Tumbling Tumbleweeds was the signature song of Bob Nolan, a rail-rider himself, and his Sons of the Pioneers group. It became a country and western standard after being featured in several western movies in the 1930s and 1940s, eg “Hollywood Canteen,” “Don’t Fence Me In” and “Silver Spurs,” with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry performing it as well as the Sons of the Pioneers themselves.
The song was perfect for Hollywood’s drifter cowboy image: “Lonely but free, I’ll be found/ Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds…. Nowhere to go, but I’ll find/Just where the trail will wind.”
Nolan told an interviewer in 1976 that his biggest tune was one of those songs that, “Before you get up out of the chair, it’s all written. Tumbling Tumbleweeds was one of those. It just wrote itself.”
The Sons of the Pioneers sang Tumbling Tumbleweeds often on their radio show before recording it in 1934. Nolan explained: “We had it going for months before we decided that we’d have to change it to Tumbling Tumbleweeds … it was the audience themselves [who] said, ‘Sing that Tumbling Weeds song.’ They misinterpreted the words.”
Not only was Tumbling Tumbleweeds a chart hit for the Sons of the Pioneers (twice: Decca 5047, 1934, and Decca 46027, 1948) it was also a hit for Bing Crosby (1940); Slim Whitman (1956); Billy Vaughn (instrumental, 1958); and Roy Clark (1982). Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Hank Snow covered it on his hit album “Heartbreak Trail: A Tribute to the Sons of the Pioneers” (1966).
Nolan’s seemingly simple tune was actually influential. He introduced the Tin Pan Alley jazz technique of a falling chromatic line (the melody descending in half-steps) to the western genre; and the Sons of the Pioneers’ vocal harmonies influenced the later country-tinged sounds of The Eagles, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Ian Tyson, who as a boy saw the Sons of the Pioneers perform live in Victoria.
Tumbling Tumbleweeds has been recorded by an extensive list of top names including Perry Como, Marty Robbins, Willie Nelson, Kate Smith, Lawrence Welk, Patti Page, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Don Everly, actors Clint Eastwood and Lorne Green, John Denver, Frankie Laine, the Lennon Sisters, the Boston Pops, Jimi Hendrix, Sonya Hunter, Sleepy La Beef, Mike Nesmith, the Riders in the Sky, pianist Roger Williams, and the New Riders of the Purple Sage. More recently, it appeared in the 1998 film “The Big Lebowski.”
Bob Nolan (1908-1980) was born in Winnipeg. In 1933 he formed a country-western singing group, The Pioneer Trio, which became The Sons of the Pioneers, with Leonard Slye [Roy Rogers] and Tim Spencer. The internationally successful group had a radio show and movie deal and also recorded Stan Jones’s hit Ghost Riders in the Sky. Nolan was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and Canadian Country Music Hall of Honour.