“The Welfare State” and the Singing Cowboy

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made an interesting statement the other day. He said that if America goes further down the “entitlement route” than we’ve already gone, we’ll no longer be a nation which honors people’s striving for success. We’ll just be, Christie said, “Sitting on the couch, waiting for the welfare check to come.”

Easy to dismiss such a statement with bromides about being “insensitive” and not caring about “those less fortunate than ourselves.” But he definitely has a point. People of my generation are often appalled nowadays when we see how clueless and lacking in initiative so many young Americans are. It’s the “We’re entitled” generation — or so it appears to us.

Rising by your own initiative and efforts, climbing as high as they would enable you to — those were some of the most distinctive qualities of Americans, dating back to colonial days. We were not a nation of rigid social barriers. This year’s little boy from a poverty-stricken family, might become, in 30 years or so, a multi-millionaire, by inventing a better mousetrap, founding a string of hotels that travelers liked better than the other guy’s, or getting in on the ground floor of a new industry or way of looking at things that was just a-borning.

Who was a prime example of that within the living memory of most of us? Why none other than Gene Autry, the original Singing Cowboy.

Oh, sure, I could have found a different example, but in my opinion, not a better one. Besides, he was — is — my childhood hero.

Orvon Grover Autry — his real name — was born on Sept. 29, 1907, in Tioga, Texas, to Delbert and Elnora Ozment Autry. His father was a horse farmer and trader, a charming but feckless man who was casual about providing for his wife and four children, and would sometimes drift off and disappear for weeks at a time, shacked up with some sweet young thing he had met at a tavern. Elnora, Orvon and his two sisters and one brother often suffered grinding poverty, having to depend on other family members for food when Delbert disappeared or came home from horse trading with nothing in his pockets but lint.

But Orvon was one of those Americans who had a drive, an inner desire, which told him, “You’re not going to live out your life struggling on this damn farm. You’re going to AMOUNT  to something! People are going to know YOUR name!” He was a workin’ young fool, whether it was in pitching hay on his uncle’s farm, shining shoes in a local barber shop (and entertaining customers with his chief natural attribute, a strikingly good singing voice), or spending a summer with a traveling medicine show when in his teens. Young Orvon got a job punching a telegraph key for the railroad, dropping out of high school short of graduation to pursue it — and always, always, sang and played his $8 guitar at any and every opportunity, when there was someone to hear him, and when there was no one there but him and the ghosts of the railroad station.

Young Orvon watched for his opportunities, rode his railroad pass to New York City to try to get his music recorded — and ran into a brick wall — of sorts. Nobody thought he was ready, yet; but a kind and perceptive recording studio manager advised him to go back home to Oklahoma, where the Autrys were living by that time, get as much experience singing and playing as he could, even if he had to do it for free; and come back in a couple of years.

And that’s what he did. He picked up a new first name — Gene — worked his butt off being a telegraph operator and a traveling singer and guitar picker, went back to New York in 1929, and finally cut his first records, mostly spot-on imitations of the Singing Brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers. Gene Autry was on his way. The recording career morphed into three years on the WLS Barn Dance in Chicago, which led to a career in B-Western movies as the Original Singing Cowboy, a radio show which lasted for 16 years, his own TV show, a new career as a high-stakes but scrupulously honest businessman who made millions, and finally his establishment, in his old age, of the Autry Museum of Western History, in California.

Gene Autry certainly didn’t start out with what President Obama recently referred to as “a silver spoon in his mouth.” In this day and age, money and social position in childhood seem to be the only things our society can imagine as “advantages.” But there are “advantages” — and there are OTHER advantages.  Young Orvon Autry was born with an inner drive to succeed, an ability to sing pleasingly that he developed steadily over the years, making it better and better; and the willingness to work like a dog, day and night, tirelessly, unceasingly, to succeed. And when he did, beyond his wildest dreams, he never forgot where he had come from. To friends from childhood and later, to family, to millions of fans who loved him, throughout the world, he was just “Old Gene.”

Now, when Orvon, newly re-christened Gene, was beginning his climb to the top, the Great Depression had barely started. The vast panoply of social welfare programs the federal government now operates did not begin until after Franklin Roosevelt became president, in 1932. President Obama recently said that he and his wife Michelle succeeded because they were “given” a chance. Well, Gene Autry wasn’t “given” a chance. He made his own chances, by true grit and hustle and God-given talent. That’s the American way.

But suppose, just for the sake of argument, that when young Orvon Autry was sending telegrams for the railroad, and singing for whomever would listen, that all these federal anti-poverty programs were already in place. Let’s go back a little further, and assume that they were in place when he was born, along with the various social views and beliefs that are popular now.

