Thoughts on Standing Rock

Thoughts on Standing Rock

by Bobby Bridger

 

From 1984-1992 I published a quarterly sixteen page tabloid titled Hoka Hey! with a mission statement to build a bridge of communication between Indian and non-Indian people. I was honored that the late Dakota philosopher/author Vine Deloria, Jr. would occasionally let me publish one of his essays. Little did I suspect that one of those essays would inspire me to write a book. 

Vine’s 1992 essay, Sacred Lands and Human Understanding, offered Lakota philosopher Luther Standing Bear’s criteria concerning the process for non-Indians to become indigenous to North America: “The man from Europe is still a foreigner and an alien”, Standing Bear observed, “but in the Indian the spirit of the land is vested; it will be until other men are able to divine and meet its rhythm. Men must be born and reborn to belong. Their bodies must be formed of the dust of their forefathers bones.” Deloria’s essay elaborated on Standing Bear’s observation of the non-Indian’s five-hundred year presence in North America: “Although non-Indians are born in North America, they are not indigenous to North America and they remain strangers in a land they do not understand.They have not had sufficient time to set down roots that will enable them to understand America or themselves. American Indians are indigenous because we have paid attention to what the land is saying to us and where there are sacred places we have become a member of the community of those places, where there are holy places we have paid utmost respect, and where we have consecrated the land with our lives and blood we have truly become native to this land.”

These profound observations by two very important Sioux philosophersimplied a “indigenous disconnection” from North America by immigrants for over 500 years. But they also suggested that this fundamental disconnection might very well be the source of many of America’s long history of environmental mis-adventures. So I kept exploring this notion of “becoming indigenous” until it developed into the book Where the Tall Grass Grows: Becoming Indigenous and the Mythological Legacy of the American West, that was published by Fulcrum Books in Autumn, 2011. 

The following section from my “Tall Grass” book offers yet another perspective into this matter of the non Indian’s indigenous disconnect to North America: “Focusing on the American psyche in his Studies in Classic American Literature, D. H. Lawrence concluded in 1924 that American consciousness was incomplete. After examining the literature of James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman, Lawrence proclaimed the American Indian to be the source of the nation’s incomplete awareness. Lawrence believed that the Euro American’s rational mind imprisoned him in an authoritarian social structure, whereas Indians represented pure instinct and freedom and the true spirit of North America. Classic American literature revealed to Lawrence that the Euro American desperately desired the American Indian’s sense of spirit, place, and freedom, yet he invariably failed to embrace aboriginal America and thus become complete. Lawrence believed white Americans needed either to destroy Indians or to assimilate then into a white world to resolve the crisis. [Vine’s son] Philip J. Deloria points out in his book Playing Indian, however, that both of Lawrence’s solutions were ‘aimed at making Indians vanish from the landscape. But losing this unexpressed ‘spirit’ required a difficult, collective, and absolute decision: extermination or inclusion. It is a decision that the American polity had been unable to make or, on the few occasions when either policy has been relatively clear, to implement’.”

It is interesting that Lawrence did not suggest that non Indians consider what it might entail to explore finally becoming indigenous to North America. One wonders if he even thought it possible. Instead non Indians made rational treaties with Indians; treaties worded with flowered biblical/legal language suggesting an eternal contract, but entered into with fleeting intentions. 

Lawrence wrote that piercing perception of the American psyche in 1924. In the spring of 2016, however, over 300 North American tribes and hundreds of non-Indians began gathering at Standing Rock united in non-violent resistance to a pipeline the U.S. Corps of Engineers planned to burrowunder the Missouri River, thus threatening the water for everyone downstream. Early into the effort to halt the pipeline those gathered were also very careful to define themselves as “protectors” rather than “protesters”. This designation is vital in that it included both Indian and non-Indian people into the effort while it also elevated the argument to a spiritual plane and simultaneously linked the cause with the legality of treaties signed in “upmost good faith”, between the United States and the patchwork of sovereign Indian Nations spread throughout the Great Plains states -where the tall grass grows. More important than my “Tall Grass” book, John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks kept creeping slowly back into my thoughts as the weeks dragged into months at Standing Rock and the people gathering there swelled into the thousands. As more non Indians joined the encampment it was becoming increasingly clear Standing Rock was the first major unified Indian/non Indian confrontation defending environmental rights.

