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Advice & More June 2017

Silver Screen, Golden Years

Herb Jeffries – The Bronze Buckaroo

By Jacqueline T. Lynch

Black audiences were given a singing cowboy hero at last.  He sang better than Gene Autry, but would not reach Autry’s iconic and financial stature.

It is a treat to hear Herb Jeffries singing “Flamingo,” in his silky baritone as only he can do it.  He holds a unique place in film history:  He is considered the first black singing cowboy.  Jeffries rode fences on a most curious range – an industry sitting on the fence about a nation divided by race.

Born Herbert Jeffrey of mixed-race African and European ancestry, he was a band vocalist with Duke Ellington in the 1940s.  In Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams - the Story of Black Hollywood by Donald Bogle, he is described as a bit of a nightclub heartthrob who headed to Gower Gulch like so many others looking for a back door into Hollywood and the B-westerns.

His “Harlem on the Prairie,” shot in 10 days, was touted by Variety as having much “box office promise… as a novelty, for the colored theaters, it’s surefire.”  It was called the first Negro musical western, and would launch a new genre. 

A strange, surreal prairie it was for a light-skinned mixed race man, the forerunner of a new genre that was meant to play only to what Variety called “colored theaters.”  Black audiences were given a singing cowboy hero at last.  He sang better than Gene Autry, but would not reach Autry’s iconic and financial stature.

There were few blacks in the other B-westerns that played to mainstream (non-segregated theaters); especially that were usually not demeaned by stereotype.  However, seeing few African Americans in westerns may have left audiences of the day, and for a generation afterward, with the impression that the Old West was as segregated a place as the schools in Little Rock before 1957 and Brown v. Board of Education.

In her memoir To See the Dream, Jessamyn West writes in one chapter on the filming of “Friendly Persuasion” (1956) about the exploits of a Quaker family during the Civil War, based on her book, The Friendly Persuasion.  West ponders the reaction of a little white girl neighbor girl about black cowboys when two teenage boys, one white and one black, visit Miss West and excitedly discuss their future dreams.  The black teen declares he wants to be a cowboy.

West is especially interested in the reaction of the little girl.  The child dismisses this young man’s goal in life as silly because, as she declares with authority, there are no Negro cowboys.  Jessamyn West gently plays devil’s advocate and ruminates that cows do not care about the color of the skin of whoever rides herd.  But, the little girl is adamant; it makes no sense to her.  She believes there just are no Negro cowboys.

Will Rogers, famed “Ziegfeld Follies” self-styled cowboy comedian and folk hero, and movie star in his own set of B-films, was taught how to be a ranch hand by a former slave.  The little girl, and much of America, probably didn’t know that.

At that time, tales of African American pioneers in the West, and the Buffalo Soldiers in the U.S. Cavalry got little play in the history books, and not much of even a footnote in the movies.

But, Herb Jeffries, called The Bronze Buckaroo after the title of one of his films, represented the possibility of there being such a thing as a black hero in the wild west, if only to segregated audiences.

When he was in his 80s, Mr. Jeffries recorded an album of cowboy songs in Nashville, called “The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again),” and continued to perform live even into his 90s at jazz festivals, and at benefits to raise money for autism research.  That surely makes him a hero.

He remarked in a Los Angeles Times interview, “Little children of dark skin — not just Negroes, but Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, everybody of color — had no heroes in the movies.  I was so glad to give them something to identify with.”  He actually wore darker makeup on screen to do this.

In 2004, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.  Mr. Jeffries passed away in 2014, just a few months shy of his 100th birthday.

“Two-Gun Man from Harlem” (1938) creates a world for us that is both strange and familiar, an image placed over another image.  We see a separate world, but it is our world and we are at home here, even if we are not cowboys, even if we are not black, even if we are not white.


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., and several other non- fiction books, as well as novels.

Meet Jacqueline