Irony is the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning. Whenever I hear the song “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine” written by Gene Autry and Jimmy Long, I feel somewhat puzzled. In the song, Gene apologizes to his dad for all the heartache he may have caused him. But isn’t that ironic? I wonder how this could be because in reality it was the other way around. Gene’s father was the one who caused heartache to the whole family.
Gene’s father, Delbert Autry, was characterized by several books as a horse trader, cattleman, a rover, a drunk and a womanizer. He often uprooted the family to move somewhere else; the situation was feast or famine. Sometimes they lived pretty well and then other times they had to scrape by. And then, Delbert would up and leave the family high and dry for long periods of time. Gene, being the oldest of the siblings, must have felt a lot of responsibility for the family. The instability in Gene’s life must have been the motivating factor which drove him to succeed in whatever he tried. Gene could have played pro baseball but he knew that would not be a stable situation so he taught himself Morse Code so he could work for the railroad, which he eventually did. While working for the railroad, he continued working on his musical talents and performing wherever he could. He traveled to NY to explore a music and recording career. An interviewer told him he had potential but he should go back home and work in front of a microphone for a while, which he did while he still worked for the railroad. He met Jimmy Long who also worked for the railroad and the two practiced and played songs together. Gene eventually married Jimmy’s niece. He and Jimmy wrote “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine” which was considered their first big hit and sold 500,000 copies. With the help of agent Art Satherly, Gene went on to a successful music career and performed on National Barn Dance in Chicago. Gene eventually went to Hollywood and the rest is history. His success in the entertainment world is evidenced by his 5 stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Gene was the only person ever to accomplish that distinction. But Gene’s real success was due to his business acumen; he invested what he made in the entertainment world in many businesses and became very wealthy. He finally attained the stability that escaped him as a child. While Gene’s dad was very irresponsible and did not look out for his family, Gene made sure he looked after his own.
In her book, “Public Cowboy # 1”, Holly George Warren points out how generous and loyal Gene was to his family and friends. He continued to send money to his old agent, Art Satherley, up until Art’s death at 96. Gene’s dad and his brother, Dudley, continuously asked for financial assistance in addition to what Gene sent them on a regular basis. Gene paid for his niece’s dental work when her immediate family couldn’t. Gene helped many of his early mentors in financial ways. Gene’s first movie role was with actor Ken Maynard. One day in 1956, Ken wanted to sell his Stetson to Gene for $100. Gene told him to keep the hat and gave him $500; plus he began sending him a monthly check. People saw Gene as a very compassionate person, always wanting to lend a helping hand. He became the provider that Delbert Autry never was.
So, I often wonder what Gene must have been feeling on the inside as he sang “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine”. I doubt that he felt anything warm and fuzzy about his own dad but maybe he sang it as if he were wishing his dad had been like the one depicted in the song. And I often wondered if maybe Jimmy Long actually wrote the words about his father. My suspicion was just confirmed as I consulted Douglas Green’s book, “Singing in the Saddle”, (page 123) where he attributes the words of the song to Jimmy Long.
So, there is irony in the tribute to Gene’s dad; a tribute that did not really reflect Gene’s relationship to his dad. Delbert Autry did not did not fit the bill of the man honored in the song. Evidently, Jimmy Long’s daddy did!
Footnote: By the way, a quick Google search shows that the following singers have recorded “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine”: Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Simon and Garfunkel, Jim Reeves and the Everly Brothers. So, Gene lives on!
The Wannabe Cowboy
October 8, 2013
Bob Crane said:
Another informative post, Jerry – I really enjoy reading these.
Tom Westbrook said:
Thanks Jerry for another well written and well researched piece of our western music history.
Would be glad to share my articles but I don’t seem to see an email address. How about you contacting me at email@example.com?