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Buffalo Bill’s Coming Out Party Courtesy Author-Balladeer Bobby Bridger

September 6, 2011 3 comments

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 theFleeceLakota 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.

 

 

Bobby Bridger

 

 

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.”

Ned Buntline

 

 

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.

Author, humorist, folklorist Roger Welsch tells the stories of the American soul and soil

June 19, 2010 8 comments

Mark Twain

Image via Wikipedia

Roger Welsch is a born storyteller and there’s nothing he enjoys more than holding sway with his spoken or written words, drawing the audience or reader in, with each inflection, each permutation, each turn of phrase. He’s a master at tone or nuance. New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt and I visited Welsch at his rural abode, and then into town at the local pub/greasy spoon, where we scarfed down great burgers and homemade root beer. All the while, Welsch kept his variously transfixed and in stitches with his tales.

On this blog you’ll find Welsch commenting about his longtime friend and former Lincoln High classmate Dick Cavett in my piece, “Homecoming is Always Sweet for Dick Cavett.” Welsch shares some humorous (naturally) anecdotes about the talk show host’s penchant for showing up unannounced and getting lost in those rural byways that Welsch lovingly describes in his writing.

 

Author, humorist, folklorist Roger Welsch tells the stories of the American soul and soil

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

It’s been years since Roger Welsch, the author, humorist and folklorist, filed his last Postcard from Nebraska feature for CBS’s Sunday Morning program. Every other week the overalls-clad sage celebrated, in his Will Rogersesque manner, the absurd, quixotic, ironic, sublime and poetic aspects of rural life.

That doesn’t mean this former college prof, who’s still a teacher at heart, hasn’t been staying busy since his Postcard days ended. He’s continued his musings in a stream of books (34 published thus far), articles, essays, talks and public television appearances that mark him as one of the state’s most prolific writers and speakers.

In 2006 alone he has three new books slated to be out. Each displays facets of his eclectic interests and witty observations. Country Livin’ is a “guide to rural life for city pukes.” Weed ‘Em and Reap: A Weed Eater Reader is “a narrative about my interest in wild foods, a kind of introduction to lawn grazing and a generous supply of reasons to avoid lawn care,” he said. My Nebraska is his “very personal” love song to the state. “I believe in Nebraska. I love this place for what it is and not for what people think it ought to be,” he said. “I hate it when the DED (Department of Economic Development) tries to fill people full of bullshit about Nebraska. Nebraska’s great as it is. You don’t have to make up anything. You don’t have to put up an arch across the highway to charm people.”

In the tradition of Mark Twain and William Faulkner, Welsch mines an authentic slice of rural American life, namely the central Nebraska village of Dannebrog that he and artist wife Linda moved to 20 years ago, to inform his fictional Bleaker County. Drawing from his experiences there, he reveals the unique, yet universal character of this rural enclave’s people, dialect, humor, rituals and obsessions.

Roger Welsch on his beloved farm

 

 

He’s also stayed true to his own quirky sensibilities, which have seen him: advocate for the benefits of a weed diet; fall in love with a tractor; preserve, by telling whenever he can, the tall tales of settlers; wax nostalgic over sod houses; serve as friend and adopted member of Indian tribes; and obsess over Greenland.

The only child of a working class family in Lincoln, Neb., he followed a career path as a college academician. His folklore research took him around the Midwest to unearth tales from descendants of Eastern European pioneers and Plains Indians. He lived in a series of college towns. By the early ‘70s he held tenure at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Then, he turned his back on a “cushy” career and lifestyle to follow his heart. To write from a tree farm on the Middle Loup River outside Dannebrog. To be a pundit and observer. People thought he was nuts.

“I walked away from an awfully good job at the university. People work all their lives to get a full professorship with tenure and…nobody could believe it when I said I’m leaving. ‘Are you crazy? For what?’ And, it’s true, I had nothing out here,” he said from an overstuffed shed that serves as an office on the farm he and Linda share with their menagerie of pets. “I was just going to live on my good looks, as I said, and then everybody laughed. That was before CBS came along.”

Before the late Charles Kuralt, the famed On the Road correspondent, enlisted Welsch to offer his sardonic stories about country life in Nebraska, things were looking bleak down on the farm. “We weren’t making it out here,” Welsch said. “I told Linda, ‘The bad news is, we’re not making it, and the even worse news is I’m still not going back.’ And about that point, Kuralt came along.”

