Motivation is not always musical: Pernell Roberts

February 1, 2010

I’ll return to my regularly scheduled programming next post. But I have to say a few words about the recent passing of Pernell Roberts, which went virtually unnoticed by the MSM, but not by the millions of die hard fans of TV westerns. For those of you who are going, “Who???”, let me explain. Pernell Roberts was the last surviving original cast member of the hit TV western, Bonanza (1959-1973). After spending six seasons in the role of Adam Cartwright, he left the show rather abruptly, but continued working in television, theater, and social activism. To answer your next question, “Okay, so what does this have to do with a violin blog?”  Not a dad-burned thing, as Hoss might say. But I enjoy reminiscing about it because it was a line of demarcation for me in both my career and my life. You could say that it provided some critical non-musical motivation which I desperately needed at that point. A few posts back I talked about finding an instrument-specific piece of music to provide the motivation for progress, but as I look back over my experience it is plain to me that motivation for a musician can come from anywhere. Even fictional television characters.

In the winter of 2004, I was flipping through TV channels to avoid practicing for my graduate recital and studying for comps, and ran across a rerun of Bonanza on TV Land. Being both sentimental and inquisitive, I kept watching. All of them. And then I started over, and recorded each episode on VHS tapes. When my VCR burned out, I bought another. I became mildly fanatical, not about the storyline per se, but about Roberts/Adam and the historical setting for the series. Oh, and the musical scores which struck me as different from anything else I’d heard in any genre of TV. But mostly, really, it was about Adam.

The following fall, I started pre-PhD studies in the musicology program at the University of Iowa. When the time came to choose paper topics for my “Intro to Graduate Studies” class, I saw an opportunity. I’d been mulling over several episodes of Bonanza from a musical standpoint, and I really wanted to do a paper on Pernell Roberts, who did his own singing and guitar playing in Bonanza. Alas, there was not nearly enough scholarly research material available, so I chose the episode “Enter Thomas Bowers” as the subject. Why? It used opera as a component for both the plot and the musical score, while providing a bit of social commentary on racism. It led me on a most fascinating and enriching research tour, as I learned about the real, historical Thomas Bowers (a 19th century African-American opera singer), the rich cultural histories of the Sierra Nevada in the Bonanza time frame, and of Hollywood and early broadcast television, the story behind the episode (the dirt and gossip, backed of course by solid scholarly research, heh), the process of composing a television score, opera scores, and actual scripts.

In the end, my professor thought it merited submission as a presentation to the AMS (American Musicological Society). I wrote a lot of papers between 1998 and 2005, but this particular paper stands out to me as the best one I ever wrote. I suspect it was one of only a handful of papers that my professors ever bothered to read. Compared to “Enter The Real Thomas Bowers,” the rest seem inarticulate, weak, arrogant and cocky in tone. It got me focused on a research area that has much future potential in academia, and for that I was very grateful. So I consider Mr. Roberts, Bonanza, and David Rose to have all been very influential in getting me started seriously, yet unconventionally, in musicology.

I like to think that Adam Cartwright not only taught me how to do really excellent, exhaustive research and helped me write about it persuasively, but also indirectly booted me back into the dating world. Suffice it to say, Adam did not have very good luck with the ladies (none of the Cartwrights did), but it was enough to convince me that being alone was not good for me. I was ready to move on, five years after a very painful divorce (we all have our little bones in the closet…ha.) One of the worst experiences in my life inadvertently led me to one of the best, because I met my current love and the rest, including my stint at the U of IA is, shall we say, herstory.

Rest in peace, gentlemen:

Dan Blocker (1928-1972),  Eric “Hoss” Cartwright
Lorne Greene (1915-1987), Ben Cartwright
David Rose (1910-1990),  composer, music director
Michael Landon (1936-1991),  Joseph “Little Joe” Cartwright
Pernell Roberts (1928-2010),  Adam Cartwright

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