With the November election of Donald Trump to the U.S. Presidency, however, it became clear that the dangerous era of political polarization that has been evolving steadily in America since the dawning of the counterculture movements of the 1960s has now crystalized. As Americans face the hard reality of Trump actually about to take control of the most powerful nation in the world, solidarity postings and photos of celebrities in T-Shirts “Standing with Standing Rock” exploded on social media and mainstream media coverage finally responded in kind. As the Standing Rock movement began to rapidly spread on social media many began to look to the Standing Rock encampment as a ray of hope for rational environmental consciousness as a sort of antidote to the darkness that Trump’s reign promises. Here it is very important to remember that Indian spiritual leaders -including the Keeper of the Sacred Pipe of the Sioux Nation, Chief Arvol Looking Horse- have been part of the Standing Rock encampment from the very start. Perhaps something of larger mythological importance is emerging now at Standing Rock. 

I’ll return my focus to “Becoming Indigenous”, the title of my introduction to Where the Tall Grass Grows:“…Early into my research into Plains Indian culture I was introduced to the Falling Star creation myth of the Lakota. Among many other mystical aspects of the culture, upon encountering the Falling Star myth I began to realize the unique landscape of the Trans-Missouri gave birth to the creation myths of the tribes of the Great Plains and Upper Rockies. This inspired the notion that when Euro Americans first encountered the Trans-Missouri while crossing the continent during the Great Migration of the nineteenth century, the very same landscape also produced the first genuine, collective, ‘Old World’ mythology in North America. America’s western expansion into the Trans-Missouri figured importantly in the beginning of the Civil War, and the fact that America immediately returned to the region with a renewed metaphorical intensity after the Civil War to create the Transcontinental Railroad as a symbol of national unity is a clear implication that this region held vital mythological significance to both non-Indian and Indian culture. Moreover, the mythology, religion, and culture of the nineteenth century Plains Indian culture -particularly expressed in Neihardt’s “Black Elk Speaks”- has since the mid-twentieth century been absorbed and spread by instantaneous electronic media and modern travel throughout a Pan-Indian culture of Indian nations within the United States as well as around the world. Equally significant, the enduring global success of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Hollywood’s western movies have led the world to assume that all American Indians wear feathered war- bonnets, smoke peace pipes, and live in tipis -all cultural and religious accoutrements of Plains Indians. This led me to conclude the Trans-Missouri region to be the very cradle of America’s collective mythology -the sacred place our indigenous and immigrant nations will always return to when we need to collectively reinvent ourselves…”

Black Elk Speaks, as told through John G. Neihardt, was published in 1932 but was quickly remaindered to the out of print bins. Pioneer psychologist C.G. Jung discovered a copy while on a speaking tour in America and began urging the publication of a German translation and Black Elk Speaks began a slow rise to prominence in Europe that eventually led to its return to American bookstores in the early 1960s. In 1970 the astonishing success of his book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, brought author Dee Brown to Dick Cavett’s popular talk show on ABC television. After the interview Brown suggested to Cavett that he should have John Neihardt on his program. A Nebraskan himself, Cavett quickly located Neihardt in Lincoln, Nebraska. Neihardt was in his 90s, nearly blind, but working on a proposed six-part autobiography. In 1971 Cavett brought Neihardt to New York as the single guest for his 90 minute program and sales of Black Elk Speaks instantly skyrocketed. Neihardt died two years later in 1973. 

By 1979 America’s foremost Indian spokesman Vine Deloria, Jr. proclaimed, “if any great religious classic has emerged in this century or in North America it has to be judged in the company of Black Elk Speaks.” Deloria also concluded that the most important aspect of the book is its impact on the contemporary generations of young Indian people searching for their roots in universal reality. The central theme of Black Elk Speaks is the holy man’s vision in which he prophesied a reunification of the Sacred Hoop of Indians Nations simply as a reunification of the hoops of many nations coming together in harmony.

Could we be seeing the first signs of Black Elk’s reunification vision emerging at Standing Rock? Considering this, it is also vitally important to anyone who knows the history of Sitting Bull and his renowned abilities of prophesy. Standing Rock was Sitting Bull’s home. It was where Sitting Bull lived and where he died. 

Prophesy aside, if nothing else the encampment at Standing Rock is the largest gathering of North American tribes in recorded history. Moreover, representatives of indigenous nations from all over the world are gathered at Standing Rock. As mentioned here earlier, the gathering defined itself -and the confrontation itself- from the beginning with spiritual and legal rights as “protectors”, thereby also opening the encampment to both Indian and non-Indian participation. It is also significant that the first Indian protectors gathered there around the concept of prayer and the principles of non-violent resistance that have been maintained by them throughout the entire stand-off. Even when provoked with such shameful tactics as attacks by vicious guard dogs, pepper-spray, tear-gas, arrest, numbered forearms, overnight imprisonment in dog kennels,being shot by rubber bullets, and being soaked by water cannons in sub-zero weather, the protectors have powerfully maintained their position of non-violent resistance. Protectors have even offered prayers for the spiritual harm the police are inflicting upon themselves by behaving barbarically. Perhaps most important, the non-Indian protectors have been encamped with powerful Indian spiritual leaders for months now and nearly all of them -especially celebrities- report they are having the most righteous religious experiences of their lives. 

