everlasting Hills of Oklahoma, Cigareetes, Whusky and Wild Women and A Room Full of Roses. When Tim Spencer retired from the Pioneers, he ran his own music business and continued to write. He was equally adept at turning out a cowboy spiritual or a serious hymn.   One of the aspects of the Sons of the Pioneers that made them stand out was their unique sound, or blend, as Roy pointed out earlier. I asked Marty Robbins what he liked about the Sons of the Pioneers.


Marty: I have about twelve and a half hours of the Sons of the Pioneers on tape. I have some of their early radio shows, even. Naturally, I like that kind of music. I liked their harmony because they had a real manly sound. It wasn’t the smooth singing that other groups had, it was that out-on-the-range sound the Sons of the Pioneers had. I especially liked the songs, but I especially liked Bob Nolan’s singing. He sang like he could whip a bear. No one has ever sounded like Bob Nolan.


Larry: And Bob Nolan’s unique voice was especially well showcased in songs of his own composition. Bob wrote about Nature, Man and strong personal emotions. Bob Nolan was a man who came down from Canada and fell in love with the West. It was an inspiration for the songs he wrote, whether they took time developing or they were written overnight to be sung in the next day’s filming. The production of B Westerns was a frenetic by-the-numbers organization. Films were sold for distribution in groups of, say, five Gene Autrys, four Dick Forans, six Roy Rogers. And they were made so fast they never had titles until they were completed. Bob worked in this crazy business and he was also doing the one-nighters, the recording sessions and the radio programs for about thirteen years before he retired. What kind of man was Bob? Roy and record producer Snuff Garrett share their views.


Roy: I just don’t think he liked show business to start with. He was just that type of guy. He was his own man and he didn’t particularly enjoy it like the rest of us did. Bob was kind of a private man. I’ve known him since 1932 and he was a very quiet man. He didn’t like groups, crowds, or anything. I’ve seen him sit out and gaze off into the sunset and he was writing a song all the time but you didn’t know it. When you go over some of the lyrics he that wrote, he really did a lot of deep thinking about it.


Snuff: Bob was a reclusive sort of man and so he decided he’d spend the rest of his life just kinda doing what he wanted to do. The things that he’d done for years, traveling on the road and dates and so forth, all over the world, he just didn’t want any more. So, for all intents and purposes, he retired in 1948.


Larry: Bob didn’t stay retired because I have here an album, The Sound of a Pioneer, which was released recently that featured new recordings of Bob. How did that come about, Snuff?


Snuff: I wanted to record Bob Nolan one last time, which, unfortunately, that’s how it turned out to be. He was still in fine voice and singing great and I think he was 71 years old.


Marty:  He could sing, could still sing the same notes he sang in 1930. He could sing the bass or he could sing the high tenor notes, it didn’t make much difference. He had such range in his voice and could control it just as well six weeks ago as he could thirty years ago.


Larry: Well, Snuff, how did you get him to do the recording?


Snuff: It took me over three years to talk him into recording. And I’m terribly persistent when I want to be. In fact, one time I was having a party at my home and, I’d been over at Bob’s for the afternoon, and I said, “We’re gonna have a party Friday night and there’s gonna be quite a few people there and stuff and we’d like for you to come.”

 And he said, “All right. I’d like to come,” he said, “But I don’t have a way. My wife’s out of town.” So I said, “Well, I’ll come over and pick you up.”

So a couple of days later, Nudie the Western Tailor, who’s been around for years and knows a lot of the guys and I’m good friends with, I said, “Nudie,” I said, “Bob’s coming to the party Friday night,” and he said, “Who told you?” and I said, “Bob told me,” and he said, “No, he’s not. I went to the last party Bob went to about seventeen or eighteen years ago. He said he’d never go to another party and that’s that.”

So, anyway, Nudie and I ended up making a hundred dollar bet whether he would or not. I went over there Friday night and he was sitting on the curb with his own bottle of wine, waiting on me. We got in the car and I said, “How y’doing, Mr. Nolan?” and he said, “Fine, Snuff, fine,” and he said, “Snuff, I have to be home at eight thirty. I feed my bird at eight thirty. He really gets upset if I don’t feed him and cover him up and everything,” and I said, “Fine.”

