Among the most interesting figures I’ve written about is Bobby Bridger, a singer, songwriter, actor, author, and historian. His career arc has taken him from the heart of the Nashville and Los Angeles music scenes to a singular path as an epic balladeer of the American West. He’s perhaps best known today for his incisive writing about aspects of the American West that he’s become expert in. His books include A Ballad of the West, Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull: Inventing the Wild West, Bridger, and his latest, Where the Tall Grass Grows, Becoming Indigenous and the Mythological Legacy of the American West.
You’ll find other, more extensive stories I’ve written about Bobby and his fascinating life and career journey on this blog.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When Bobby Bridger began doing his epic ballad thing in praise of mountain men, Plains Indians and Buffalo Bill, he was 24 and derided as a flake. He was told, Who wants a history lesson from a long haired folk singer clad in buckskins and beads? He was called crazy for walking from a multi-year/record deal at RCA. For researching cold trails from an obscure past. For performing a one-man acoustic show in a plugged-in era.
This unreformed hippie has always gone against the grain to forge a singular career path in search of, as the title of his forthcoming autobiography says, “America’s heart song.” His anachronistic journey has taken him from Nashville to Austin, where he resides and whose vital indie music center he helped form, to the Frontier West to Europe to Australia.
His three-part trilogy A Ballad of the West is the result of a lifetime’s work. Seekers of the Fleece recounts the mountain man era. Pahaska, the Indian name given William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, explores Cody’s relationship with Indians. Lakota focuses on Indian healer/mystic Black Elk, the subject of Nebraska poet John Neihardt’s classic epic Black Elk Speaks, whose Homeric couplets Bridger regards as a bible. Bridger describes Neihardt and Black Elk as “my two greatest teachers.”
For his 7:30 p.m. April 29 concert at the Omaha Healing Arts Center Bridger will perform Parts I (Seekers) and III (Lakota) from his own epic Ballad of the West.
Bridger’s 62 now and 40 years into his quest to forever fix the mythological West in ballad form. Time has made this once young upstart a graybeard figure not unlike those he writes and sings about. Bolstered by his acclaimed book Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull: Inventing the Wild West, he’s an authority on the West, albeit one without the imprimatur of a scholarly degree.
This frequent Western history presenter/panelist is giving two talks this weekend at the John G. Neihardt Center (Bancroft, Neb.), where he’s the poet/balladeer in residence. He courts controversy when the historian in him tells the “documentary truth” but the contrarian artist in him chooses the “emotional truth.”
“I’ve always approached this whole thing as if it’s a continuation of the Arthurian kind of legend in America,” he said. “Neihardt had only underscored that with his Homeric approach. I realize I’ve stumbled into something that’s so much bigger than me and so much grander than a career in country music…”
In exploring such figures as Jim Bridger (a distant relation), Hugh Glass, Black Elk and Cody, Bridger gives us the West writ large to counter the cynical view that’s gained currency and that he feels is due for a correction. “What we’re doing now is searching for a new interpretation of the hero,” he said. “Since the ‘50s we’ve been living in the age of the anti-hero. It’s like we had to trash the hero and completely drag him through the gutter and totally cynicize him in order to realize the mythological need for the positive hero in our culture and in our society.”
Bridger’s always felt his work’s tapped into an essential American story with deep reverberations to the historical Trans-Missouri region, the well-spring, as he sees it, of our national identity. He feels there’s much to “discover about who we are” in the pioneer and Native-rich past he perpetuates.
“The Trans-Missouri is where we invented our self when no one knew what it meant to be American. Since time immemorial the Lakota mythology sprang from the same region. If you go to Moscow or Sydney, Australia or Paris or Berlin…and somebody recognizes you as an American, soon the discussion goes to Native Americans — feather bonnets, teepees, peace pipes — all the accouterments of the Plains Indians. There’s a reason our mythology emerged from that region.”
He said from their struggles Native Americans offer “very vital knowledge for us of the future.” Their understanding of “the interconnectedness of things,” he said, can only help in a time of global warming and resource interdependence. Bridger is a conduit for such enduring wisdom. In him, the Old West lives anew. Just don’t call him a cowboy poet-singer. “That’s the quickest way to insult me,” he said.
- Buffalo Bill’s Coming Out Party Courtesy Author-Balladeer Bobby Bridger (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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.
You would be hard-pressed to find a more singular artist then Bobby Bridger, who has carved out a niche for himself in music that no one now or in the near future is ever likely to challenge. I was first introduced to this self-described epic balladeer in the 1980s, when I saw him in a sublime stage musical entitled Shakespeare and the Indians, with book and lyrics by Dale Wasserman and music by Alan Jay Friedman, that had its world premiere at the Firehouse Dinner Theatre in Omaha.
