Buffalo Bill’s Coming Out Party Courtesy Author-Balladeer Bobby Bridger
Bobby Bridger has been performing his epic ballads about the American West for decades now, but it’s only in the last few years he’s cemented his status as a serious historian and interpreter of that subject matter with his book, Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull: Inventing the Wild West. His fresh take on the controversial William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, and the real life adventures and PR machinations that went into making him and his Wild West show worldwide sensations makes clear that more than a century before the Internet Cody imprinted his legend into the collective consciousness and we’re still impacted by it it today in popular culture depictions of the West.
His other books include A Ballad of the West, Bridger, and his latest, Where the Tall Grass Grows, Becoming Indigenous and the Mythological Legacy of the American West.
Buffalo Bill’s Coming Out Party Courtesy Author-Balladeer Bobby Bridger
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Bullwhacker, pony express rider, cavalry scout, buffalo hunter. Actor, impresario, hotelier, town-builder. Dreamer, schemer, dodger, master of ballyhoo. Devoted son, doting brother, grieving father, absent husband. These were the many faces of William Frederick Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, the man behind the legendary Wild West Show. An expert at reinventing himself, he straddled the frontier and the stage, using his real-life adventures as the basis for his theatrics.
Early on, Cody developed an acute sense of the gallant visage he struck — with flowing, shoulder-length hair sweeping out from under his wide-brimmed hat and fine physique pressed into his buckskin and tan regalia – and spent the rest of his life polishing that image. A showman at heart, he brandished his trick riding and crack shooting long before performing in arenas or under tents, often pitting his talents against others in wagered contests. By the time he launched his Wild West in Nebraska in 1883, he was already famous as Buffalo Bill owing to purple-prose dime novels and stilted melodramas extolling his bravery as a warrior, his expertise as a horseman and his skill with a rifle. Realizing the potential of Buffalo Bill as a brand name, he systematically exploited his image in the nascent media-show business realm.
A man both of his times and ahead of his times, Buffalo Bill is the mercurial subject of a new book — Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull: Inventing the Wild West, published last fall by the University of Texas Press – by singer, composer and playwright Bobby Bridger. A Cody aficionado, Bridger splits his time between Houston, TX and Cody, Wyo, the town founded by William F. himself and the home of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, where Bridger is poet-balladeer in residence.
For 40 years now Bridger has steeped himself in Western lore, carving a niche as a folkloric interpreter of the mountain men, settlers, Plains Indians and Westerners whose lives he chronicles in expressive song and verse. Based on years of research, Bridger’s three-part epic A Ballad of the West is an ambitious and visionary consideration of American frontier history and myth. Bridger has recorded Ballad of the West on CD and performs its sections - Seekers of theFleece, Lakota and Pahaska -in one-man shows. Pahaska, the Lakota name – meaning Long Hair – given Cody by the Sioux, is an ode to Buffalo Bill that is equal parts concert, drama and poetry recitation.
Bridger, outfitted in buckskins and beads, a Martin guitar slung over one shoulder, and salty hair flowing out from under his Stetson, will perform Pahaska, unplugged, in a 7 p.m. show on February 23 at the Omaha Healing Arts Center, 1216 Howard Street, as part of a promotional tour for his book.
That Bridger has made Cody such a major focus of his work is no surprise given how Buffalo Bill represented the virtues of the Plainsman in his own time and still symbolizes the Westerner of our collective imagination today. Generous to a fault, a gullible speculator and a glad-handed, two-fisted, hail fellow-well met imbiber, Cody earned millions from the Wild West he created and headlined in but died in debt and despair after years of failed business enterprises and declining health. His only son died young. His acrimonious marriage to a woman he rarely saw ended in divorce. In a life full of improbable feats and reversals of fortune, he became both legend and myth in his own time, thanks largely to his own image-making machinery.
An example of just how complex a man he was and of how controversial he remains is his relationship with Indians. Growing up fast on the Iowa and Kansas prairie – he saw his father killed at 11 and his mother die before he was 17 – he was a childhood playmate of Indians only to become their sworn blood enemy as a young adult in the service of his country.
“Much like in the Civil War (when Cody scouted for the Seventh Kansas Cavalry), Cody found himself in the Indian Wars fighting (as a scout) against men he had known since boyhood. Men who were his dear friends and often his blood brothers,” Bridger said.
With the Indian uprisings quelled, Cody befriended Indians, then being displaced on reservations, by employing them in his Wild West, where he portrayed them as fierce, wild natives now tamed.
The apparent hypocrisy of Cody’s treatment of Indians, at once benevolent and stereotypical, can be explained, Bridger said, not only by Cody’s commercial instincts but by his sincere desire to heal a divided America. Cody and the Indians shared a warrior’s code he said, regarding each other as brothers under the skin. In programs and promotions for the Wild West, Cody went to great lengths in describing how “former enemies, now friends” had “buried the hatchet” and co-existed harmoniously as a single troupe.