No matter how rough things got, Welsch was prepared to stick it out. Of course, the CBS gig and some well-received books helped. But even without the nice paydays, he was adamant about avoiding city life and the halls of academia at all costs. What was so bad about the urban-institutional scene? In one sense, the nonconformist Welsch saw the counterculture of the ’60s he loved coming to an end. And that bummed him out. He also didn’t like being hemmed in by bureaucratic rules and group-think ideas that said things had to be a certain way.

His chafing at mindless authority extended to the libertarian way he ran his classroom at UNL and the free range front lawn he cultivated in suburbia.

“I was a hippie in the ‘60s and I really got excited teaching hippies because they didn’t give a didly damn what the bottomline was. They just wanted to learn whatever was interesting. You didn’t have to explain anything. I never took attendance. I’d have people coming in to sit in on class who weren’t enrolled, and I loved that. I hated grades. Because I figured, you’re paying your money. I’m collecting the money and I deliver. Now, what you do with that, why should I care? It’s none of my business,” he said. “The guy at the grocery store doesn’t say, Now I’ll sell you this cabbage, but I want to know what you’re going to do with it.”

Welsch said the feedback he got from students made him realize how passionate he was about teaching. On an evaluation a student noted, “‘Being in Welsch’s class isn’t like being in a class at all. It’s like being in an audience.’ I asked a friend, ‘Is that an insult or a compliment?’ ‘Well, Rog, actually being in your class isn’t like being in a class or in an audience. It’s like being in a congregation.’ And I thought, Oh, man, that’s it — I’m a preacher, not a teacher. It really is evangelism for me.”

“By the ‘80s they (university officials) wanted to know how they were going to make money out of the popular classes I taught. I said, ‘I have no idea. It’s not my problem. All I’m doing is telling them (students) what I know.’ So, there was that.”

Then there was the matter of UNL selling out, as he saw it, its academic integrity to feed the ravenous and untouchable football program, which he calls “a cancer.”

“I was and still am extremely disillusioned with the university becoming essentially an athletic department. Everything else is in support of the athletic department. And that breaks my heart, because I love the university. There was that.”

But what really set him off on his rural idyll was the 1974 impulse purchase he made of his 60-acre farm. He bought it even as it lay buried under snow.

“So, I bought it without ever really seeing the ground, but it was exactly what I wanted. I loved the river. I loved the frontage on the river. Then spring came and the more the snow melted…it was better than I thought….There are wetlands and lots of willow islands. The wildlife is just incredible. We’ve had a (mountain) lion down here and wolves just north of here.”

 

 

 

 

He used the place as a retreat from the city for several years. Each visit to the farm, with its original log cabin house, evoked the romantic in him, stirring thoughts of the people that lived there and worked the land. “That’s what I love about old lumber…the ghosts.” By the mid-’80s, he couldn’t stand just visiting. He wanted to stay. “I told Linda, ‘One of these days you’re going to have to send the highway patrol out, because I won’t come home. I can’t spend the rest of my life wanting to be here and living in Lincoln.’” Their move to the farm “really wasn’t so much getting away from anything as it was wanting to get out here.”

Then, too, it’s easier to be a bohemian in isolation as opposed to civilization.

“My life is a series of stories, so I have to tell you a story,” he said. “In my hippie days, I really got interested in wild plants and wild foods. As part of my close association with Native Americans, I was spending a lot of time with the Omahas up in Macy (Neb.). I was learning a lot of things from the Indians and, well, I was bringing home a lot of plants that I wanted to see grow, mature, go to seed and become edible. Milkweed and arrowhead and calimus. I got more and more into it. I loved the sounds and flowers and foods coming from my yard.

“One day, I come home to find a notice on my door that my lawn’s been condemned and I have six days to remove all ‘worthless vegetation.’ So, I invite the city weed inspector over to show me what’s worthless. He said, ‘OK, what about that white stuff over there?’ He didn’t even know the names of the plants. And I said, ‘Well, we had that for lunch.’ ‘How ‘bout that?’ ‘That’s supper.”