Could Standing Rock be the sacred place where the power of light is simultaneously appearing as darkness descends on Washington? Are we all in training now for the environmental struggles yet to come?

I’m sure we’ll see this all play itself out in the days to come. Maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see here. I’ve made it abundantly clear long before the encampment at Standing Rock that I believe the Great Plains hold inherent mythological power for both Indian and non Indian people. I believe we reinvent ourselves in the Trans-Missouri or I wouldn’t have concluded my introduction to Where the Tall Grass Grows: Becoming Indigenous and the Mythological Legacy of the American West thusly… “The mythologies of the Indian and non-Indian fiercely collided in the Trans-Missouri during the nineteenth century, and this conflict has continued in various forms of legal, social, religious,technological, cultural, physical, and mythological violence ever since. Yet it also remains that even with this five-hundred year history of conflict duly noted, Black Elk’s vision prophesied a reunification of the hoops of many nations and races. Considering this, as well as Luther Standing Bear’s criterion for the non-Indian to become indigenous to North America, the continuing discord emanating from the Missouri River Country poses several important questions: Does a creative synthesis of these opposing perceptions of reality through the wisdom of Black Elk’s spirituality offer contemporary America mythological transcendence? And if so, how do we process, understand, incorporate, and reconcile Black Elk’s mythology with the dominant, non-Indian myth-making that subdued the indigenous nations of North America and plundered her natural resources, but, in doing so, created unprecedented opportunities for western civilization? Is reconciling these apparently contradictory mythological perceptions a pathway for non-Indians to become indigenous to North America? And finally, is Black Elk Speaks altering the mythological concept of the American hero, and, if so, what role does the Indian play in the evolution of the American archetype.”

Seekers of the Fleece Digital Remixing, Remastering and Re-Release

In an age of hyperbolic sound bites, one-word headlines, memes, tweets, four-second algorithmic advertising, You Tube video channels, and single-song downloading and streaming, the once beloved album has become an increasingly quaint collectors item, and the “concept” album anachronistic. Historical concept albums by epic balladeers, well…

Recently I was discussing this digital age and its dramatic negative -and positive- impact on the rapidly diminishing recording industry and changing music business with my friends Jim and John Inmon as we remixed my prototype epic ballad, Seekers of the Fleece. Before going further with this thought I should mention here that the continual rapid evolution of recording technology has been a part of the development of each of our professional lives in the studio for a long time, and as such it was relatively easy for Jim and me to follow John’s lead into digital recording in his Blue Sugar Studio. Since the three of us were also elbow-deep in the process of digitally remixing my hour long historical ballad, Seekers of the Fleece and enjoying the incredible sound quality and technical flexibility of creating music with computer files, we fully appreciate the evolution from analog to digital recording. Nevertheless, the conversation with Jim and John soon naturally arrived at the question many recording artists have been forced to ask themselves in this era of the shameful increasing devaluation of music: Even with all the flexibility and freedom provided by digital technology, why bother to create art that aspires beyond the rapid consumption of today’s appetites -especially given the hard reality that most people don't even "buy" music anymore. Then Jim gruffly injected matter-of-factly, “Well, I don’t think anyone ever went to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and got up and left after the ‘Dum, Dum, Dum, DUUUUM’!” 

Yes! Re-releasing a forty-year old, hour-long historical concept album during this transitional era of digital creation and distribution of music may seem quixotic windmill-tilting to many folks. Yet Jim’s Beethoven remark will perhaps help explain why the Inmon brothers and I have remained close friends and colleagues for so long: We share a fundamental belief in art for art's sake and that a very large number of people still want to hear what comes before and after the “Dum, Dum, Dum, DUUUUM”. If that calls for charging a few windmills so be it. 