So we got to the party over there and he’d been so emphatic about being home at eight thirty that I… so I couldn’t have any fun. About eight o-five I went over to Bob and I said, “Mr. Nolan,” I said, “The car’s ready to take you home.” He said, “I don’t want to go home.” And I said, “Well, you said you had to get home to feed the bird.” He said, “Aw, to heck with the bird,” he said, “I feed him every night,” he said, “I’m having too much fun.”


Larry: So it was just a matter of getting him out and then he enjoyed himself. It was the same way when Snuff finally got him to record.  Of the eleven songs of the album five were written by Bob. Among the six written by other writers was Man Walks Among Us by Marty Robbins.


Snuff: Man Walks Among Us is a beautiful song so I told Bob I’d like to record it. So Bob told me, he said, “Snuff, do you think Marty would mind…I’d like to change a couple of the words in there.” So when Marty got there I said, “Marty, Bob wanted to change this and …” He said, “Oh, God, that’s exciting enough, that he would even take the time to want to change anything.” You know. Then I asked Marty to sing harmony with him on the bridge and he came in…and that was another highlight. We had a good time recording.


Larry: It wasn’t the first time that Bob and Marty had met. When did that happen, Marty?


Marty: I met Bob Nolan the first time, I guess around 1971. He liked my singing and he liked my writing and there was a kind of mutual feeling there, you know. He liked the gunfighter things that I wrote and I liked the songs about nature that he wrote. He loved the wide-open spaces, he loved the flowers, he loved the animals, he was just a real kind man - a wonderful person to know.


Larry: Snuff said that before Bob recorded Man Walks Among Us he wanted to change a few words.


Marty:  Yeah. He asked me about it and I know how Bob felt so it was all right with me.


Larry: What was the change made?


Marty:  I think “I see the eyes of a small cottontail, looking right back at me” I think is what I had.


Larry: Bob changed that to “I could see God looking at me with the eyes of a young cottontail. Were there any problems when you harmonized with Bob on the song?


Marty: If he could have done it a key or two lower I would have liked it better, but that was the key that Bob was singing it in so I did the best I could to sing a little higher than I would usually sing.


Larry: That recording session was back in 1978.  Snuff, was there anything unusual that occurred during this session?


Snuff: I’ll tell you one thing that happened at the session that was kind of funny. It was our second day in and we had done the tracks for a couple of days, the music tracks. Then we were putting Bob’s voice on before we got the chorus together and the backup singers. So Bob went out in the studio and lay down. I was standing in the studio with the engineer and Bob was out in the actual studio. I was in the control room and the speakers were open and I heard this noise. I said, “One of those speakers is really going out, cracking up.” And the engineer turned around and he said, “Yeah, what is that?” and he messed with the dials and so forth and then I looked through the glass and it was Bob.

Bob’s laying on one of the risers out there, just relaxing for a couple of minutes as he told me he was gonna do. And then I realized he had a cassette player next to him and he’d recorded the sound of a running stream up by his place up in the mountains, and he was laying there listening to that running stream to relax. Well, that was unbelievable to me and, well, that was Bob Nolan. If he wanted to be by a stream, he had a cassette and he lay down and he was by a stream! *

 So, the respect we had for him… He was one of a kind. He was Bob Nolan and he always will be Bob Nolan and we’ll never have another one of those. We’ll all greatly miss him a lot.


Larry: Marty, what did, or what do you think you have in common with Bob?


Marty: Well, see, I feel the same way about Nature as Bob Nolan but I had never written songs about Nature except the one song, Man Walks Among Us. And what I liked about Bob was a lot of his songs was about Nature and a lot of his songs was just the cowboy songs, campfire-type songs. Well, that’s different from what I wrote because mine was about gunfighters and killings, you know, and things like that. The last time I saw him we exchanged a few songs.

I sang to Bob on the way back from the recording session. I had my guitar and we were in the back seat of the car and I sang a song that I recorded in an album called All Around Cowboy called The Dreamer. He loved that song so much, he cried. It really made me feel.... You know, it put goosebumps on my arms to see the tears coming to his eyes while I was singing it because it’s kind of like a song like he would write. Because it had no fighting in it it was just a story about a young man that left home and came back seventeen years later to find his mother and father had passed away and he was just a dreamer and a drifter. And I really believe that’s what Bob was—a dreamer and a drifter. Although he, you know, didn’t do a lot of drifting, he certainly had to be a dreamer to do the songs that he did.


