I have no real memory of the movie Bang The Drum Slowly, though I’m fairly I certain I saw it years ago — years before, for instance, I was paying any attention to “St. James Infirmary,” or its musical cousins such as “The Streets of Laredo” (or “The Cowboy’s Lament”). The question has popped into my head from time to time: Why does a baseball movie have a title that borrows a lyric from that old ballad (“Beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly,
Play the dead march as you carry me along”)? But then the question always pops right out again, and is forgotten.
Recently, the author of the novel on which that movie is based, Mark Harris, passed away. And I got an email from Mr. Rod Nelson of The Society for American Baseball Research. In passing along Mr. Harris’s obituary to members of that group’s email list, Mr. Nelson had apparently made mention of the connection to “The Streets of Laredo.” Of course I’ve not spent much time on that song here, since it’s basically only related to “SJI” by common lineage to “The Unfortunate Rake” (and so far as I know, no version of “SJI” actually uses the “beat/bang the drum slowly” line), but still I was curious for a detail or two, which Mr. Nelson graciously supplied:
The story is about the fictional relationship between pitcher Henry Wiggen, (aka Author, who narrates in the movie and writes in the first person in the book) and his catcher, who is found to have a terminal illness. The song is performed [in the movie] by Piney Woods, the catcher called up from Texas to replace him… It really works in the movie. Great song, great scene.
A bit of further poking around finds that there are two movie versions: A one-hour 1956 adaptation produced for the U.S. Steel Hour, with George Peppard as Piney Woods, and the 1973 big-screen version with Michael Moriarty, Robert De Niro, and, in the role of Piney Woods, Tom Ligon.
Thank you, Mr. Nelson.