I was listening to a Gene Autry record yesterday--by the way, if you don’t own any Autry recordings you should get your hands on some. I know I had heard him sing “South of the Border” (recorded in 1939) at some point, but I hadn’t thought too much of it. I have predominately heard Frank Sinatra's 1953 version. So my discovery of Autry’s recording, that precedes The Chairman's version by 14 years, jarred my conceptions of the song.
So, as you know may well know, Gene Autry is the singing cowboy. He is the man about whom Johnny Cash writes the following heart-warming account: “My little boy said, ‘Daddy, who’s Gene Autry?’ (His old movie was comin’ on TV) I said, ‘Let me tell you about him son.” Johnny Cash takes his boy on his knee and they have a bonding moment; Cash tells his boy about the times he got to see Autry’s films: “I’d be downtown at the picture show like everybody else that could, to see a handsome man on a big fine stallion, goin’ about doin’ good.[...]Yeah ole Gene was the image of justice and goodness and purity and in the eyes of a little country boy, he made the world look better to me.”* There is a lot to be written about this particular fascination and association Johnny Cash had with Gene Autry, but that moves beyond my point at this moment. Gene Autry, the man who sang “Home on the Range” and “Back in the Saddle Again,” Johnny Cash’s all-American hero, the person who is supposed to embody “truth” and “right” as if they were completely self-evident concepts, sings this song about seducing an exotic (exotic, insomuch as the speaker treats her that way in the song) woman in Mexico and leaving her. Not only does he lie and leave, he fetishizes her memory as the ultimate what-could-have-been-but-never-will-be-because-I’m-just-a-restless-wanderer.
The lyrics to "South of the Border" made some sense coming from Frank Sinatra, though I certainly still cannot pardon the sentiments coming from either of them. The sexually-suggestive title with its unabashed endorsement of living the high life, regardless of the costs, seemed to fit with the Frank I am familiar with. He is a good looking guy, who made his way up, is connected with the mob, and played drinking buddies with everyone from John F. Kennedy to Joe DiMaggio. No saint, but probably wouldn’t despoil a virgin either. Frank constantly cultivated the image of being one of us--but just a bit cooler. He’s the manifestation of a 1940’s middle class fantasy of endless cocktails, cigarettes, crooning, and behaving badly--while maintaining enough respectability not to talk about it in too crude of terms. I believe this is exactly the kind of man who would go to Mexico, have an affair, slip out, go back to his family, and regret it. The song made sense coming from Frank, because as good as we want to be, sometimes we’re all a little bit like Frank. (Again, I’m not interested in excusing the song’s message).
Sinatra remains a manifestation of what many men wish they could be, sad or true as this maybe. I’ve counted at least four moments when Jay-Z, the most profitable pop artist today, compares himself to Sinatra in his lyrics. It makes perfect sense that Sinatra, the ultimate American gentleman, like Jay-Z would have subterranean links to the mob. There needs to be some sort of ruggedness attached to our masculine heroes. From the old west to James Dean to Jay-Z, being an iconic American male means being willing to be violent when necessary. And as terrible as the speaker treats the woman in the song, for some strange reason, the content of “South of the Border” didn’t seem as bad coming from Frank.
But from Gene Autry, who actually did the original recording, the song doesn’t add up. Why would this guy who is supposed to stand for everything good and right and American, why would he seduce a Mexican woman and leave her? That doesn’t sound like the “justice and goodness and purity” that Johnny Cash describes. There seems to be a latent racism and sexism in both versions: “She sighed when I whispered ‘manana,’ never dreaming that we would part, / and I lied when I whispered ‘manana’ for our tomorrow never came.” Implicitly, the speaker points out his own fault. He lied; plain and simple.
Sinatra’s version, perhaps because of the enthusiastic horn arrangement at the beginning, seems to only celebrate the affair and deception of the “exotic” foreign woman. However, as my friend and popular music expert, Sean Diaz, pointed out to me, perhaps the song for Autry is full of regret. His character in the songs and films is supposed to stand for “truth” and “goodness,” at least according to the way Cash interprets him, but he knows he falls short in this regrettable lapse of character. I like this reading, but I have yet to watch the Autry film, South of the Border, which will certainly shed more light on the situation.
*Liner notes for Gene Autry: 50th Anniversary, Republic Records. 1976. LP.
Originally published as "South of the Border": Autry, Sinatra, and Sexual Imperialism