If ever a song traveled a rocky, detour-riddled road to the top of the charts, Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In” is it.
The song began as a cowboy poem that lamented the encroachment of city life. Written by Robert Fletcher, a Montana engineer who was also a popular western poet. Popular, that is, among enthusiasts of cowboy poetry during the early 20th Century — admittedly not a huge audience. In any case, Fletcher’s poem “Open Range” was published in a collection called Corral Dust in 1934. The rhythmic beat of the second stanza caught Porter’s attention:
I want the sage, I want the grass,
I want the curlew’s call…
Porter wanted the lyrics, and struck a deal with Fletcher to buy song rights to the poem for $250. At the height of the Depression, this was a significant amount. Most of the original poem was rife with an American west view of the world, even going so far as to bash Broadway by name. This obviously did not sit well with Porter’s style, and he changed most of the lyrics completely. He borrowed heavily from the final lines,
And turn me loose on my cayuse
But please don’t fence me in.
…Leaving Fletcher’s unmistakable handprint. In any case it hardly mattered at the time, because Porter’s employer, 20th Century Fox, shelved the intended film project.
Fast forward to the 1940s, when “Canteen” films were popular. The story line was pretty simple; soldier(s) on leave or preparing to ship out find love, lose love, then find it again, while stars of stage and screen perform for America’s departing war heroes. Nothing wrong with that, although sometimes the studios were scrambling for song material. In 1944 Warner Brothers was cranking out production of Hollywood Canteen, and needed something for Roy Rogers and The Sons of The Pioneers. Somehow they dug up this forgotten Cole Porter relic, and filmgoers loved it.
As was generally the case in the 1940s, competing record labels rushed their stars into the studio to be first-to-market. Bing Crosby wasn’t always first, but his records could be counted on no matter what. This time, however, Bing got the jump on the competition. Working with the Andrews Sisters, he recorded the song during the summer of 1944, before the film was even released. Legend has it that they blitzed through the recording, and promptly forgot about it.
That didn’t last, of course, as the song rose to popularity with the film. Unfortunately for Roy Rogers he was late to the party, and it was the Bing Crosby/Andrews Sisters recording that would rocket to the top of the pop charts and sell millions of records. On the country & western side, Gene Autry had the hit, reaching #4 on that chart.
The song went to #1 with the release of the film and stayed at the top until mid-February of 1945. In a bit of odd trivia, it was replaced at the top by another Andrews Sisters effort, “Rum and Coca Cola.” The back story is that like “Don’t Fence Me In”, “Rum and Coca Cola” was also a hastily made recording, supposedly recorded in even less time.
Unfortunately the published version of “Don’t Fence Me In” did not include Fletcher’s name on the credits. He had indeed sold away his financial rights, but in 1934 Fletcher’s understanding was that he would enjoy the fame associated with a Cole Porter song. Sources differ on what happened afterward in 1944. It is public record that the Montana press made a stink about it, and the national press ran with it and was rather accusatory toward Porter. And this is where history divides…some say Fletcher sued for royalties, others say he only wanted his name credited.
The generally accepted tale is that indeed, Fletcher understood that his financial rights were sold, but was disappointed about lack of credit. At this point his friends made a stink, and the brouhaha ensued. Eventually it was pointed out that Fletcher’s contribution was minor, to say the least. Cole Porter, however, felt badly that Fletcher didn’t receive credit. Biographers state that although he was under no legal obligation, Porter arranged for Fletcher to receive a portion of the royalties.
Perhaps the bad press left a bad taste, because Porter would often insist that he did not care for the song. He even went as far as saying it was his least favorite among his hits. It’s clear that the “voice” for the song sprang from Fletcher, as Cole Porter was anything but an open range cowboy.
Porter was, of course, one of the most inventive and clever lyricists in the history of the Great American Songbook. Without his treatment, Fletcher’s poem would likely be forever lost to obscurity.