Welsch said, “As I started looking at this, I found out people were nuts. Anything over six inches high in Lincoln was a weed. The county weed board was spraying both sides of all county roads with diesel fuel and 24D. That’s essentially Agent Orange. They were laying waste to everything. Strawberries, arrowhead, cattails. So, I ran for the weed board on a pro-weed ticket. About this same time, Kuralt was coming through Nebraska. He asked somebody if anything going on in Nebraska might make a good story for his On the Road series. And whoever he asked, God bless ‘em, said, ‘Yeah, there’s a crackpot in Lincoln…’ So, Kuralt called me up and came over to the house with his van and his crew, which eventually became my crew. We sat down and had a huge weed salad and walked around and talked about weeds. And he had me on his On the Road. Well, then over the years every time he came through Nebraska he stopped. I kept a file of any stories I thought were interesting that he might use. That was my way of luring him to Lincoln.”

 

 

Charles Kuralt

 

 

The two men became fast friends and colleagues.

“We always went out to eat and drink. He loved to drink and I do, too. We would just have a good time. He used me for six more On the Road programs, for one thing or another. I tried to then steer him to other things — the jackalope in Wyoming and stuff like that. We got to be really good friends. When he started hosting Sunday Morning, he asked me to watch the show. He called me up and told me he wanted to bring the culture of New York City to towns like Dannebrog.”.

By the time Kuralt next passed through Nebraska to see Welsch, the author was giving a talk before a gathering of the West Point, Neb. chamber of commerce. What Kuralt heard helped him change the course of Sunday Morning and Welsch’s career. “He walked in the back of the room and listened to the program. We drove back to my place and he said, ‘You know, you said about 13 things we could use on Sunday Morning. What we need to do is to take the culture of a little town like Dannebrog and show it to New York City. So, that’s essentially how we got together. He originally thought about doing Postcards from America, where he had somebody (reporting) in every state. It got to be too expensive. I had six or seven years all by myself (with Postcards from Nebraska) before they added Maine. Then, by the time he went off the road, he gave me his old crew. They were like family. It was a great 13 years I was on that show. We had an awful lot of fun.”

Two years into Postcard, Welsch said Kuralt confided, “I thought we’d be lucky to get six stories out of Nebraska.” Ultimately, Welsch said, “we did over 200.”

What Welsch found in the course of, as he describes it, “my rural education,” and what he continues discovering and sharing with others, is a rich vein of human experience tied to the land, to the weather and to community. He’s often written and spoken about his love affair with the people and the place.

When friend and fellow Lincoln High classmate Dick Cavett asked him on national television — Why do you live in a small town? — Welsch replied: “In Lincoln academic circles everybody around me is the same. They’re all professors. In suburbia, everybody pretty much has the same income. But in Dannebrog, I sit down for breakfast and converse with the banker, the town drunk, the most honest man in town, a farmer, a carpenter and my best friend.” What Cavett and viewers didn’t know is Welsch was talking about his best friend Eric, who’s “been all those things. That private joke aside,” Welsch added, “the spirit of what I said is the truth.”

In his book It’s Not the End of the Earth, But You Can See it from Here, Welsch opines: “I like so many writers…have come to appreciate the power of what seems at first blush to be some pretty ordinary folks doing some pretty ordinary things. There is a widespread perception that small town life moves without color, without variety, without interest…but that has certainly not been my experience. My little town is like an extended family. There are my favorite uncles. A mean cousin or two. Some kin I barely see and do not miss. And some I can never get enough of.” It took leaving the city for the small town to find “the variety I love so much. The American small town seethes with ideas and humor, with friendship and contention, with wit and warmth, with silliness and depravity.”

He finds among the people there an inexhaustible store of knowledge to draw from, both individually and collectively, whether in the stories they tell or in the jokes they crack or in the observations they make. “It amazes me how much people out here know,” he said. “I came to love the land and its river so much. I was drawn inexorably to this rural countryside. But the land was the least of it. The real attraction…is the people. As I got to know the people in town, it just really blew me away. I love the people. It’s a cast of characters.”

“When I did It’s Not the End of the Earth I got mail from everywhere, with people saying, ‘I know what town you’re talking about…I live there in Pennsylvania,’ or, ‘I was in that same Texas town you write about.’ It’s the same cast of characters everywhere.” His characters may be fictional, but they’re extracted from real life. “There is no CeCe, no Slick, no Woodrow, no Lunchbox…and yet, I hope you will recognize them because they are not only people I have known, they are people you have known…In fact, if you are at all like me, they are people you have been.”

As he found out long ago in his folklore studies, there is a beauty, a charm and a value in the common or typical, which, as it turns out, is not common or typical at all. Like any storyteller, his joy is in the surprises he finds and gives to others.

