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.