Larry: On June 16, 1980, Bob Nolan made his final stand. And as always, Time won. Time has won against others before him - the Farr Brothers, Pat Brady, Lloyd Perryman, and Tim Spencer. Only the last Pioneer, Roy Rogers, remains to tell the story of those days. Memories grow dim with time but we still have the recordings and the films to keep those memories alive.

                Need we say more? Very little. Fashions in music like, all fashions, change in time. Most fashion is ephemeral and becomes only a curiosity of the past, but there are fashions that transcend. The music of the Sons of the Pioneers is not just of the B Westerns, and transcribed radio shows and old songs on dusty albums around the house. The music of the Sons of the Pioneers is a unique heritage. Their performances have made immortal the traditional songs of the West and those written about the West by more contemporary composers. The music of the Sons of the Pioneers is less a fashion and more a treasure; one that gains interest through the years.


* The actual noise heard through the speakers was this: While the cassette recorder was lying by the stream one of singer / western artist Bob Wagner’s horses came over and “snuffled and snorted” right into the microphone.


Note: The above excerpts are from the radio interview of Marty Robbins, Roy Rogers and Tommy "Snuff" Garrett by Larry Hopper, first aired on Station WFDU-FM in Teaneck, NJ on July 6, 1980, six weeks after Bob Nolan's death. Larry is a respected music historian and writer who, at the time of this broadcast, had his own live radio program called, "Down Home Frolic" where he played and discussed vintage music.



Blue Prairie and Tommy Doss

by Larry Hopper ©2008


        The recording of Blue Prairie was a demo made to introduce Tommy Doss to Roy Rogers and the active members of the Sons of the Pioneers. Various contributing factors; the coming end of both the RCA-Victor recording contract and that with Republic films, plus Bob Nolan’s increasing dislike of road tours, all played a part in Bob’s coming split with the Pioneers. He was not alone in his desire to step out. Tim Spencer had also voiced a desire for personal change but was not as vocal or erratically behaved.
        Knowing of this growing disharmony Hi Busse, of the Frontiersmen, listened with intense interest to the band singer at Henry’s 97th Street Corral Club and the “Nolanesque” qualities about his voice. The band singer was Tommy Doss, known as “Spike.” The band he was probably with was Ole Rasmussen’s Nebraska Cornhuskers and was no stranger to Western Swing.
        Tommy’s earliest recordings were on the Tiffany Transcriptions in May of 1947 with Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys while Tommy Duncan was still with the group. Two months later he recorded with Bob’s brother Luke and his Rhythm Busters for Victor but the four sides produced did not find favor with the execs “because he sounded too much like someone else we had.” August 18, 1947 found Tommy on one more Tiffany with Bob but nothing was to come of it immediately.
        A year later, August 1948, a growing situation within the Playboys came to a head, driven by Bob’s drinking. Tommy Duncan made a remark. Bob fired him and hired Tommy Doss. Tommy worked a few weeks with Bob until he turned Tommy over to Luke’s band where he worked with them until November of 1948 when Luke’s band went on tour and Tommy didn’t. He remained at the 97th St. Corral and worked with Ole Rasmussen and his Cornhuskers (a Wills’ clone group if ever there was one).
        Once again Tommy recorded, this time with Ole Rasmussen on the obscure local Crystal label. They boasted artists like Tex Terry’s Sons of the Purple Sage, Brad King and his Dude Ranch Gang, Casey Simmons and his Night Riders, and Carolina Cotton. Success as a recording artist eluded Tommy.
        Then Hi Busse walked in one evening.
        After spending some time listening he approached Tommy, telling him the Frontiersmen were scheduled for a record session the next day and asked if he would be interested in cutting a demo to “pitch to the Pioneers.” The next morning, fighting a cold, Tommy joined the Frontiersmen; Hi Busse, Don Poole, Eddie Martin, Shorty Scott and George Morris who provided the Pioneers style harmony backing, and recorded “Blue Prairie”.
        When Hi played the disc for Roy Rogers, co-founder and voting member of the Pioneers, he played it eight times with Roy exclaiming, “I can’t believe it… I just can’t believe it!!”
        In the meantime Bob Nolan had given his notice and Tim Spencer called Tommy asking if he would be interested in joining the Sons of the Pioneers. Following this call Hugh Farr dropped by the club to listen and then get Tommy’s answer directly. This would have been in June of 1949. With that response Lloyd Perryman stepped in with the solid offer and the contract. Tommy replaced Bob Nolan in Helena, Montana July 15, 1949.
        Despite his newfound position with the Sons of the Pioneers his recording career with them was truncated by the Victor execs that wanted Nolan on their recordings. A contract was made for Bob to make the studio recordings and Tommy made the personal appearances.
        Though there are many commercial recordings and transcriptions of both Bob Nolan and Tommy Doss, including one where they perform together on “A Hillbilly Wedding in June” this is the rarity not made for distribution; the Tommy Doss’ demo of “Blue Prairie” that put his feet in the Pioneer’s boots. Enjoy

