This collection is the first recorded presentation of my entire epic musical trilogy, A Ballad of the West. When combined with the full text of lyrics, essays and graphics at the website www.aballadofthewest.com the various narratives which compose A Ballad of the West can now be assembled into a cohesive artistic statement. Since 1965 my artistic intention has been to synthesize several traditional forms of expression in order to create a comprehensive poetic, historical, musical and dramatic work depicting the lives of certain individuals, events and eras of the nineteenth century American West. After nearly 36 years, my quest is completed with the release of this collection of ballads and the publication of the printed materials at the website.
In 1963, when at age 18 I first learned of a possible distant relationship to America’s premiere mountain man, Jim Bridger, I never could have dreamed of the adventure I was embarking upon in seeking to learn more about him and the American west. In a career now approaching three full decades I have performed A Ballad of the West all over the world. After debuting the one man shows of Seekers of the Fleece and Lakota at Austin’s Creek Theater in 1973 I “took my act on the road” first performing throughout Texas and the Southwest and then out to the magnificent landscape which is the geographic inspiration of A Ballad of the West -the Great Plains and Upper Rockies of the Trans-Missouri. After several years of touring the ballads up and down the Continental Divide and across the plains, fate took my one man shows to New York and New England and eventually Australia, Europe and Russia. Decades of touring around the globe offered a unique international perspective of the old and new American west, but I quickly realized that the world would always be coming to Yellowstone National Park and, performing in the region, I could reach a truly international audience with my work without ever leaving the United States. More significantly, however, as I entered my fifties I found my spiritual instincts leading me back to the Trans Missouri region almost exclusively to perform A Ballad of the West. At 55 I have come to understand my fascination with the Trans-Missouri simply has to do with mythology: It is the mystically fertile landscape of the creation mythology of the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Shoshone, Blackfeet and Pawnee. Ironically, as emigrant pioneers encountered the Trans-Missouri, the magic region also gave birth to the first genuine European mythology since the days of Robin Hood.
My journey to this mythological perspective of the Trans-Missouri began in 1963 with the simple, yet ultimately futile, search for a historical folk song depicting Bridger or any of the flamboyant characters known as “mountain men”. The discovery that no songs survived the colorful and historically important “Fur Trade Era” presented an inexplicable void that whetted my youthful artistic instincts and curiosity, but also confused me concerning where to head next with my quest. A helpful English professor suggested that since I had exhausted the source material of American folk songs in my research on Bridger, perhaps I should turn my attention to historical literature.
In 1965, taking my professor friend’s advice and still following Jim Bridger’s trail, I discovered John G. Neihardt’s masterpiece, A Cycle of the West, a meticulously researched, five-song, sixty-thousand line Homeric epic poem celebrating the “great mood of courage that was developed west of the Missouri River in the nineteenth century.” A historical and artistic touchstone, Neihardt’s work allowed me to see the past, present and future simultaneously; instantly I perceived the heroic Jim Bridger in the context of the epic adventure of American history and realized that since no folk songs had survived the fur trade era, I had been presented with the wonderful opportunity to create a unique modern musical interpretation based on his life. Deeper research into Jim Bridger’s life, however, had also led me to understand that one could never begin to understand him or any of the mountain men without first gaining a fundamental knowledge of the native people of the Trans-Missouri. Thus I began a journey into understanding the religion, culture and history of the Indians of the Great Plains and Upper Rockies. Neihardt remained my steadfast guide through Plains Indian culture and his Black Elk Speaks quickly acquainted me with the voice of a 19th century mystic of the horse and buffalo culture of the Great Sioux Nation. Neihart’s When The Tree Flowered and the works of other Plains Indian scholars followed in close succession. Seeking personal experience rather than stale academic knowledge, however, I soon I found myself traveling to reservation Pow Wows and forging what would in some cases become cherished life-long friendships with many Indian people. I became friends Lakota philosopher/author, Vine DeLoria, Jr., with Neihardt’s daughters and Black Elk’s great-grandchildren.
From the beginning of my efforts to create an epic musical trilogy interpreting real events in western American history I knew I would need to find two other men to match the unique role of Jim Bridger in Seekers of the Fleece. Of fundamental importance, Jim Bridger lived to be an old man. Consequently, he personally experienced the eras of exploration and discovery as well as the great migrations, wars and eventual settlement of the “great American desert”. As Bridger personally experienced important events in early western history, Lakota Holy Man, Black Elk, was present at significant events in Lakota history, knew most of the important Indian leaders of the Indian Wars Era and the Ghost Dance Era, and lived fifty years into the 20th century.
The need to have a third character with such comprehensive experiences in the 19th Century west ultimately led me to the master of American mythology, William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Forever blurring the line between fantasy and reality, immortalizing the fringed, beaded buckskin costume of his predecessors, the Indian and mountain man, Buffalo Bill first spun the concept of celebrity from the heroic eras of the “winning of the west” and then rode his unique fame into the spotlight in arenas throughout the world while simultaneously creating much of the foundation of modern American mythology. In creating epic ballads depicting the lives of Jim Bridger, Buffalo Bill and Black Elk I could present the panoramic, heroic eyewitness perspectives of the Trans-Missouri spanning from 1804-1950. I completed writing Seekers of the Fleece in 1970, Lakota in 1972 and Pahaska in 1996.
Even though completed in a 24 track studio, quite a bit of the first of these epic ballads, Seekers of the Fleece, was recorded in a tipi in the Colorado Rockies in 1975 with Slim Pickens and my old Gonzo pals John and Jim Inmon, Bob Livingston, Gary P. Nunn and Donnie Dolan. Even though Seekers of the Fleece was recorded over a quarter of a century ago, I chose to include it in this collection in order to present a sense of artistic continuity and because of the narration of the late, beloved character actor Slim Pickens. Slim’s love of the mountain men brought him to volunteer his talents to narrate Seekers of the Fleece and I cherish the flavor of his unique voice telling Jim Bridger’s story. Then, in the Spring of 2000 Jim and John Inmon, Bob Livingston and I went into Austin’s Hill On The Moon Studios to record Pahaska and Lakota. I chose to record the trilogy over the course of 25 years with many of the same musicians and technicians in order to create a sense of aesthetic and historical unity, but also, aside from being fantastic musicians, John, Bob, Gary P and Jim are some of my favorite people.
It is my hope that A Ballad of the West will present a unique perspective of the eras and Native and Emigrant people who, molded by the Trans-Missouri, created much of the foundations of our American mythology. I have been honored to use my talents to explore the implications of their lives and times.