“It’s not just me being surprised, but the pleasure I take in surprising other people,” he said. “I like to tell them, ‘Hey, guess what?’ And there are so many surprises. Every week out here when we turn on television to listen to the weather, there’s a new record set — record highs, record lows, record change, record snowfall, record draught. That means we don’t know anything yet. We haven’t the foggiest notion what this place is like. We still don’t know what the parameters are of this place. And as long as it keeps amazing me like that…”

The amazing stories he compiles keep coming. Like the woman who left an elegant life behind in Copenhagen to keep house for two bachelor farmers in their dirt-floor dug-out. Or the American Indian who witnessed the Wounded Knee massacre. Or the children that perished on their way home from school in the Blizzard of ‘88.

By now, Welsch is not quite the oddity he was when he first arrived in Dannebrog, an historical Danish settlement of about 265 today. Ensconced at a table in the Whisky River Bar and Grill, he’s just that loud, funny fella who cultivates stories.

“Up here at the bar, whenever people start to tell stories, I start doing like this,” he said, gesturing for a pen and napkin, “because they know I’m going to jot them down. Eric, who used to run the bar, said, ‘Welsch, everybody hears these stories, but you’re the only one who writes them down, takes them home and sells them.’” Welsch likes to tell the story of the time he and Linda were bellying up at the bar with a couple locals, when they asked, “‘How do you make a living writing?’ And I said, ‘Well, Successful Farmer pays me for the article and Essence pays me $2 a word…’ And one of them said, ‘You mean, each time you say — the — they pay you $2? And Linda said, ‘Well, he can use the same words over and over, but he has to put them in a different order every time.’” That’s when it dawned on Welsch, “Oh, God, that’s all I’m doing. Same damn words — different order.”

He remains a suspect figure all these years later. “To a lot of people in town, I’m still the professor, writer, outsider, eccentric. There’s still people that say, ‘Is that all he does is write?’” He’s used to it by now. This son of a factory worker and grandson of sugar beat farmers long ago set himself apart.

 

 

 

 

His initiation as country dweller was complete once he fell head over heels for a tractor. A 1937 Allis Chalmers WC to be precise. Many vintage models sit in a shed on his farm. He tinkers, toils and cusses, refurbishing engines and discovering stories. Always, stories. He’s penned several books about his tractor fetish.

“On an Allis, there’s a piece of braided cloth between the framework and gas tank to prevent friction and wear. I was taking apart a tractor and it was obvious somebody soldered the gas tank before and hadn’t put back the cloth. What they had done was take a piece of harness and put it in there. What that meant was a farmer working on it looked on the barn wall and made a decision: ‘I’m not going to use that harness again; horses are done; you’re now in the tractor age.’ To me, it said a world of things, and tractors are that way. I’ve still got the harness.”

Welsch feels he only gained the respect of some townies when he “admitted total ignorance” as a tractor hack. “No longer was I Professor-Smart-Ass. I was the dumb guy who didn’t know shit. I’d bring in my welding. I’d ask how to adjust a magneto. They were showing the professor…the guy from the city. That put me in touch with people here in town I never would have known. There was a connection…”

Perhaps no connections he’s made for his work mean more to him than do his ties with the Omaha, Pawnee and Lakota tribes. He said his experiences with them have “changed my life. What amazes me is that the culture is still alive. They’ve maintained it in the face of unbelievable pressure and deliberate efforts to destroy it, and yet it’s still there and they’re still willing to share it. That, to me, is astonishing. It’s being able to go to another country and another world within striking distance of Omaha that has different ideas about what property is and what time is and what generosity is and what family is.” His adoption by members of the Omaha and Lakota tribes has given him large extended tribal families. He treasures “the brotherhood and the closeness of it. Maybe because I was an only child.”

A trip to Greenland gave him a similar appreciation for the Innuits. He hopes one day to write a book about his “love” for the Arctic country and its people. It used to be he wrote books on contract. Not anymore. “You’re really obligated then to write the book the publisher wants. The books I’m doing now are so idiosyncratic and so personal that I want to write the book I want.” Besides, he said, “everybody loves to hear stories,” and he’s got a million of them.

Welsch knows how rare and lucky he is to be doing “exactly what I want to do. So much of my life is just unbelievable fortune. My daughter Antonia said I belong to The Church of Something’s Going On. I really believe there is. That’s about as close as I come to dogma.”

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