Huff, Rick – Liner notes to Hi Busse CD “Hi Pardner”
Griffis, Ken – “Hear My Song, the Story of the Sons of the Pioneers”
Townsend, Charles – “San Antonio Rose: Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys”
Discographies: Luke Wills & His Rhythm Busters – Bear Family
Bob Wills & Texas Playboys – Tiffany Transcriptions




TUMBLING TUMBLEWEEDS: Evolution of a Western Standard

Lawrence Hopper ©2008


It didn’t start out to be a western classic but within twenty years Tumbling Tumbleweeds was well down the trail to that goal. Originally conceived as a song of loneliness, equivocation and determination it evolved through misunderstanding and external manipulation into a fundamental evocation of the iconic American cowboy working the range and at one with his environment.  Return with us now to those early days when Depression was upon the land, jobs were scarce, becoming scarcer, and few could see any light in the dust storm of financial collapse except a young man with “a song in his heart.” 


Bob Nolan arrived in Los Angeles from Tucson at about the same time Wall Street laid its egg.  He worked as a lifeguard, caddy, a cook in Los Angeles, performer in a Chautauqua tent show, and on the boardwalk at Santa Monica while rooming on Grand Avenue in Los Angeles.  According to Bob’s statements contained in Nolan v. Williamson Music and et al. (1969) he had written Tumbling Tumbleweeds, or its predecessor Tumbling Leaves, as early as 1929. Since it was Bob’s habit to be “writing” several songs at a time in his mind before committing them to paper it is a safe assumption that he was speaking figuratively. 


The evolution from mind to hard copy manifests in the “book” of the O-Bar-O Cowboys. The O-Bar-O Cowboys were made up of Len Slye (Roy Rogers), Tim Spencer, Bill “Slumber” Nicholls, “Cactus Mac” MacPeters and a fellow known only as “Cyclone.”  They formed after Bob had left the Rocky Mountaineers, returning to better pay as a caddy at the Bel Air Country Club.


The typed lyric sheets used by the O-Bar-O Cowboys for their ill-advised summer 1933 tour of the southwest contained three indicative pieces of evidence to possible dating of Tumbling Leaves.


The first was an otherwise blank sheet with Tumbling Leaves written upon it inserted into the book.


Secondly there was a four line verse written by Bob on the reverse of the lyric sheet for Goin’ Back to Texas:


Time keeps rolling along

Why should I care if I’m wrong

Here in my heart is a song

Drifting along with the tumbling leaves.


            Thirdly, there was the lyric sheet of the Rocky Mountaineers theme song. All suggesting that other lyric sheets making up the book were from the earlier 1932 period when Len, Tim, Slumber and Bob were in the Mountaineers together.


            In a conversation with Roy Rogers discussing his time with Benny Nawahi’s International Cowboys just prior to the formation of the O-Bar-O Cowboys he mentioned the Long Beach earthquake, which occurred just as the group was beginning their act at the Warner Theatre at 5:45pm March 10, 1933.  Roy said, “They had just begun to sing Tumbling Tumbleweeds, or Tumbling Leaves as it was known at the time when the chandelier shook.”


