It is through his music preferences, not his dress, that the audience first learns of Midnight Cowboy‘s protagonist, Joe Buck’s (Jon Voight), cow-pokin’, cattle-ropin’ ways. Despite the iconic image of Buck’s unironic fringe jacket and cowboy boots strutting around grey New York, Buck’s home-on-the-range origins are first evinced by his singing “Git Along, Little Dogies” to himself in the shower during the opening credits. The soundtrack to the film and the use of music within the narrative provide much of Joe Buck’s characterization, but viewers may not know the final track list was almost drastically different.
Midnight Cowboy provided two immutable contributions to American culture: The disgruntled pedestrian and reckless cabbie interaction of “I’m walkin’ here!,” and Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the film’s theme. The movie propelled the song to the status of enduring hit, far outweighing Nilsson’s other significant contributions to American music culture, despite the song being a Fred Neil original while Nilsson’s own original track was overlooked. This was neither uncommon in the late 1960s folk scene nor Nilsson’s career specifically, as folk musicians and record labels swapped covers and songwriting credits almost haphazardly, and certainly without so much pretense regarding copyright as they do today.
To select a theme for Midnight Cowboy, the filmmakers either commissioned or considered a number of songs, including “Cowboy,” by Randy Newman, “Lay, Lady, Lay,” by Bob Dylan and “I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City,” also by Harry Nilsson. Newman’s song is dreadfully boring and the film’s heavy reliance on its theme in the first act probably contributed to the song’s final disqualification. The submission by Dylan was not finished in time for the movie, but was nonetheless released on his studio album Nashville Skyline where it stands alone proudly. Musically, “Lady, Lady, Lay” and “Everybody’s Talkin’” snugly fulfill the tonal requirements of contemporary folk, old-timey cowboy aesthetics, and film score song structure. And even had “Lay” been ready, “Everybody’s Talkin’” fits Midnight Cowboy’s overall theme better: Nilsson’s song highlights the inner thoughts of the titular cowboy, while Dylan’s is interested in the women around him, contrary to the film’s focus.
Like Dylan wrote “Lay, Lady, Lay” specifically for Midnight Cowboy, Nilsson so did with “Lord.” As witnessed, though, neither made the final cut of the film. Instead, the filmmakers were enamored with Nilsson’s cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” used as a placeholder in pre-production but eventually defining the tone of the theatrical release. Nilsson’s version features cleaner guitar and more delicate vocals than Neil’s slightly gruffer, more cowboy-ish original, but Joe Buck is similarly just a facsimile of a rugged cowboy. His handsome exterior and traditional garb belie a sweet, naïve nature that Nilsson’s singing taps into more deeply than Neil’s, so it’s no wonder the producers elected this previously recorded track over one they themselves commissioned.
Beyond the rejected contenders and multiple alternate takes of the theme song, the soundtrack is rounded out by scoring from John Barry and songs from The Groop, Elephant’s Memory, and one contribution by Leslie Miller, “He Quit Me,” later covered acoustically by Warren Zevon on his debut album. Again, the musical influence reaches further than one might initially expect. It is the funky, psychedelic music of Elephant’s Memory that fills out the film’s extended Warholian happenin’ sequence, and the song selections add much to the disjointed, trippy atmosphere in which Joe Buck finds himself unwittingly participating. It speaks volumes about the film’s cultural context that its soundtrack overtly and successfully juxtaposes country folksiness in its theme and dissociative franticness in its urban sequences, as 1969 America was coming to grips with drugs and sex, and traditionalists and progressives were at odds with one another.
Movie music is paired with the onscreen visual display, and in that regard Midnight Cowboy’s use of music plays an integral role in characterizing the protagonist and his newly adopted city. It does this by influencing the audience’s emotions and providing us a bridge by which we may meet the character emotionally. Beyond the scope of the film itself, the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack ripples out from its place in history to influence musicians and listeners contemporary and modern, providing plenty of whirlpools of songwriting attributions, cover versions, and relegated projects for obsessive listeners to swim down.
— Adam Lauria, May 2014