Saturday, November 25, 2017

My Favorite Book, Part 11.

Since my long-ago college days I have had a more-than-passing interest in the history of American Indians. My shelves contain many books on the subject. But none has affected my research and writing more directly than The Shoshoni Frontier and the Bear River Massacre by Brigham D. Madsen.
The book covers the history of the Northern Shoshoni from early contact with whites around 1840, until the ratification of treaties with the United States government in 1864. Included in the story, of course, are some 40 pages treating the Bear River Massacre, during which US Army troops slaughtered somewhere between 250 and 350 Indians—the worst massacre of Indians by the army in the history of the West. Included in the book is Shoshoni historian Mae Parry’s account of the massacre.
That such a tragedy could be largely lost to history intrigued me. I set out to learn more about it, including the privilege of talking with the author, Brigham Madsen, on several occasions.
Reading The Shoshoni Frontier and the Bear River Massacre led to my writing Massacre at Bear River: First, Worst, Forgotten as well as a chapter on the subject in my book The Lost Frontier: Momentous Moments in the Old West You May Have Missed, a short story, a magazine article, several poems, and even the lyrics to a song, “And the River Ran Red.”
But it was not only the subject matter of the book that intrigued me. Besides being one of the West’s foremost historians and experts on American Indians, Madsen was a fine writer. This book, as well as the many others he wrote, is well worth reading.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Were people in the Old West better than now?

Many people I know—writers and readers and viewers alike—are of the opinion that people living in the Old West were somehow “better” than those of us walking the earth today.
Back then, people didn’t use profanity. Honesty and square dealing ruled the day. Men placed women on a pedestal. Women were content in the kitchen and keeping house. Children were obedient, save occasional innocent hijinks. And while those were violent times, it was mostly good guys in white hats killing bad guys in black hats who needed killing. Truth, justice, and the American way ruled the day.
Studying history—rather than reading novels and watching movies and TV shows based on celebratory mythology—will soon disabuse you of any notion that human nature was any different then than now. Or at any other time in the history of people, for that matter. Certainly social conventions change, but that only affects times and places of misbehavior rather than behavior itself.
Back then, while men pretended to put “the fairer sex” on a pedestal, wives were little more than chattel, and could be beaten with little or no consequence. Ladies of the evening were routinely mistreated, with abusers considering violence included in the price. Alcoholism was rampant, drug abuse widespread. Child labor routine. Mistreatment of minorities acceptable, even encouraged. And so on.
The only real difference between then and now is that bad behavior often occurred behind closed doors in those days, and was little noted. Unseen, but there all the same. Now, it fills our TV screens and newspapers day and night.
Our blind spot concerning the evil in days gone by reminds me of the poem “Antigonish” by William Hughes Mearns. It begins this way:

Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Cultured cowboy.

Cowboy culture is a thing unto itself. Not to be confused with “high culture” associated with high society and such. In fact, the two worlds are, for all practical purposes, in different orbits altogether and seldom cross paths.
But, every now and then, something happens that makes you realize they’re not really all that far apart after all.
It happened to me recently.
Being big fans of cowboy singer Dave Stamey, my wife and I wandered down into central Utah for a concert not long ago. Which is not unusual, given that we’ve sat in the audience at a lot of his performances.
But what was unusual this time was that the artist—usually a solo performer—had a backup band: the Snow College symphony orchestra.
So, as Dave picked his guitar and crooned his cowboy tunes, he was accompanied by a string section, woodwinds, brass, and percussion instruments, all harmonizing in beautiful arrangements of songs written by Dave, along with a few Western standards.
It was a sight to behold (or should I say “be heard”?). The power of Dave’s music intensified with the orchestration, leading to a new appreciation of his songwriting, singing, and strumming skills.
It was a night to remember. And I didn’t even have to wear a tie.

Cowboy songwriter and singer Dave Stamey