Myth of the West: Lonely But Free I’ll Be Found
Why did a romanticized version of the American West persist into Depression-era America, well after the West was settled?
In this lesson, students watch an excerpt from the episode Tumbling Tumbleweeds, in which they learn about Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers, a Western singing group famous for the song “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” They then analyze the song in the context of the Myth of the West and the Great Depression.
Related Episode: Tumbling Tumbleweeds
Gene Newberry loves all things Western. One piece in his collection of Western memorabilia is an autographed copy of the sheet music for The Sons of the Pioneers’ most famous song, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” The inscription reads, “To Fred, This was the second song that I wrote in 1932. It has been both bad and good to me. Bob Nolan.” Newberry wants to know what Bob Nolan meant by that, so host Eduardo Pagan sets out to unravel the mysterious inscription.
Suggested Grade Level
This lesson is written for grades 6-8, but could be adapted for use in any grade 6-12. Suggestions for adaptation include: task students with researching The Great Depression independently; ask students to follow up their analysis of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” by looking into another popular Western song - or film - from another time period, including contemporary pop culture; assign groups of students different periods in American history and ask them to research how the Myth of West appears (or doesn’t); compare and contrast the version of the Old West represented by the Sons of the Pioneers with the version of the Old West seen in today’s popular culture (“Justified,” “True Grit,” etc.).
Suggested Unit of Study
This lesson is appropriate for American History units on westward expansion and the Great Depression.
Poet Laureate of the West
Eduardo Pagan provides background on Bob Nolan, a member of the Sons of the Pioneers.
History Detective Eduardo Pagan provides background on Bob Nolan, a member of the Sons of the Pioneers and the writer of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” A former member of the Sons of the Pioneers explains how the song was written and how popular it became. Fred Goodwin, a collector of Western memorabilia, gives his theory as to why the song was so popular during the Great Depression.
Sons of the Pioneers
Archive footage of the Sons of the Pioneers performing Tumbling Tumbleweeds.
To view Tumbling Tumbleweeds Lyrics slideshow, click here.
To print slideshow, click here.
Estimated Time Required
1-2 class periods
When Americans refer to The Wild West or the Old West, they are speaking of a time that existed both in reality and in myth. In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was pushing westward, starting farms, creating settlements and founding cities. The process required hard physical labor and often brought settlers into deadly conflicts with Native Americans. But as early as the mid-1800s, the American West was also a mythical place of wide-open plains, cowboys riding the range, and heroic battles pitting brave settlers against savage Native Americans. This mythical West continued to gain in popularity long after the west was settled, helping the Sons of the Pioneers achieve great success as a Western singing group during the Great Depression.
Have students watch “The Poet Laureate of the West” video while taking notes on the following. Afterwards, use the following questions to assess comprehension and prompt discussion:
- Who was Bob Nolan? What details do we learn about him?
- Who were the Sons of the Pioneers?
- What was “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”?
- According to Rusty Richards, how did “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” change from the time Nolan originally wrote it to the time it became famous?
- How does Fred Goodwin describe the Old West?
- Why do you think “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” was as famous as it was?
After showing the video The Poet Laureate of the West from the History Detectives episode Tumbling Tumbleweeds, explain to students that they will be comparing and contrasting the world painted by the Sons of the Pioneers and the world of the Great Depression. Students may record their notes on the Escaping the Depression reproducible. First, lead a discussion about the Great Depression in 1930s America. You may wish to share with the students one or more of the following resources:
- Timeline of the Great Depression from PBS documentary "Riding the Rails"
- The Great Depression, from The University of Illinois
- Photographs of migrant workers by Dorothea Lange
- Photos of Depression-Era United States, from the Farm Security Administration (search “Depression,” and use Gallery View)
Ask students the following:
- What was the Great Depression?
- What kinds of jobs did people have during this period?
- What kinds of homes did people live in?
- What were the challenges of the period?
- What were the joys?
Then, show students the video Sons of the Pioneers perform Tumbling Tumbleweeds and lead a discussion about the “Old West” as portrayed by the singing group.
- How does the narrator in “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” spend his days?
- What kind of work does he do?
- Where does he live?
- What were the challenges in his life?
- What were the joys?
Allow students to draw conclusions about why “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” was so popular in the 1930s, during the Great Depression.
- Why was the Old West so popular during the Great Depression? Why would people want to escape to the world painted in “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”?
- Is the Old West still popular?
- In what ways do you see the ideas of the Old West represented in today’s pop culture? Think about general ideas and specific elements of the West (i.e., freedom, cowboys and open plains).
- Why do you think the “Old West” is the time period that has come to define America? How is it special?
- Consider the Old West in popular culture today. Does the romantic notion and myth persist today? What examples or evidence can you cite?
“Tumbling Tumbleweeds” wasn’t originally a song about the Old West. Have students compare the original lyrics to with the final lyrics. Then, ask them to write their own song that uses the ideas of the mythical Old West or to think of a current hit song and rewrite it to include those ideas. What ideas about the Old West fit into the song? What ideas are too old-fashioned? Or ask students to brainstorm the ideas and places that are mythical now and rewrite a song to reflect these new myths.
More on History Detectives
Use the following episodes or lesson plans from History Detectives to support/enhance the teaching of this lesson in your classroom.
- Investigations: Society Circus Program, WPA Mural Studies
- Detective Techniques: Historical Research
- Bob Nolan Site about Bob Nolan run by his family members. Includes lyrics, lists, slideshows, and video.
- The Old Corral Thorough collection of information about B-Westerns from the 1920s-1950s.
- Sons of the Pioneers Music Music tracks from the Sons of the Pioneers at Internet Archive
National History Standards
2. Historical Comprehension: The student comprehends a variety of historical sources
3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation: The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation
4. Historical Research Capabilities: The student conducts historical research
US History Content Standards for Grades 5-12
Era 8: The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
- Standard 1: The causes of the Great Depression and how it affected American society
Common Core State Standards
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.7 Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
CCS.ELA-literacy.RH.11-12.1Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.3 Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.