            The song of loneliness and determination lay dormant during the O-Bar-O Cowboys tour and resurfaced when Len gathered together Tim Spencer and Bob Nolan to form a trio working with Jack and His Texas Outlaws on KFWB. Tumbling Leaves proved popular with listeners and at public appearances but a problem developed. Requesters, confusing the words, asked for “that tumbling weed song,” or “tumbleweed song.”  At the suggestion of Harry Hall, the KFWB announcer who would rename the Pioneer Trio the Sons of the Pioneers the title officially became Tumbling Tumbleweeds and Bob adjusted the melody to accommodate the two extra syllables.


            By May 25, 1934 after the Sons of the Pioneers were established, Tumbling Tumbleweeds was copyright and published by Sunset Music, a California business owned by Harry Walker.  This was under the usual publisher – writer terms whereby each split the royalty 50-50 – half for the publisher and half for the songwriter. 


            Strangely the published music was entitled on each page and the cover as Tumbling Tumble Weeds (three words).


            At this point Harry Hall again enters the scene becoming part of a new “better” publishing deal with Sam Fox Music of Cleveland.  Sam Fox was a large publishing house whose greater distribution outclassed Harry Walker’s local operation.  On July 11, 1934 the publishing contract was, by mutual consent, assigned to Sam Fox with a number of changes.


            First, the title was reduced to two words – Tumbling Tumbleweeds.


            Second, Bob’s original introduction was removed and replaced by the familiar opening we know today by an arranger at Sam Fox much to Bob’s immediate consternation.


            Third, there were some sophisticated chord changes indicated in the bridge, and...


            Fourth, the royalty contract was changed.  Sam Fox would get their half as publishers with Bob Nolan, Harry Walker and Harry Hall splitting the composer’s share.


            The first matter presented no problems.


            The second, the most significant, was soon overlooked when the Sons of the Pioneers preferred the opening and Bob was happy with the royalties it produced. The significance of this change was how it solidified the song irrefutably as a part of the western genre.  The substitution of the words “tumbleweeds” for “leaves” didn’t really alter the lonesome stubbornness and determination of the persona despite the additional use of the word “range” to replace “heart.”  It was the introduction with “roamin’ cowboy,” “prairie moon,” “riding along” which set the song in its place in music history.


            The chord changes making up the third item were ignored. The Sons of the Pioneers and most musicians since preferred a simpler chord structure originally used by Bob.


            Who had made the change in the verse and the chord notations on the bridge has remained a mystery.  To my mind the sophisticated new chords suggested a classically trained musician “fine-tuning” the piece. I further thought it would be someone who could write lyrics. Lacking hard evidence in the form of signed lead sheets, memoranda, or entries in the Sam Fox ledgers I can only propose a likely suspect.  Louis De Francesca.


            Louis De Francesca was a European trained musician among the many arriving in Hollywood to supply music and arrangements for the silent and then sound films.  He was hired by Sam Fox to augment the Fox Studios’ (no relationship) music department and he became a part of the Sam Fox organization writing cues and composing music for live and animated shorts including newsreels like The March of Time and sports films. Most of his music was collected into several multi-volume music catalogs published by Sam Fox for use in the film industry.  The few lyrics he wrote were used in 1933 and 1934 for the films Cavalcade and Carolina but some were either cut in favor of an instrumental presentation or issued as sheet music in conjunction with the film but not heard in the completed picture.


            As to the fourth matter, the royalty split, it would be settled in May of 1961 during the renewal period of the song copyright.  Harry Hall’s interest had expired and Bob obtained Harry Walker’s interest regaining, on paper at least, the proper portion of his royalty as songwriter.


            Although there is no visible difference between the Sam Fox and Williamson Music versions of Tumbling Tumbleweeds the impact of the assignment to Williamson Music in March of 1960 by Sam Fox would lead Bob Nolan to the courts in a struggle over rights, royalties and possible fraud.  The public was unaware because they had the song on records, in songbooks, in glee club performances, on transcriptions and in the movies.


            The Standard Radio Transcriptions of 1934 – 35 distributed to radio stations around the country, and the Charles Starrett Columbia westerns between 1937 and 1941 did the most to implant Tumbling Tumbleweeds in the public consciousness since they used the song as the opening and closing themes.


            So it was that a song in the heart of a lonely writer became an instantly recognizable song in the hearts of millions and a trademark of the American West.



