Remembering the Old Songs:

The Burial of Wild Bill

by Lyle and Elizabeth Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, August 1997)

The other day, we came upon a feller who was paid by the hour to impersonate John Wayne. You might think by his outfit that he was a cowboy, but he hadn't even memorized any good Wayne lines (such as "Ya bin bakin' bread: I can smell ya"). If that's as good as it gets for heroes nowadays, you could do a better John Wayne imitation just by spitting on the sidewalk.

We used to cut our heroes a lot of slack. They could be real jerks and libertines in private life, as long as they fulfilled our need for heroism, and the public Media discreetly turned its face away. Now, if the Media lies to us, it's to make our heroes out to be even worse than we thought. We'll take the old-fashioned lies any day -- the kind you can believe in.

This is a story of three heroes of the old variety. The first was Wild Bill Hickock (1837-1876), and surely you've read or heard about his adventures as Marshall of Abilene, as a gunfighter with enough publicity skill to use his reputation to settle disputes without having to shoot all that many people. For awhile, he joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show to talk about his scouting days in the west for Sherman and Custer. Finally, when he was trying to line up a job as Marshall of Deadwood, SD, he was shot in the back at a poker game after drawing aces and eights (no one seems to know what the fifth card was). Acquaintances would later say that Wild Bill's eyesight had grown so bad that he could have been easily shot from the full frontal position, so his candidacy for Marshall was completely based on reputation.

Wild Bill was so much bigger than life that he fueled a second career, namely that of Captain Jack Crawford (1847-1917). He took "Captain" as a first name, since he never rose above Private in the Civil War. During his recovery from a war wound, a nurse taught him to read, write, and appreciate poetry. She taught him so well that he got a job as the Dakota correspondent for an Omaha newspaper, and he developed a knack for flowery, sentimental poems on western life, noble heroes, innocent youths, and almost anything else that could uncork emotions in the industrializing East about the pristine, brave American West. He happened to be hanging around Deadwood at the same time as Wild Bill, and may have met him. At any rate, he was greatly influenced by him. He proclaimed himself an Indian Scout, because on his journeys he would spot Indians and report their location to the Army. He abandoned a wife and children to prospect and mine for gold in Arizona, New Mexico and Alaska, occasionally opening supply stores and trading posts to help finance the failed ventures. His main fame, however, was as a stage performer who would periodically form a company to re-enact Wild Bill's Death or Custer's Last Stand for the edification of the folks back east. He would then recite his cowboy poems, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house, so of course he also sold poetry books. In his later years, being a showman reliving the Wild West was his only occupation. Unfortunately, all these activities were revenue-neutral, leaving him with a great reputation as a "poet-scout," but no money for himself or family. For more information on Captain Jack, read the uncritical biography Captain Jack Crawford: Buckskin Poet, Scout and Showman, by Darlis A. Miller (University of New Mexico Press, 1993).

The third hero, and perhaps the most genuine, was Ernest V. Stoneman (1893-1968), one of the most economically successful of the Appalachian music performers recording in the 1920s (which still isn't saying much). With an earnest singing style and straightforward musical approach on guitar and harmonica or autoharp, he made hundreds of recordings with lots of other musicians, including his wife Hattie, Hattie's sister Irma Frost, Eck Dunford, and Kahle Brewer.

Ernest's popularity pressured him for more "hillbilly" songs for the record companies. He had the excellent education that was then available from grammar school, and was interested in history (many years later, he would win some money in that category on a TV show, The Big Surprise). When a local newspaper reprinted one of Captain Jack Crawford's poems, an elegy to Wild Bill Hickock, Stoneman composed a majestic tune to go with it, reminiscent of the old-time hymns. He recorded it with Frank and Oscar Jenkins (banjo and fiddle), and (probably due to contract conflicts), released it under the pseudonym "Alex Gordon" on the Conqueror label (7270). We don't have any dirt on Stoneman, other than that he sometimes lied about his name for business reasons. The next time someone tries to relate to you the latest scandal denigrating a modern hero, sing them this song and tell them to get their myths in order.

Wild Bill

Complete Lyrics:

Under the sod in the land of gold
We have laid the fearless Bill;
We called him wild, yet a little child
Could bend his iron will.
With a generous heart he freely gave
To the poorly-clad unshod;
Think of it, pards, of his noble traits,
While you cover him with the sod.

Under the sod in the Deadwood gulch
We have laid his last remains.
No more his manly form will hail
The Red Man on the plains.
And many a heartfelt sigh was heard
As over the sward we trod,
And many an eye was filled with tears
As we covered him with the sod.

You buried him 'neath the old pine tree
In that little world of ours;
His trusty rifle by his side,
His grave all strewn with flowers;
His manly form in sweet repose,
That lovely silken hair;
It was a sight we can't forget,
That face so bright and fair.

Under the sod in the prairie land
We have laid the good and true;
An honest heart and a noble man
Has bade his last adieu.
No more his silvery voice will ring;
His spirit has gone to God;
Around his faults let charity cling
While we cover him with the sod.

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