I saw him again not long after that when he performed solo at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, where I was the PR director.
The following story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) in 1998. I’ve kept in touch with Bobby through the years and written about him a few more times, including on the occasion of the release of his widely acclaimed Buffalo Bill book and his autobiography. My blog features additional Bridger stories I’ve written.
By the way, Bridger now has several books to his credit, including, A Ballad of the West, Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull: Inventing the Wild West, Bridger, and his latest, Where the Tall Grass Grows, Becoming Indigenous and the Mythological Legacy of the American West.
NOTE: An August 12 email from Bobby announced he is retiring his A Ballad of the West performance as of mid-July 2011 because it has run its course and he wants to pursue other projects. He may be hanging up the buckskins, but his singular focus on music and the history of the West will survive in the huge body of work he’s produced.
Bobby Bridger’s Rendezvous
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
“Majestic mountains rise to heaven, kiss the clouds as they go drifting by. Golden eagle soaring upward, drawing lazy circles in the sky. The forest sings of wilderness, the prairie sings of space. The river sings of freedom, the wind sings with grace. Sing with grace! I’m bound for Yellowstone, and the high plains of Absaroka.” ––”Absaroka,” from Bridger’s new epic ballad “Pahaska”
A history lesson has never looked quite like this. Epic balladeer Bobby Bridger, bedecked in buckskins and beads, an acoustic guitar slung over one shoulder and a dusty trail of hair flowing from under his wide-brimmed hat, casts a spellbinding presence performing one of his odes to the Old West. With genuine mountain man blood coursing through his veins, Bridger does some serious communing with frontier spirits during his nearly sacred one-man shows in which he is singer, shaman, teacher, guide.
Bridger, who’s presented his dramatic interpretations of the West before Wyoming ranchers, Native Americans, Australian Aborigines and Russian schoolkids, breathes new life into history otherwise recorded only in books, films or paintings. His lyrics and verse are a celebration of the West and a commemoration of its passing. They tell how a nation came to be forged from heroism and hypocrisy, brotherhood and betrayal, discovery and death. How a dream was lost. A people injured. His songs are mourning wails and hopeful pleas. Hymns offered in the name of understanding.
Bridger, 53, defies categorizing. The Houston-based entertainer is a poet, author, actor, singer-songwriter, historian and storyteller. He draws on all these skills when performing “A Ballad of the West,” his ambitious, three-part epic ballad cycle chronicling the early American frontier. The project, which has consumed him the past 25 years, occasionally brings Bridger to Nebraska, where many of the key figures he sings about once roamed.
He was here most recently in September to perform benefit concerts in Lincoln and Omaha for the Prairie Peace Park. His performances, including one at Unity Church, introduced area audiences to “Pahaska,” the third and last part of his trilogy. Pahaska, Lakota for “long hair,” was the name given by Native Americans to William F. Cody, a.k.a. “Buffalo Bill.” Cody is forever linked to Nebraska, where he scouted for the cavalry and later launched his “Wild West” show. Bridger portrays Cody from a young boy to an old man, assumes the personas of those who knew him and serves as the tale’s narrator.
While in town Bridger also taped an upcoming “River City Folk” program with host Tom May. During the session, recorded at the studios of radio station KVNO 90.7-FM on the UNO campus, Bridger performed selections from his epic ballads as well as from his non-Western work.
Bridger’s immersion in the West began 35 years ago and sparked a quest to tell, in song, its epic story. That he’s stayed this non-conventional path so long reveals much about the man. It meant turning his back on a budding folk-country-pop recording career in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s.
“My family still thinks I’m absolutely stark raving mad for abandoning that, and all the obvious riches it held, and chasing this other thing,” he said.
He cut records on the Monument label in Nashville and for RCA in Hollywood. He collaborated with legendary studio musician-producer Fred Carter, Jr. He scored feature films. He was poised for a run at the big-time. But he was unhappy. He chafed under the creative limitations imposed by music executives, who wanted formulaic love songs, not epic ballads.
“In the mainstream music business you’re expected to fit into a mold of whatever’s the flavor of the month. All they really want is a puppet that sings to belong to the masses, and I didn’t want to do that,” Bridger said in his soft Southern twang over a mug of tea at the mid-town Barnes & Noble. “It was extremely frustrating. Executives at RCA told me, ‘No one wants a history lesson from an unknown folk singer.’ But I knew the only job an artist has is to evolve the form. And I thought the only way I’m going to be happy is to push all the chips in the middle of the pot and gamble on it.”