Reconstruction of the original poem:


We reconstruct the original by placing “Leaves,” as originally conceived, for “Tumbleweeds” and the hand written scrap found on the rear of the O-Bar-O Cowboys’ lyric sheet at the end.


Original Intro:

Days may be dreary, still I’m not weary

My heart needs no consoling

At each break of dawn, you’ll find that I’ve gone

Like old leaves, I’m rolling


See them tumbling down,

Pledging their love to the ground,

Lonely but free I’ll be found

Drifting along with the tumbling leaves.


Cares of the past are behind,

Nowhere to go, but I’ll find

Just where the road will wind,

Drifting along with the tumbling leaves.


I know when night has gone

That a new world’s born at dawn.


Time keeps rolling along

Why should I care if I’m wrong
Here in my heart is a song,

Drifting along with the tumbling leaves.


This is the version first published by Sunset Music on May 25, 1934: “Tumbling Leaves” has been replaced by “Tumbleweeds” because of listener’s requests for the mis-heard lyric.


First published intro:

Days may be dreary, still I’m not weary

My heart needs no consoling

At each break of dawn, you’ll find that I’ve gone

Like old tumbleweeds, I’m rolling


See them tumbling down,

Pledging their love to the ground,

Lonely but free I’ll be found

Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.


Cares of the past are behind,

Nowhere to go, but I’ll find

Just where the road will wind,

Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.


I know when night has gone

That a new world’s born at dawn.


I’ll keep rolling along.

Deep in my heart is a song.

Here on the range I belong

Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.


Bob and his partner canceled their agreement with Sunset Music in favor of one with Sam Fox. The song was re-published on July 11, 1934 but with a new introduction provided by Sam Fox.


Revised Intro:

I’m a roaming cowboy, riding all day long

Tumbleweeds around me sing their lonely song.

Nights underneath a prairie moon

I ride along and sing a tune.


See them tumbling down,

Pledging their love to the ground,

Lonely but free I’ll be found

Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.


Cares of the past are behind,

Nowhere to go, but I’ll find

Just where the road will wind,

Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.


I know when night has gone

That a new world’s born at dawn.


I’ll keep rolling along.

Deep in my heart is a song.

Here on the range I belong

Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.


(Originally published in The Western Way Spring 2008 Issue. Reproduced here by permission of the copyright holder. Thank you to Dave Bourne, Elizabeth McDonald, Hal Spencer and Laurence Zwisohn for their contributions to this article.)




STORY OF A DEMO: The Sons and Daughters of the Pioneers

(by Lawrence Hopper)


                Floating around amidst collectors has been a little heard gem which encapsulates a transitional period in two great American music acts; the Sons of the Pioneers and Jo Stafford. Jo, with sisters Christine and Pauline, joined the Sons of the Pioneers to produce a program demo disc, or pilot, to sell to radio stations a show featuring their combined talents. The quality of the preserved piece has not lent itself to easy listening. Heavy mid-range distortion and a slight echo muffle the performances rendering details of the original presentation lost to the casual listener. Thanks to sound processing software this problem as been imperfectly alleviated, allowing a better appreciation of a unique melding of talent and affording an aural glimpse, the earliest recording, of 19 year old Jo Stafford’s solo work supported by her sisters and the talents of the Sons of the Pioneers.

                In the mid thirties radio was a medium expanding exponentially. Live talent filled a variety of showcases for which there was no pay, only the opportunity to be heard and perhaps gain personal appearance work from the exposure.  A fortunate few, like the Sons of the Pioneers, were lucky to be employed as staff musicians, sometimes performing under pseudonyms, and picking up outside work together or separately. “The Open Spaces” on KFWB, the Warner brothers owned station, was such a showcase and regularly scheduled programs devoted to music of the mountains, plains and western life.  In 1938 a confluence of events would put The Sons and Daughters of the Pioneers on the air for the first and only time but the story begins earlier.

