Westward Ho!

Pull out a modern map of the United States. Find St. Louis on the eastern border of Missouri. Now imagine that was the edge of the United States in the 1820s. To the west was the vast territory known, somewhat misleadingly, as the Great American Desert.

Jim Bridger was then a disgruntled 18-year-old youth bonded to a St. Louis blacksmith in an arrangement that amounted to temporary slavery. Poised as he was on the edge of the wilds, Bridger decided to heed their call. He answered an advertisement calling for "one hundred young men" to ascend the meandering Missouri River to its source high in the Rockies, some 2,500 upstream miles away. The career of a great American explorer (Bridger discovered the South Pass, which became the route of the great migration westward) was thus born.

Such a choice was perilous, to say the least. If the bears didn't eat you, you might end up on the business end of a Sioux's feathered arrow. Should you survive the perils of beast and man, the land itself -- its rushing rivers, treacherous snowbanks, dizzying cliff tops and howling tornadoes -- could and did quite often swallow men whole. But not Jim Bridger. He lived to a ripe age and served as a pivotal witness to many of the great events of the early West.

The great-grandnephew of the famed mountain man -- Houstonian Bobby Bridger -- has put his relative's life to song, and what a life it was. But the modern-day Bridger wasn't content to stop there. There were other passes to cross, higher peaks to scale. Like a Malian griot, Bobby Bridger has drawn an epic vision of American history on the four-CD A Ballad of the West (Golden Egg). More than a concept album or a salute to his famous ancestor, Ballad chronicles the American West from the 1820s to the 1950s.

The genesis of Ballad began in 1963 when Bridger discovered he was related to the famous mountain man. He began reading everything he could find on not just Bridger but also Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill and all the other real-life Grizzly Adamses. Bridger then decided to branch out into the belles lettres. He discovered the work of Nebraskan John G. Neihardt, whose five epic poems, 60,000 lines long, collectively titled A Cycle of the West, were written over a period of 40 years. Neihardt wrote two lines a day for 18 years to create the last poem of the cycle, meticulously researching every line, says Bridger.

Neihardt became Bridger's role model. In 1965 Bridger decided to write a musical work to parallel the Nebraskan's epic poetry. Like Neihardt, Bridger decided to write the first part of his trilogy about mountain men and the second part about the Lakota Sioux people. Like Neihardt, the project has taken him decades to map out.

"People ask me if I mind that it's taken me since 1965 to complete this project. I don't mind. Here's the ultimate reason for that: No [musician] has done what I'm doing. Always in the back of my head, I've known what I'm doing is starkly unique. And that's the only reason for being an artist. I've no desire to be a parody of the Texas singer-songwriter."

A Ballad of the West is as close to a Homeric interpretation of the American West as you're going to get. It's written in rhyming couplets, 30 songs composed of some 2,000 lines of verse. Instead of the siege of Troy, you have the Battle of Little Big Horn. Instead of Ulysses, you have Jim Bridger. "When I delved into [Jim] Bridger's life, I learned that he lived to be 77 years old. Most of the other mountain men died at a young age. Very few of them saw 25 years old. Accidents, bears, Indians, it was one of the hardest lives you could imagine.

"For example, they had to push against the currents of the Missouri River to ascend it westward. You couldn't go in the winter when it was frozen. You had a small window of opportunity in the springtime when you could push two massive barges against the current 2,000 miles to get into unknown territory. Astronauts going into space knew a lot more about where they were going than the mountain men," says Bridger.

In addition to Jim Bridger, two other pivotal characters come to the fore in parts two and three of the trilogy. One is Echa-Cha-Sapa, the Lakota Sioux known as Black Elk. A participant in Little Big Horn, Black Elk was also present at the murder of Crazy Horse, and he participated in the Ghost Dance movement as well as its shameful coda: the Wounded Knee Massacre.

The second is William Cody.

Cody already enjoyed ample press, and Bridger at first resisted writing about him. Nevertheless, Bridger could find few better embodiments of the drive west. Around the time of Cody's birth in 1846, migration across the plains had kicked into high gear; the great potato famine decimated Ireland and sent streams of starving immigrants to America; and James Polk was elected president on a manifest destiny ticket, which he fulfilled by manufacturing a war with Mexico. Gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in California, and Oregon was thrown open for settlement. Cody's life coincided with America's rise to a sea-to-shining-sea imperial power. William Cody embodied that image.

"Buffalo Bill became a hero of the dime novel," says Bridger. "People who came to America wondered who they were in this new country. They read the dime novel and absorbed the newly created mythology of the American West. Buffalo Bill created the concept of celebrity out of thin air. He was the first person to make a good living for being famous. Before People or Entertainment Tonight, there was Buffalo Bill." (Bridger is writing a biography of Buffalo Bill, due out in March 2002.)

Bridger understands much of American history as a betrayal of what the mountain men, Native Americans and early cowboys believed. On the album, Bridger narrates the story of a "rendezvous," an annual intercultural event that brought together trappers, traders and Native Americans. In the days before trading posts and forts, the rendezvous was for both business and pleasure. Native Americans wore their most colorful costumes and performed their most spectacular dances. There was a carnival of games, contests and storytelling. But by the mid-1830s, the beaver trade was declining, and the Native Americans were becoming more hostile as white farmers moved onto their lands with new concepts of private property.

According to Bridger, the early promise of a free, open and mutually tolerant West was never to be.

"Today we understand how to be politically correct living off our ancestors' largesse," says Bridger with a hint of irony. The irony continues when Bridger takes stock of his relative's life. Like Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, the world Jim Bridger did so much to create was not one he cared to live in. "Bridger was betrayed by his own actions. He opened up the West, and the military followed him right in."

There is "a pattern with western European colonization," Bridger continues. "The trapper is the first to appear. He's usually an anarchist. Right on the heel of the trapper is the miner. He's antisocial to some degree. He's getting away from civilization. Almost holding hands with the miner is the missionary.

"The trapper usually blends with indigenous people in order to survive. The miner and missionary do just the opposite. The miner has no regard for the environment. He begins to disrupt that. The missionary does that in a larger way, to the people. Once those two get on the scene, they make life uncomfortable for the trapper by breaking the bonds established between the trapper and indigenous people. So then the military is called on to establish order. Once the military arrives on the scene, the indigenous culture is supplanted by the colonial culture."

Though his analysis omits the whiskey traders who arrived with the miners, and whose product had the dual effect of making life tolerable for the miners and wreaking untold devastation on the Native Americans, Bridger's view is not far off the mark.

Bridger draws his great-granduncle, Black Elk and Buffalo Bill as heroes. Bridger pictures them championing the rights of Native Americans and views them as manipulated by forces with a more closed view of what America should become.

"My purpose is to help people understand their history better," says Bridger. "An Indian friend of mine told me that he knew his own history but also American history. Most whites, he said, know neither Native American history nor their own.

"I'm into making people aware of the details, not the sugarcoated version of history." It's safe to say that this Ballad is anything but sweet.

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Aaron Howard