In the Wild West, Bridger said, Cody wasn’t so much “exploiting” as “reconciling Indians” to their rightful place as Native Americans and co-creators of the Wild West. He said Cody, whose advocacy for Indians was by all accounts enlightened, saw himself in the role of protector and preserver of their culture otherwise being “dismantled” back on the reservation. Indeed, Cody enlisted into the Wild West many of the religious, political, social and military elders of the Lakota and Oglala Sioux, including Sitting Bull and Red Cloud, who were seen by U.S. government officials and Christian crusaders as mere troublemakers but treated by Cody as wise and dignified leaders of tribal nations.
Part rodeo, history lesson and carnival, Cody’s Wild West was inspired by a failed Western exposition mounted by renowned painter George Catlin and by the major circuses of the era. Besides being a rollicking, rip-snorting good time that attracted hordes of paying customers, the Wild West was conceived by Cody, Bridger said, as a kind of living history exposition meant to immortalize the most popular or colorful facets of the Old West even as they were fading into history.
For Cody, it was not a show.
“He was insulted when someone called it a show,” Bridger said. “He considered himself a meticulous historical reenactor. What Cody was doing was essentially bringing dripping wet from the battlefield the participants and then restaging it in an arena before thousands of people. And what he was doing in that role, as my poem Winter on the Boards, Summer in the Saddle says, was literally presenting living mythology and parading it before people because he knew it was vanishing.
“And I think that motivation came from the fact that he saw with the explosion and astonishing success of the dime novels that people came to view him as the person responsible for destroying the Native cultures and buffalo herds, and I think he could not bear to be remembered that way and that had a great deal to do with the creation of the Wild West.”
By the end, Cody’s Wild West, which went through many incarnations, was more sideshow spectacular than exhibition, even touring its last few years with circuses, and a weary, besotted Cody was more caricature than hero. But that was long after the Wild West’s heyday, when the widely touring extravaganza played before monarchs, heads of state and countless throngs of commoners, young and old alike, who thrilled to breathtaking demonstrations of horsemanship and marksmanship most had only read or dreamt about.
At its peak the Wild West, which played 30 years, was an enormous production numbering 600 cast and crew members, hundreds of horses and dozens of buffalo. Among the featured attractions were live, full-scale reenactments of: an attack on the Deadwood Stage; a bison hunt; a train robbery; famous battles; and a raid on a burning cabin. Special features were added on certain tours, such as a restaging of Custer’s Last Stand. Other staples included trick riding and shooting displays.
Much of Bridger’s book and ballad examine the amazing journey that Cody took in transforming himself from dashing Plainsman to consummate Performer. As Bridger said, “You have to understand his life from another point of view to understand this” compulsion he had to perform.
“Every major transition in his early life had to do with horses, whether he was learning fancy riding as a boy or serving as a Pony Express Rider or breaking ground as a scout. He literally rode horses onto the public stage. And when he entered the theater with its proscenium stage, where he couldn’t have a horse, he promptly went to the arena. He had to show people what a good rider he was. He was a show-off. He loved it. He absolutely loved it.”
In a life intersecting virtually every American epoch of the 19th century – from the great trek made by settlers to the tragic Plains Indian Wars to the laying of the transcontinental railroad to the Civil War to the near extermination of buffalo and Native Americans to the gentrification of the West – Cody was an active participant in both the building of an empire and the vanishing of a frontier.
In his book Bridger suggests Cody shared a destiny with the Indians, whose way of life was lost as America emerged from the wilderness, but who found a friend in Cody and a refuge in his Wild West. When considering how Cody was present at the convergence of so many transforming events, one wonders if a higher power might not have been at work. “
He was there, as a boy, at the very confluence of one of the largest migrations the world has ever known,” said Bridger, referring to the young Cody’s interaction with pioneers on the Plains. “He was perched right on the fence between, if you will, the frontier or the unknown and what was then known as civilization or Western European culture. And so he spent his entire life in between those great forces, right at the edge of it, and basically surfed it right to the pinnacle.”
Cody was also influenced by the trailblazers he crossed paths with.
“Sitting at the feet of Jim Bridger, Kit Carson and Wild Bill Hickcock, Cody learned first-hand about flamboyant costumes and about exaggerations based on truth,” Bridger said. “All those things became his personality. He just absorbed all of that. So, what you had in him was a repository of everything from the fur trade forward.”
Perhaps more than any other figure, Cody embodied the quintessential Man of the West. By his early 20s he’d participated in every conceivable aspect of frontier life - from trapping and hunting to prospecting for gold to escorting bullwhacker and wagon trains to being a Pony Express Rider to driving a stage to fighting Indians. He was the real thing. The genuine article. A bona fide Knight of the Plains. If he’d stopped there, his place in history would have been secure. But, seeing an opportunity to make a dollar from his derring-do, Cody embarked on a path that blurred the lines between reality and fiction.
His destiny was cast in July of 1876 when, mere weeks after Custer and his Seventh Cavalry met disaster at Little Big Horn, he led a squad of soldiers and scouts in a retaliatory charge on a band of Cheyenne. When, in a close-quarters skirmish he killed Yellow Hand and proclaimed he’d taken “the first scalp for Custer,” a rallying cry was born for a nation galvanized by the high drama on the Plains. Cody parlayed that fame via dime novels and dramatic plays embroidering his exploits and, later, via Wild West shows recreating and further embellishing his by then already brocaded deeds.