                Christine and Pauline Stafford with friend Joan Schaefer formed the Stafford Sisters trio and began doing radio shows in the Los Angeles area.  They worked the Hollywood Barn Dance with the Crockett Family before either the Sons of the Pioneers or Peter Potter became part of the program.  They had also appeared in the Ken Maynard film “Avenging Waters” (1936 04 10) and recorded backup with Louis Prima’s New Orleans Gang on May 17th for Brunswick. This was before Jo Stafford joined the group following high school graduation.  The Sons of the Pioneers already had commercial and transcription recording experience behind them by July 1936 having completed the Standard Transcriptions in January of that year and made their last recordings for Decca July 10th.  Peter Potter, a pseudonym of William Moore, worked in several films and at various radio programs before drifting into obscurity.  He can be seen clowning and singing with Smiley Burnette under his real name in “The Phantom Empire.”

                The Stafford Sisters, with Jo worked several of the KFWB broadcasts with the Sons of the Pioneers and became friends.  Bob Nolan dated Christine for a time.  Jo had an unfulfilled crush on Len (Roy Rogers).

                By September of 1936 the membership of the Sons of the Pioneers, Bob Nolan, Tim Spencer, Len Slye, Hugh Farr and Karl Farr, was about to change due to growing tensions centered on the group’s management by Leo Spencer, Tim’s brother.  He was let go and Tim departed.  The Sons had been particularly dissatisfied with their lack of monetary return on the Standard Transcription project and film work. Appearances in shorts for various studios, two westerns apiece with Charles Starrett and Gene Autry and non-appearance sound track work for live and animated shorts had been sporadic over the past couple of years.

                Lloyd Perryman was brought in but Tim would still appear with the group in Gene Autry’s “The Old Corral” and “The Big Show” due to contract obligations.  It was during this period from September 1936 when Lloyd joined and October 1937 when Len left to work in Republic films that the demo of the Sons and Daughters of the Pioneers originated.  It was an attempt to sell a transcribed program from which the group could financially benefit.

                The spring and summer of 1937 were fairly quiet career-wise for the Pioneers with only radio and personal appearances to keep them busy so it is most likely the demo was recorded in late July or August.  Events would prove the timing poor. 

               The Pioneers signed a contract with Columbia Pictures and began working a series of westerns in August 1937 starring Charles Starrett in which they would perform and provide songs. The films were generally made once a month on a two week production schedule. In October their work load grew. They obtained a contract to record for the American Record Corporation. With film work, recording sessions, radio programs and personal appearances the additional burden of doing a regular transcribed program may have seemed too much.  Another change took place in October – Jo Stafford left her group to pursue other interests which eventually led to joining the Pied Pipers and working with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra.  The remaining sisters, once again with Joan Schaefer filling out the trio, continued working into 1938 making two Gene Autry films, “The Big Show” and “Gold Mine in the Sky,” before the act was permanently broken up by marriages.

               The demo itself was probably recorded at KFWB studios and ended up on a shelf in the library.  The usual process was to have a written continuity accompanying transcribed programs for announcers on local stations so they could give the impression of working with the featured artists and inject local news or ads where appropriate. 

               One evening in 1938 the live talent for “The Open Spaces” cancelled.  Either Harry Hall, or the program producer grabbed the demo disc but couldn’t find the continuity sheet.  With the aid of the station sound effects man they came up with ‘The Night Rider’ gimmick and used the sounds of hoof-beats, crickets and birds to bridge the transitions from song to song.  With the show over, the demo disc was returned to the library.  We can hear it today because someone with a home disc- machine recorded it off the air from speaker to microphone to disc.  This accounts to some degree for the measure of distortion in the sound that survives on tapes.  Had the tape been made from a possible file copy the sound would have been much different.  Many stations were in the habit of keeping file recordings of live broadcasts by transcribing them.  It is this habit that has allowed many early radio programs to remain in existence that were not originally transcribed themselves but broadcast live.


THE PROGRAM AS HEARD HERE. Open Spaces pilot radio program (.mp3 file 17.3 MB)

                The program begins with a sudden “ooooooh” vocal chorus leading into the opening theme.  This was heavily distorted due to improper volume settings by the recordist.  After equalizing the sound and removing clicks I have changed the sudden opening to a fade in leading to Harry Hall’s opening and brought down the volume under his narrative.  Following this minor change the program runs with only the improved equalization and de-clicking for a better listening experience.


                Theme: “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and Intro – Sons of the Pioneers and Stafford Sisters.  Announcer: Harry Hall.