So it was artistically easy for the three of us to fully embrace digital recording as an art form in and of itself to digitally transfer the boxes of analog tapes and remix Seekers of the Fleece. We knew the work deserved it whether anyone buys it or not. And I should add here that being able to return to this artistic adventure with co-producers Jim and John Inmon forty-one years after our original production of “Seekers” was only possible because my dear friend Dr. Bill Wicheta was brave enough to charge windmills with the Inmon brothers and me. Dr. Bill’s patronage is truly based on his love of my A Ballad of the West trilogy and his desire for it to be appreciated by as many people as possible. Dr. Wicheta helped me to reunite with  my co-producers to finish bringing Seekers of the Fleece to the state of production the three of us originally intended, but were unable to finally achieve until now. Our respect for Dr. Wicheta’s faith in the project, however, can perhaps best be described from my son Gabriel’s perspective: When we started digitally remixing Gabe stopped by the studio one day and afterwards told Melissa, “Dad and Jim and John reminded me of art historians restoring a treasured painting -only without the rubber gloves and fine brushes; they are lovingly restoring the colors of the music and the story of Seekers of the Fleece with their ears.”

I think Gabe's poetic description is accurate. We have been amazed at what we have re-discovered in the restoration process. The only thing we added was the bone-chilling sound of a real grizzly growling during the mauling section. Aside from that we only worked with the music and voices that we recorded on the original master recording in 1075.

Back in 1972, with hopes of recording the work when I was still under contract to RCA Records in Hollywood, the Inmon Brothers and I recorded the first crude four-track demos of “Seekers” in a band house in the Austin hill country known as “The Hill on the Moon”. RCA passed on the concept and I soon parted ways with the label. Finding myself in 1974 without a recording label for the first time in seven years, I entered a phase of deep depression. During this period it was Jim Inmon who advised me to take my ballads to the theater and, after a four-month, standing-room-only run at Austin’s now-long-gone Creek Theater in early 1975, I began touring my one man show of Seekers of the Fleece. Initially I took to the road living in the back of a truck and doing what I called “living room concerts” -which were more often than not, were actually back porch concerts on ranches and Indian reservations, in barns on family farms on the Great Plains, or around hippie or cowboy campfires in the Rockies, or nightclubs in Austin. Soon those great venues developed into loft apartments in Manhattan and from there to the "legitimate" theater again while also continuing to perform the one-man shows in every type of venue imaginable all over the globe for the next forty years. Full-company musical productions of the show also ran for seven years in Wyoming before I returned to my one man shows again in 1996. 

But in 1975, immediately after the debut of the one man show in Austin, Jim, John and I also produced the master recordings of Seekers of the Fleece that featured narration of the spoken word verse by beloved western character actor Slim Pickens. It also featured wonderful, unique performances of my music accompanied by the founding members of the now-legendary Lost Gonzo Band -John Inmon, Gary P. Nunn, Bob Livingston, and Donny Dolan. My dear old pal, Wyoming mountain man, Timberjack Joe, also helped us with "authenticity" and set up a tipi in the mountains outside of Denver for us to begin the recording sessions with a small taste of a Mountain man Rendezvous. The Gonzos and I spent five hours in Timberjack Joe's tipi the evening of July 17, 1975 listening to Slim recite bawdy cowboy poetry and sing songs from his early rodeo career as a champion bull rider. (Of course Jim Inmon recorded the evening and I am currently editing that recording.)

I was aware, however, that July, 2015 would mark the 40th anniversary of our recording “Seekers” and planned something to celebrate the milestone. First, however, I had to release and promote Vagabond Heart, my first non-concept studio album since Heal in the Wisdom in 1981. Because of the incredible effort it takes to release an album today most of my focus was on Vagabond Heart, and I realized this distraction would mean that the 40th anniversary of the recording of Seekers of the Fleece would most likely be celebrated by posting a few pictures and acknowledgements of the piece on social media, and contacting Slim Pickens daughters and the Gonzos to chat about the good old days. 

Then Hollywood re-discovered Hugh Glass. "Re-discovered" because Hollywood had an earlier depiction of the Glass story in 1972 featuring Richard Harris in Man in the Wilderness. Man in the Wilderness bombed, but after the astonishing global success of The Revenant this past winter, and Leonardo DiCaprio's award-winning performance, most of the world now knows the incredible story of the bear mauling Hugh Glass and his great survival trek after being deserted by his companions.

Of course the success of The Revenant influenced my restoration of Seekers of the Fleece! I’m sure most folks will quite naturally assume, however, that my re-release of Seekers of the Fleece is designed to capitalize on this ironic twist of fate, and I readily admit that it would be delightful if The Revenant motivated people to buy Seekers of the Fleece. But if money was my primary motivation I’d probably own a ranch in Wyoming and beachfront property on some island by now. 