A Louisianian by birth, Bridger found both his subject, the West, and the form to express it in, the ballad, at about the same time. While a student at Northeast Louisiana University he discovered he might be the great-grand nephew of mountain man Jim Bridger, which spurred his research into the fur tapping era. Meanwhile, he discovered the writings of John Neihardt, the late epic poet from Nebraska whose “Cycle of the West” is THE source material for western scholars.
Bridger, who never met Neihardt, nonetheless describes him as “a guiding inspirational light” for “chronicling this great Homeric story of the Western hemisphere.” Bridger’s first two epic ballads parallel Neihardt’s.
As if drawn to the ballad “by the ethers,” Bridger found in it the medium to tell the epic story welling up inside. “On a ballad-collecting expedition in northern Arkansas I heard a woman sing a ballad from ‘The Canterbury Tales’ in Elizabethan English, and that experience hooked me forever. She was just as hillbilly as you could ever imagine, but she was raised in a little pocket of people that had held onto the old-timey songs,” he said. “I was just flabbergasted by the power of a song…of a ballad that could endure and thrive over physical oceans as well as oceans of time. I came back to school just obsessed with finding a folk song about Jim Bridger.”
He never found one, so he began writing one himself. Others followed, and before long he had an epic ballad in the making.
“My original interest in Jim Bridger only led me into the greater story that he was simply a part of. I realized everything that had been painted and written about the West could be sung about, and it didn’t have to be cowboy songs. The only aspect of the American West that had been recorded in song is the cowboy era, a little ten-year period. The rest of it had never been dealt with by the balladeers. No one had chronicled the mountain men or the immigration wagon trains or the Indian Wars. There was a void there.”
Bridger changed that with his first epic ballad, “Seekers of the Fleece,” which depicts the mountain men who opened the undiscovered country west of the Mississippi and forged a strong alliance with the native peoples they met. Its central figure is Jim Bridger, whom Bobby’s genealogical research proved was indeed his great-grand uncle.
His relative’s exploits form the backdrop for an odyssey about the harmony existing among whites and Indians before the onslaught of encroaching civilization. The song “Rendezvous” — about the trade fairs on the Green River in Wyoming that brought trappers and natives together in peaceful commerce — paints the early West as a Paradise Lost. It yearns for how things were before the great migration and expansion turned ugly.
His second ballad, “Lakota,” describes, from Native Americans’ perspective, the spoiling of the West as seen through the eyes and words of the holy man Black Elk, the vigilant conscience for a long-suffering people.
His third ballad, “Pahaska,” tries reconciling the myth and reality surrounding Cody and his relationship with Indians.
Bridger, who published his first two ballads in book form and adapted them into full company outdoor musicals, is writing a biography on Cody. He often performs and conducts research at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. For years now he’s spent each summer in the state. In “Pahaska” he sings, as the elder Cody, a love song to Wyoming called “Absaroka” that expresses both men’s deep feelings for the place.
For a long time Bridger struggled finding an original slant on Cody, America’s first bona fide celebrity. He wrote and discarded two versions of “Pahaska” before finally hitting the mark. “I wrestled with him for 25 years to get beyond the mythology and the debunkers to reveal who the real man was…and to present the Indian side of Cody.”
His “new interpretation” portrays the complex man as a genuine friend of Indians whose shrewd use of them and the buffalo in the Wild West show guaranteed its success while giving Indians a venue for preserving their endangered culture and buffalo a sanctuary from likely extinction. Bridger feels sure he will stir up a hornet’s nest of controversy with certain academics, who view Cody as a genocidal exploiter, by suggesting the frontiersman-turned-entertainer “created American show business as we know it.” He adds, “He was creating theater based on his real experiences, often with the very people who partcipated in the historic events. And he got it all directly from Plains Indians. ”
What is it about the saga of the West that’s motivated Bridger to keep at it so doggedly?
“It’s our Homeric story. It’s the backdrop that produces the heroic archetypes of a nation. Aside from our quest to land on the moon, it is the great American heroic story. But even that pales beside it. If truth be told the men who went to the moon knew a lot more about where they were going than the fur trappers who went to the head waters of the Missouri River in 1822. Most of them had never seen anything like it before. There was nothing in their whole genetic coding that could have prepared them for the Rocky Mountains or the tall grass Great Plains.
“I just stumbled into it, and it’s the kind of thing that in ten lifetimes you couldn’t chronicle. There’s so many stories…”
Although he sometimes wonders what might have been had he stuck with more commercial material, he rarely looks back now. “I’ve spent my whole life involved with the West and I have no regrets about that because I’ve created a singular career. No one does what I do. I’m doing exactly what I want to. I know it deep in my cellular structure, and that’s vitally important.”
