Bobby Bridger’s Rendezvous


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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 WestBuffalo 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.”

 

Jim Bridger

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

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  1. May 13, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Given the mention of the fur trade in your blog, I wanted to let you know about my upcoming book, FUR, FORTUNE, AND EMPIRE: THE EPIC HISTORY OF THE FUR TRADE IN AMERICA (W. W. Norton, July 2010). A video that gives an overview of the book can be found on YouTube at,

    You can also find out more about the book at my website: http://www.ericjaydolin.com.

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