After I saw The Revenant, however, something more important triggered the restoration. I vividly remembered being a 20 year-old art student in 1965 and discovering John G. Neihardt’s definitive telling of the story in his 1915 epic poem, The Song of Hugh Glass. At the time I had been searching in vain for two years for a period ballad about Jim Bridger and after The Revenant I recalled first reading Neihardt’s poem and remembered the enchanted feeling of being transported by his meter and words to the place and time of the mountain men. But I discovered so much more. In The Song of Hugh Glass I literally stumbled onto my path as a writer. After reading Neihardt's complete body of work and later reading Lucille Ally’s critical biography and discovering the meticulous research behind nearly every word the poet ever wrote, Neihardt became my guide into western America on my quest to accomplish with my ballads what he had accomplished poetically.

Since the mauling of Hugh Glass by a mother grizzly in 1823 many people have told the mountain man's incredible story. Early nineteenth century campfire yarners handed Hugh's tale to sensational dime novelists and so forth as the tale entered western folk legend. Still, little is actually known about Glass except for the period of the mauling and his great trek; indeed, Neihardt is the historian who brought to light what we do know about the historical Glass and Neihardt most certainly brought awareness of the Glass story to the world of true literature with The Song of Hugh Glass. Essentially, however, as I have said repeatedly since the debut of The Revenant, all of us who have interpreted the story of Hugh Glass -Neihardt and myself included- have interpreted the mountain man’s tale to suit our own unique artistic vision. I learned about Glass because I sought to tell a story about Jim Bridger and Bridger and Hugh happened to be forever bound in this great western survival saga. I interpreted the story of the mauling and trek as a pivotal point in young Jim Bridger's life; one that eventually made him rise from the shame of the desertion to become recognized as America's premiere American mountain man. The Revenant, however, as most other interpretations of the Glass story, focused on the theme of revenge. The Song of Hugh Glass -and because of Neihardt’s direct influence, also my Seekers of the Fleece- share the twin themes of compassion and forgiveness. I even openly borrowed Neihardt’s line “For your youth I forgive you!” and embedded it in my ballad to emphasize and forever the link the two works. 

During the Hollywood hoopla overThe Revenant I was also very saddened that there was no mention of Neihardt’s work. And I was also bothered every time I saw the puzzled look on friends and fans faces when, being aware of my five decades with the story, they learned the filmmakers never once contacted me about the project. It  concerned me even more that the author of The Revenant lived in the very region in which I performed both my one man shows and full company productions of Seekers of the Fleece for decades before the publication of his book. As I have hopefully made clear, however, Hugh's story long ago entered American folklore. 

After The Revenant came out I posted an essay at this blog site because so many people were aware of my relationship with Jim Bridger and my long history with the story. At first it was dear long time friends and fans, but soon journalists who sought my opinion of the film. I realized then that I had to do something to get Seekers of the Fleece properly restored in order to present my perspective of Jim Bridger’s role during the events depicted in the film.

The restoration of the recording of Seekers of the Fleece was essential because I retired live performances of my one man show of Seekers of the Fleece in 2011 and began devoting much more time to my career as a recording folk singer and songwriter. John Inmon and I developed a musical performance of Lakota as the last of the ballads of my trilogy that I still perform and, in spite of The Revenant, I have no intention of beginning to perform the one man show of Seekers of the Fleece again; forty years as Jim Bridger was a long run! In January, 2016, however, I returned to my fifty year quest to use my ballads to tell Jim’s story while also attracting new attention to Neihardt’s work. I took over fifteen boxes of analog tapes to Sound Arts Recording Studio for restoration and digital transfer to a thumb drive. In March John, Jim, and I started remixing and projecting a November release date for the recording and in May I received the affirmation that re-releasing Seekers of the Fleece was the right thing to do: Completely unaware of my efforts to restore Seekers of the Fleece, representatives from the John G. Neihardt Foundation contacted me with the wonderful news that I had been unanimously voted to receive their prestigious Word Sender award November 13, 2016. 

Now we are busily preparing to release the digitally remixed, remastered and restored Seekers of the Fleece on November 8, 2016. We are so excited about the incredible sound of the "new" Seekers of the Fleece. People will have a chance to hear the great western character actor, Slim Pickens in his prime, the founding members of the legendary Lost Gonzo Band at the beginning of their careers, and my youthful self as we recreate the story of the first enterprising non-Indians to venture into Great Plains and Rocky Mountains of western North America to live with indigenous people. And I hope my telling of the story of Jim Bridger and Hugh Glass in Seekers of the Fleece will remind the listener of the remarkable ability of the human spirit to rise above the concept of revenge with loving compassion and forgiveness.