Along the way, Cody imprinted on the world the very conventions of the West dramatists have used ever since to portray it. In the process, he elevated himself from legend into myth, fashioning the West of the Imagination as a time and place of romantic dimensions and mythic proportions.
Whenever a figure becomes as inflated as Cody, detractors are sure to follow. Debunking Buffalo Bill became a popular pastime around the Jazz Age and picked up steam again in the 1960s and ‘70s, when works like Arthur Kopit’s play Indians and Robert Altman’s film Buffalo Bill and the Indians depicted him as a vain, right-wing opportunist and racist who, like that era’s John Wayne, was discounted as a stooge of the military-industrial complex in fighting an unjust guerrilla war.
While Cody’s role in the Indian Wars is undeniable, Bridger said any comparison with The Duke is wrong.
“The difference here is that Buffalo Bill was a legitimate hero who became the first star whereas John Wayne was a star who became a kind of illegitimate hero.” When Bridger first began examining Cody’s life he was prepared “not to like him. I was a product of the ‘60s and really viewed him very much in the Kopit vein — as a handsome, perhaps not-so-smart matinee idol and drunken blow hard who made up all this stuff and was manipulated by the government and military to do their bidding.”
Needless to say, Bridger’s opinion changed over time. “Now, having been seriously involved in researching his life since 1970, I have this great respect for him, and the more I dig into William F. Cody’s life the more I like him.”
If you accept Bridger’s notion that Cody became the world’s first true superstar, then it seems silly he should be denigrated, as he is by revisionists, for indulging his celebrity and always being on-stage. After all, what star has not reveled in his or her own fame?
If Cody can be criticized for anything, and the sins attributed to him are legion, from helping extinguish Plains Indians cultures to wiping-out the once vast bison herds to exploiting Native Americans in his Wild West, it is how he allowed his image to ultimately consume him. You could say his run-away ego set the model for how future self-absorbed icons should act, which is to say he embraced excess in his life, in his work and in his mythology. But in defense of Cody it cannot be emphasized enough that the kind of fame he achieved was a new phenomenon for his era and he responded to it without the benefit of any real precedent to call on. All in all, he did as well as anyone in that position could do.
“Before him, people were either famous or infamous and the famous were royalty and the infamous were mass murderers and military leaders and whatever,” Bridger said. “He was the first person to make a living being famous. That whole system of celebrity was created with him.”
Cody’s genius for self-promotion was also something new. He shamelessly courted attention with the press and admirers, always exploring new venues, adding new attractions and looking for new angles to cash in on. Near the end, his instincts betrayed him when, hoping to make a splash in the new medium of motion pictures, he produced a silent film in the Pine Ridge area that had Lakotas reenact the Wounded Knee Massacre.
“That’s an indication of how desperate he’d become to deal with his financial problems and to reinvent himself once more,” Bridger said. On the whole, he said, Cody was a visionary. “He gave everyone in modern show business a template for how to do it. If he didn’t do anything but just that, for everyone from Tom Mix forward, he’d be an important figure.”
Cynics, Bridger said, discount the charitable acts attributed to Cody, whether giving away free Wild West tickets to orphans, bootblacks and newsies or making time for old cronies and drinking buddies at his North Platte, Neb. ranch, by asserting he only did these things so they would “sing Buffalo Bill’s praises.” Bridger said this sniping is misguided. “Yes, he was a showman and, yes, he was very calculated about his promotions, but he was also an orphan boy who loved kids and understood their needs. He was always giving back. That’s the way I prefer to see him.” A famous soft-touch, Cody was also forever sinking money into cockeyed ventures, from hotels to mines, that cost him dearly.
The reason debunkers have a field day with Cody, Bridger said, is his contradictory nature. “You know, it’s funny, but you can say just about anything about him and answer, Yes, he was.” Upon Cody’s death in 1917, newspaperman Gene Fowler wrote: “Indiscreet, prodigal, as temperamental as a diva, pompous yet somehow naive, vain but generous…Cody lived with the world at his feet and died with it on his shoulders. He was subject to suspicious whims and distorted perspectives, yet the sharpers who swindled him the oftenest he trusted the most.”
Bridger sees a reappraisal underway.
“Since 1995 there’s been an average of two books a year coming out on Cody and all of them present a very positive perspective.” Even Lakota philosopher Vine DeLoria has kind things to say about him, noting how Cody sheltered Indian “chiefs from undue pressure and persecution by the government” by retaining them in the Wild West and how, “instead of degrading the Indians and classifying them as primitive savages, Cody elevated them to a status of equality.”
In the end, Bridger contends, Cody will be vindicated. “He will eventually be recognized for the wonderful things he gave us. He gave us our romantic template for a very long time, and it was a good one. As my friend Paul Fees of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center says, ‘We’re beginning to pull the man out of the myth.’”
Bridger will sign copies of his book at 2 p.m. on February 23 at the Barnes and Noble in Oak View Mall.
To find out more about Bridger and his work, check out his web site at www.bbridger.com.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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