A Ballad of the West

Vine DeLoria, Jr. has published a large, very important body of work in the past thirty years. Beginning with the classic, Custer Died For Your Sins (published in 30 languages), DeLoria is also the author of God Is Red, Behind The Trail Of Broken Treaties and over 20 other major works. The former Executive Director of The National Congress of American Indians and the founder of The Institute of Native American Law, Mr. DeLoria is often referred to as the spokesman for Native America. Newsweek Magazine said DeLoria, "writes with ironic, mordant wit, and, in the process, he resolutely destroys the stereotypes and myths that the white society has built up about the Indian."

History’s Message

by Vine DeLoria, Jr.
(from the CD liner notes of A Ballad of the West)

The perennial debate among historians is whether great men or great movements tell us more about ourselves and our experiences. Millions of books recount episodes in American history with the multitude, by far, covering Western history. Biographers do not shirk their duty when describing the contributions of great people around whom swirled the events that have determined our lives. But what is history after all? Is it the recounting of incidents, the chronicle of particular times, or the analysis to determine why people did what they did and what it meant.

Western history fluctuates between generally wide sweeps of generalities and precise analysis of particular peoples and events. In A Ballad of the West, Bobby Bridger presents a tour de’ force of the western experience, combining the large movement across the Mississippi with three biographies -the story of Jim Bridger, the Lakota people and Buffalo Bill. Weaving these stories into the pivotal events in the unsettled west, Bridger expresses in poetry and song a vision that previous historians have missed.

Combining heroic couplets with a progression of songs that express exuberance, tragedy, joy and philosophy, Bridger is able to give us an authentic feeling of what the West must have been like. We experience the youthful west of Jim Bridger, the old, free west of the Indians, and the modern west overcome by time and people who see only its images and not its substance. Most historical perspectives visualize a society radically divided by race and culture. But with the mountain men, the puzzled Lakota, and the sentimental show people of the Wild West we begin to discern a deep rhythm emerging from the land which validates us as a people.

The time span involved in the Ballad is roughly a century, from 1822-1917, between Jim Bridger’s attachment to a fur trading expedition. But the stories, although presented consecutively, are not a rigid sequence. Rather they are the story of the West as experienced from three different perspectives. It is noteworthy that each ballad unveils the experiences of people caught up in the great Western movement, yet the movement itself is not a dominating theme. Coming to maturity, the teaching of wisdom, the reflection of the people who were personally involved in events remain after the music has faded.

Jim Bridger begins, suffers terrible lessons of friendship which produce in him a fearlessness unmatched in his generation. Blind in old age, Bridger can finally see the larger meaning of his life and recalling his youth can soar like and eagle once again.

The Lakota stand out as an unyielding part of the landscape, a spiritual presence on the land resisting the inevitable mechanization of life, expending their lives in an effort to maintain for themselves, the buffalo, and for the land itself, a primitive purity necessary for people to understand themselves. Through struggle against unequal odds they imprint on the American consciousness the vision of a pristine continent, now submerged by civilization, but always acting as a judge threatening to surge back again.

William F. Cody, scout, hunter, and Pony Express rider knew before anyone else that the west was vanishing and he sought to translate history into mythology before the essence of the experience was gone. So insightful was Cody’s vision of change that he was able to write his own myth as he was yet living it.

How best, then, to capture the essence these people and their experiences? Even the best narrative falls far short of our expectations. Even when words jump off the page at us they still rely on our imagination to have meaning. But song, the rhythms call to our inner selves and words march into orderly sequence enhancing the tune and imprinting it on our inner selves. Phrases that were sterile but a few moments before take on new life as the tempo moves to provide a safe haven for our scattered thoughts. What was it like we ask? "Free my spirit".