 

Reflections on 'The Revenant'

Source: Wired

Source: Wired

It is an odd feeling of closure for me that the world is finally becoming aware of the remarkable story of Hugh Glass though Alejandro Inarritu’s brilliant film, The Revenant. As everyone who sees the movie, I was deeply moved by Leonardo DiCaprio’s intensely nuanced portrayal of Glass. The film has also lingered in my thoughts for days as an ironic justification for me personally, because I will have no longer have difficulty explaining how the story of Glass’s encounter with the grizzly bear and his crawl for revenge could capture the imagination of a 20 year-old idealistic, fledgling balladeer. Perhaps after seeing The Revenant people will have a better understanding of my career-long commitment to this frontier drama as well as all the other interpretations of historical personalities, events, and eras in my trilogy, A Ballad of the West

 

Will Poulter as Jim Bridger Source: Washington Times

Will Poulter as Jim Bridger

Source: Washington Times

Still, it is important that I stress here that the single aspect of Glass’s story that held my interest for a half-century is much deeper than the visceral horror of a bear mauling. The heart of the story for me is the act of Glass’s forgiveness of Jim Bridger for betraying him. Having spent 50 years digging into, writing about, and portraying the story of Hugh Glass on disc, stage, and video, it is surrealistic, confusing, and artistically hypocritical for me to write my impressions of The Revenant. As a historian and a playwright an invitation to evaluate my impressions of The Revenant is a challenge I welcome.

 

The Revenant is as visually stunning as it is fiercely metaphysical. It is simply brimming with passion. I enjoyed Leonardo’s strong performance as Hugh Glass, as well as Tom Hardy as the bitter, conniving John Fitzgerald. Will Poulter was also an outstanding Jim Bridger and they all employed similar characterizations to those that I used in my ballad Seekers of The Fleece. In the opening act, the battle with the Arikara Tribe was, in my opinion, the best-choreographed battle scenes of the period ever filmed. The bear mauling scene was a brutally primal ballet and I was mighty impressed with the realistic nuance Inarritu and DiCaprio fused into the choreography of the attack. A great example of this is that every historical description of the mauling refers to the bear’s multiple attacks on Glass, with each separate charge inflicting terrible wounds. When at last Glass kills the bear with his knife and she falls directly upon him, the film has accurately depicted nearly every historians interpretation of the mauling since the tale first began to make the rounds of trapper campfires. 

 

Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald Source: Cinema Blend

Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald

Source: Cinema Blend

Now, however, I must differentiate between The Revenant and my epic ballad Seekers of the Fleece. Though Hugh Glass is a pivotal character in “Seekers”, my ballad is not specifically about Hugh Glass. Instead, “Seekers” is about my relative Jim Bridger, and his relationship with the characters of the historic Ashley-Henry Fur Expeditions of 1822-’23 who became known as “mountain men”. In The Revenant Glass is portrayed as having learned from an Indian companion he meets during his epic trek to surrender his rage for revenge to a higher power, but the aspect of forgiveness, vital to my interpretation, remained absent in The Revenant. Unfortunately, it was the logical course of the screenwriter’s scenarios set in motion earlier in the film with devices that I simply differ with both historically and artistically. Some accounts of the fateful meeting say that Glass beat young Jim severely when he caught up with him. But in all accounts Glass forgives Jim after his very presence forces the boy to admit his cowardly betrayal. The true historical character Jim rose to become deserved a better ending in The Revenant that the whipping Major Henry administered. He deserved to be forgiven by American’s true mountain man, Hugh Glass.

 

It is indeed hypocritical for me -or anyone else- to critique The Revenant as all of us -poets, historians and playwrights- are merely interpreting the life of a man that history actually knows virtually nothing about. Aside from the legends surrounding the mauling, the historical Hugh Glass is practically a phantom. That said, I would have preferred artistically to see cinematic devices creating more of his dream-allusions to Glass’s legendary historical “backstory” of his adventures as a pirate in Gulf of Mexico during the War of 1812 before jumping ship, venturing onto the Great Plains and being taken captive by and living with the Pawnee. Then, Glass’s involvement with indigenous people would have been more than perfunctory and the character of the Pawnee son the screenwriters created as a simple revenge device would have made more sense that just as a character who exists only to be killed to add to Hugh’s determination to survive to avenge his son’s murder.

 

The last fifteen minutes of the film bothered me a great deal. Until Glass’s return to Major Henry and the trapping partyThe Revenant was a very different kind of western; one that raised the bar high above the old cliche. Sadly, the ending, even while attempting to surrender its intense rage, became an old western cliche in which Americans expect their revenge tales to be settled with blood rather than words. Thus we see again that legendary American characters like Hugh Glass return generationally to create mythology that reflects the culture of our times. The Revenant now joins the current spate of survival films coming out of Hollywood such as In the Heart of the Sea, Into the Wild, Wild, and The Martian -each of them reflections of our conscious and subconscious concern about increasing environmental uncertainty.

