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Bobby Bridger: Singing America’s Heart Song


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 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.

You’ll find other, more extensive stories I’ve written about Bobby and his fascinating life and career journey on this blog.

Bobby Bridger

 

Bobby Bridger: Singing America’s Heart Song

©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.

 

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