Orvon and his family would have been eligible for food stamps and welfare, being officially “poor.” Delbert Autry would have piddled around for a few years, half-heartedly supporting his family, until one day a drinkin’ buddy would have told him that the leg injury he received when he fell off a horse while half-soused might qualify him for “disability.” Delbert would have pursued that with an attorney, finally achieving the desire of many today: A monthly check for which he had to do nothing. He and Elnora would have learned that if they had more children, they could get a bigger welfare check. They would have reacted accordingly, with the marriage eventually producing eight children instead of four.

Young Orvon would have wanted to pursue his music, but with several types of federal assistance coming into the Autry household each month, he would have found it very tempting to kick back, sing and play for his friends, not concern himself too much about the future. If the money’s coming in without your having to turn a hand, why wear yourself out working? would become his motto.

Eventually, singing and playing occasionally around his hometown to meet girls and get drunk, Orvon would have married some local girl and settled down to an uneventful, lazy existence, much like that of his father, who lived more to enjoy himself than to do anything else. He might have worked, half-heartedly, at a series of dead-end jobs until he managed to find an excuse to apply for “disability” himself — just like his father. He probably would have gotten it, just as Delbert did.

Some day, many years later, an elderly man named Orvon Grover Autry would have died in his little town. People his own age who had known him since childhood would shake their heads and say, “Thought at one time Orvon might amount to something, with that singin’ voice he had, and them good looks. But them welfare benefits just took away all his get-up-and-go.” He would be buried in the town’s cemetery, unknown, and unmourned, by the world.

You see my point? How many famous Americans might never have emerged from obscurity, and done great things, if the tender mercies of Washington, D.C., had enveloped them at an early age? How many potentially great Americans have we lost in the years since the advent of overwhelming federal “assistance?”

Maybe, somewhere out there, there was another Gene Autry. And we never got to hear him.









10 comments for ““The Welfare State” and the Singing Cowboy

  1. mrzollman
    April 20, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    Thanks for another great column, old corporal. KUDOS! You hit the nail on the head old buddy….well written and very astute!

  2. Living in Reality
    April 24, 2012 at 7:34 am

    Interesting that many of the leading rap and hip-hop artists that have become ultra successful grew up in conditions not unlike Mr. Autry.

    • oh brother
      April 24, 2012 at 8:38 am

      Not sure the rappers and hip hoppers are what I would exactly call a pinnacle of society or a raving success from out of the depths of poverty. May in fact spread a bad message of drug use, pop’n caps in cops, sexual escapades, civil disobedience, are demeaning to women and generally promote bad behavior. But it’s all ‘cool’ and ‘bling’. It’s true that government assistance in many areas is the perpetual cause of more of the same. there’s nothing wrong with a hand up, but continual expected hand outs cause dependance and breeds much crime.

    • April 24, 2012 at 9:29 am

      Possibly. But I stand by my main point: Omnipresent government “safety nets” stifle initiative and tend to become “hammocks” in which people can relax and not try to help themselves.

      • Living in Reality
        April 24, 2012 at 10:06 am

        I agree. It is time that we eliminate Social Security and Medicare so those lazy old folks can get off their duffs and work until they fall into a grave.

  3. April 24, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    That’s not what I was talking about and you know it. You’re just trying to confuse the issue.

    • Southlander
      May 13, 2012 at 3:20 am

      By the way, great site you have here Wayne, looking forward to seeing more and as always your thought provoking comments at Amren.

      • May 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm

        Thanks, Southlander. I appreciate the kind words. I think the forum on AmRen is so much better since they went to the style they’re using now.

  4. Southlander
    May 13, 2012 at 3:16 am

    @Living in Reality

    Social Security and Medicare are both quickly being eliminated already, haven’t you noticed?
    It’s called the Food Stamp, Medicaid and Welfare State strategy, as a matter of fact by the time I’m ready to legally retire there won’t be any funds left because it takes me and 11 of my taxpaying brethren to fund just one welfare family so you can guarantee I’ll work til I hit the grave if things don’t change and fast.
    Now that’s living in reality for real.

  5. rjp
    May 14, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    Southlander said “it takes me and 11 of my taxpaying brethren to fund just one welfare family ….

    It’s not even close to 12 to 1. It’s more like 3 to 1. We work ’til we die.

    I am looking at getting out of the city as soon as my job ends. Anything you produce from a garden or barn is free. And it always will be as long as you know how to process it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.