Modern-Day Mountain Man: Timberjack Joe Lynde

My celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the recording of “Seekers of the Fleece” enters its third week of tributes to the people who helped record the epic ballad. This week’s tribute is to my old friend and modern-day mountain man, Timberjack Joe Lynde.

***************** 

Timberjack Joe always told me I would write a book about him and our travels together and one day I probably will; he simply is one of most interesting characters I’ve ever known. When I met “the last of the mountain men” in 1974 he was 63 years old and I was 29. I had been traveling to Wyoming for several years visiting the locations of Jim Bridger and mountain man history to soak up inspiration for recording and performing “Seekers of the Fleece”. I had secured a gig performing six nights a week for the entire summer at the Grand Teton Lodge Company performing a “folk version” of “Seekers” with sideman Roger Bartlett, who was on leave from his regular gig as Jimmy Buffet’s “Corral Reefer Band”. I had just parted ways with RCA Records in Hollywood and was without a recording label for the first time in seven years. Still, I was obsessed with somehow moving forward with the recording of “Seekers” even without label support, yet not sure if that was ever going to be possible.The gig in the Tetons provided the perfect opportunity to try out the form of the epic ballad for tourists from all over America and the world, but also it was a perfect base from which I could expand my research into Jim Bridger and the Fur Trade Era. One Sunday when visiting the location of the many of the historic “Rendezvous” of the Fur Trade Era near the tiny two-building town of Daniel, Wyoming, I found a flyer announcing a Rendezvous in nearby Pinedale, a few miles down the road. There, I quickly realized the Pinedale event was in truth a “town pageant” rather than a bonafide “rendezvous”, but that was wonderful in and of itself.

 

Modern day mountain man Timberjack Joe and his dog, Tuffy (riding on the horse behind Timberjack) at the Pinedale, Wyoming Rendezvous, July, 1974. Photo by Bobby Bridger

Modern day mountain man Timberjack Joe and his dog, Tuffy (riding on the horse behind Timberjack) at the Pinedale, Wyoming Rendezvous, July, 1974. Photo by Bobby Bridger

The audience sat in rodeo bleachers while the citizens of Pinedale dressed in period costume and -portraying characters from the very early 19th century- acted out American history in mime to a script being read by the local veterinarian over a bad PA from an announcers booth. I was enthralled.

Then, what I thought must be an apparition rode into the arena. But I wasnt hallucinating. The announcer shouted, “Timberjack Joe and his dog Tuffy!" It took a while to actually see him, but the dog was riding on the back of the old man’s Appaloosa horse. Something came over me and I leapt over the fence and into the arena and raced to the old man’s side and blurted, “I’m Bobby Bridger and I need to talk to you!” 

“You a-kin a-Jim?” he asked as I walked alongside his horse. 

“Yeah”

That’s exactly how it all started. Later that day I called my friend Slim Pickens and told him I had met Timberjack Joe and Tuffy. Slim said, “You watch out for that crazy ole mountain man. The last time I saw him he was living with a skunk.”

I said, “Well, he’s wearing it now.” 

As soon as Joe and I met after the Pinedale pageant I had to ask if that wasn’t a skunk’s skin he was wearing for a hat. He actually began to shed a few very real tears. “Her name was ‘Sweetness’ because she truly was. Of course she was de-musked. She was precious. When she died I couldn’t stand it, so I skinned her and made her into my sacred headdress.”

At this point I considered taking Slim’s advice and heading back to Texas but his “sacred” description of Sweetness his skunk made me stay. I’m so glad I did. I quickly learned that Timberjack Joe brought joy and happiness to everyone’s life that he touched. I was privileged to soon become his sidekick and for several wonderful years be able to watch people of all ages, races, and nations respond to his unique magic. It is so fitting to begin a tribute to him during Christmas week, 2015 because I always called him the “Santa Claus of the Mountain Men.” Whether in tiny hamlets or large cities, at mountain man rendezvous or American Indian Pow Wows, as we traveled  throughout the west together wherever we would pull his rickety old RV to a halt, people would suddenly begin to appear and knock on the door of the traveling tepee within minutes. No one was ever turned away. He would answer every question, autograph picture post cards of himself and give them for free to every single person who asked for one. The children always approached him the way little ones approach Santa Claus; some children were shy and leery of him at first and carefully watched things from a safe distance while their parents patiently encouraged them to nudge closer. Other children ran straight for his lap to ask a million questions about the Indian medicine hanging around his neck and spilling over his chest. Wonderfully, adults behaved the exactly same way as their children and you could always get a glimpse of the little children they had once been; some reserved and cautious, others excited as Christmas morning and ready to ask the old mountain man a thousand questions in five minutes time. Joe would enter any gathering of people with his very, very, loud catchphrase shout, “Turn me loose boys, I’ll never be the same!” So this week I am going to turn him loose and share a few vignettes of the old mountain man’s spirit as a tribute for his help shaping and molding “Seekers of the Fleece”. 