                “Cool Water” – Len Slye (Roy Rogers) takes the lead with chorus backing by the Stafford Sisters. From time to time a careful listener can discern Bob Nolan’s voice in the chorus.

                “Riding Down the Canyon” – Showcases Jo Stafford’s vocal talents working with her sisters.

                “Chant of the Plains” – Sons of the Pioneers.  Bob Nolan stepping forward for a brief solo.

                “Blue Prairie” – Sons of the Pioneers and Stafford Sisters.  Vocal lead by Bob Nolan with brief response from Lloyd Perryman.

                Theme: “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and Outro – Sons of the Pioneers and Stafford Sisters.  Announcer: Harry Hall.


                One final note: The American Broadcasting System referred to by Harry Hall is not the ABC radio or television network most people would be familiar with.  This was an early attempt at chain (network) broadcasting by the Storer Broadcast Company owner George Storer.  His business model was to buy and sell radio stations like he did gasoline stations.  When RCA was forced to divest itself of the Blue Network in 1943 the new owners bought the rights to the name “The American Broadcasting System” from George.



Further Notes:


The O-Bar-O "book" is a loose-leaf book equivalent to the Nolan tin box.


    A - The cover, which I "restored" from a black and white Xerox copy.  The cover (rear) of the O-Bar-O Cowboys book shows "mesquite" written on it.  The front has the single word "Len" since this was Len Slye's copy, or at least the binder, of the lyric sheets.



    B - The handwritten verse from the rear of the Carson Robison song "Goin' Back to Texas."


    C - The notation on the blank sheet for "Tumbling Leaves." The "tumbling leaves" scribble was in the front of the book immediately in front of the first lyric sheet which included "It's Time to Say Aloha" (Fred Howard / Nat Vincent), listed on the sheet as "Aloha Oe To You."  The lyrics may be seen faintly in the background of the photocopy.


Five years ago I was corresponding with Hal Spencer when the subject of the O-Bar-O Cowboys came up and he mentioned that he had the book of their repertoire.  After discussing some points sight unseen, he sent photocopies of the contents and the covers.   I went through the sheets identifying the actual titles where possible from the titles used (usually from the chorus of a song), dated them and added notations as to whom had made recordings or where the song originated.  In some cases it was from a film, show, popular sheet music.  In one case a 1908 novelty was used because it was used in an animated short.
I broke down the songs as to genre and composer and compiled a new combined index cross-referenced between the actual title and the title used in the book.  There remain a few songs I have yet to identify positively.  Also of note are three songs that post date the 1933 summer tour. Two are by Bob - At the Rainbow's End (1936) and When the Golden Train Comes Down (1937) and Down in the Old Cherry Orchard (Bryan / Henry) (1934) indicating that at some point sheets from Tim's SOP box became mixed with the earlier material. So the book is still in Hal's possession. 
Of greater use would be the box that was at the Victorville Roy Rogers' Museum but which Dusty says he does not have at the Branson edition.  The reason is the discrepancies between Bob's and Roy's as far as missing cards.  Tim's would provide, hopefully, a unifying addition.  Additionally there is the possibility of hand-written notes on the cards that could provide enlightenment on the writing, performing and chording of the songs and allow comparison from the closest thing to source documents that we have to the published works.

Sunset Music original sheet music




Sam Fox sheet music - Cover and first page showing change in the verse-






Williamson original sheet music - cover only -



KMSU - Mankato MN "Jazz with Miss Lona"

On April 14, 2008, Larry was interviewed by Miss Lona and Ron Affolter. Excerpts from this interview can be heard below. This is usually a Minnesota State University jazz program but hostess, Miss Lona, made an exception this time to salute Bob Nolan. Larry gave an outline of Bob's life and career with the history of 14 of his best-known songs plus two others. Each segment is identified by the song discussed.

A. Way Out There - One More Ride

B. Moonlight on the Prairie - Happy (Rovin') Cowboy

C. Blue Prairie - Sky Ball Paint - The Devil's Great Grandson

D. Cool Water

E. Trail Herdin' Cowboy - Trail Dreamin'

F. Hold That Critter Down - I Still Do

G. The Touch of God's Hand - Hillbilly Wedding in June

H. No One to Cry To - Man Walks Among Us

I. Tumbling Tumbleweeds - When Pay Day Rolls Around