After he walked away from potential fame, however, he dropped out, fled to the wilderness and adopted an extreme lifestyle – all in a search for meaning. “I was disillusioned and didn’t know what to with myself. I went down to the Big Bend area of Texas and lived in the Chihuahua Desert for nearly two years,” he said. “I didn’t eat any cooked food. I dressed in skins. I slept outdoors. I was trying to get right to the edge of that existence…living nomadically, fasting, performing all sorts of cleansing rituals.”
The experience proved a crucible for him. “After a three-day period in a cave eating roots I came face to face with the hypocrisy of trying for this purity in the desert in an E-mail world. I realized, ironically, that I was running from the spotlight. That I was afraid of being on stage and really opening up who I was to people. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be in the spotlight. I wanted to, but I just didn’t know how. And so I came back and made the album ‘Heal in the Wisdom’ and became involved with ‘Shakespeare and the Indians’ and ‘Black Elk Speaks’ and all that stuff.”
“Heal in the Wisdom’s” theme — of letting go the past to heal in the now and after — grew out of Bridger’s self-imposed exile and his grief over losing two close friends. The title track has become his signature tune and, among other things, the closing anthem for the Kerrville Folk Festival in Austin, Texas, an event he’s played since its inception.
Bridger said music industry-types misread the album’s spiritual context to claim he was “a born-again freak,” adding, “That wasn’t true at all. I had been born again, but not like they thought. It represented getting out of the desert and getting back in the spotlight.”
After the release of “Wisdom” in 1981 on his own Golden Egg Records label, he turned his attention from recording to the theater. He landed the lead in Dale Wasserman’s folkloric musical “Shakespeare and the Indians” (debuting at Omaha’s Firehouse Dinner Theater) and co-starred in a theatrical version of “Black Elk Speaks.”
He moved to Austin in the early ‘70s and was a pioneer in its development as an arts haven. “I was a part of that whole genesis of the Texas music scene,” he said. “It was truly an alternative thing and I found people there who were doing what I did by going against the grain and swimming upstream: Willie (Nelson), Michael Murphy, B.W. Stevenson, Steve Fromholz, Kinky Friedman. A journalist there referred to me as “a misfit in a city full of misfits.’”
Having come to terms with himself and his quest, Bridger next had to find the right voice for communicating his vision. He had begun performing his ballads in traditional theatrical settings — on stage, with sets, dramatic lighting and all the rest. But it didn’t feel right.
“After it succeeded in the theater that success bothered me because I felt it was still sanitized. I wanted to break out from that Fourth Wall and address the audience…and the only way I could get through there was to step off the stage out into the audience as a balladeer. So I started living out of the back of my truck and going to Wyoming cowboy bars on Friday and Saturday nights when folks were rip-roaring drunk and the places were about to blow up. Nine times out of ten they would kick me out and never want to hear me again. But that tenth time I would catch ‘em and put ‘em under the spell. Then I knew it was working as a balladeer.”
He’s since appeared on “Austin City Limits” and re-released “Heal in the Wisdom” on CD. He is recording his epic ballads on CD as well.
It is a credit to Bridger’s performing power he’s able to conjure a distant time and place with merely his period garb, soulful music and stirring verse. He usually performs unplugged — no lights, no mikes, no videos.
“In the world of MTV you’re told immediately what to see with every song lyric,” he said. “What I prefer doing is letting you create your own image of the lyric and place in your mind, and hopefully I can take you back in time with me. That creates a unique experience for you and a unique bond between the two of us. It’s a vestige of an ancient form of communication…exactly what Homer was doing.”
His salty tenor voice soars with deep-rooted feeling. His vibrant Martin guitar resounds with no-holds-barred bravado. His work remains something all too rare today: genuine. It may not be cool or politically correct, but it is honest and heartfelt. There’s no attitudinal baggage. Just a passion to sing for the people. To sing our story.
“At the Rendezvous, white man and the Sioux…smoked the pipe, traded hair…for the maidens fair. To the Rendezvous, men came from St. Lou…wanting beaver and mink, bringing whiskey to drink. On the Rendezvous, 1832, on the Green River side, where I took my first bride…a black-eyed Shoshone, daughter of Eagle-man. At the Rendezvous, white man and the Sioux…traded fur for their guns, raced their ponies for fun. And with Rendezvous done, Mountain Men were one.”
––”Rendezous” from “Seekers of the Fleece”
For more information on Bridger and his music, check out his web site at: www.bbridger.com
- Poetry Analysis:E.E.Cummings’s “Buffalo Bill’s” (brighthub.com)
- Buffalo Bill’s Coming Out Party Courtesy Author-Balladeer Bobby Bridger (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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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