Timberjack Joe by Barry Everett. Austin, Texas, January, 1975 at the debut of Bobby Bridger’s one man show of Seekers of the Fleece at the Creek Theater

Timberjack Joe by Barry Everett. Austin, Texas, January, 1975 at the debut of Bobby Bridger’s one man show of Seekers of the Fleece at the Creek Theater

Friends for Life: Bobby Bridger and The Lost Gonzo Band

Bob Livingston, Bobby Bridger and John Inmon

Bob Livingston, Bobby Bridger and John Inmon

“Friends for Life”

Last week as part of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the recording of Seekers of the Fleece, we offered a memorial tribute to Slim Pickens for his narrative contribution to the recording. Nevertheless, it is the music that intertwines and links the heroic historical verse and epic narrative structure of my trilogy A Ballad of the West. From the beginning, the songs were written to stand alone as unique, contemporary musical works. Music was also the reason for bringing in the legendary Lost Gonzo Band into the project from the very beginning. Of course, in those days they weren’t “legendary”; they were simply new friends who happened to also be great musicians. The founding members, Gary P. Nunn, Bob Livingston, John Inmon, and Donny Dolan helped me record the demos of my prototype “epic ballad”, Seekers of the Fleece, in 1972 in engineer Jim Inmon’s bedroom studio at the famous Austin “band” house. “The Hill on the Moon”. The same team reunited in Colorado with the late beloved character actor, Slim Pickens, in 1975 to record the master recordings of Seekers of the Fleece.

 

John Inmon, Bob Livingston, Bobby Bridger and Gary P. Nunn

John Inmon, Bob Livingston, Bobby Bridger and Gary P. Nunn

In the spring of 2000, John and Jim Inmon and Bob Livingston returned with me to the studio to record Parts Two and Three respectively, Pahaska, and Lakota. I am very proud that over the twenty-five year period of recording the entire trilogy the same musicians accompanied me musically. As Gary P. is fond of saying we are, “friends for life”. 

So it is with great pleasure and a very deep bow of gratitude to these talented, generous, and spirited musicians -and life-long friends- that I am celebrating the 40th anniversary of the recording of Seekers of the Fleece this week with photographs and stories of The Lost Gonzo Band and their brilliant contribution in bringing history to life musically with me in A Ballad of the West.

Crady Bond and Bobby Bridger  

Crady Bond and Bobby Bridger

 

40th Anniversary of Seekers of The Fleece

Forty years ago on the date of Jim Bridger’s death (211 years earlier), and beginning in a tipi and finishing in a 24-track recording studio, my good friend Slim Pickens and I began recording the story of my distant relative’s harrowing adventures with Hugh Glass and a mother grizzly bear across the plains of South Dakota. Out of this recording session came my prototype epic ballad Seekers of the Fleece, which began my lifelong journey as a Western balladeer and historian. To celebrate this anniversary, and as a loving tribute to the great Slim Pickens, Golden Egg Records is proud to release The Crawl, an 11-minute excerpt from Seekers of the Fleece, Part One of my epic ballad trilogy, A Ballad of The West.

 

When we began recording in 1975, Slim’s bomb-riding scene in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove was already immortal, but Slim was also the gun-shot law-man slowly dying while Dylan crooned Knocking On Heaven’s Door in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Headly LaMarr’s  dunce sidekick, “Taggart”, in Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles; this amongst scores of other films.

Slim was a living legend who shared my love of the mountain men of the 1820’s and 1830’s, and was fascinated by our little project - enough to lend his name and voice and join up with a bunch of unproven twenty-something hippie musicians on a wild adventure to tell the story of Hugh Glass and Jim Bridger. And boy did we have a ball working on it together!

It is with great love and respect that I dedicate The Crawl to the memory of Slim Pickens, the authenticity he brought to Seekers of the Fleece, and the joy he brought to the world. I hope you enjoy hearing his character work in this vintage recording, remixed by John Inmon, available until now only as part of a 4-disc set.