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Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Making of Western Folklore

Folklore - the traditional beliefs, legends, sayings, and customs of a people - is alive and well in today's popular press and entertainment industry. The old west is an ideal setting for the development of folklore because of the nostalgia we Americans embrace for this romantic period in our nation's history. Our frontier folk heroes are characters who have served as our role models throughout the ages and remain a cherished part of the American culture. Indeed, with modern media now encompassing the globe, they have become part of the world culture. Have you ever wondered what it is about these characters that have elevated them to the status of folk hero? What was it about them that caused them to become the grist of which legends are made, as opposed to their neighbors up the road apiece who lived and died in obscurity?

Some, like James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok, (1837-1876), earned their fame as lawmen and sharpshooters who were fearless in battle. Wild Bill reportedly got his nickname from a woman who watched him thwart a lynching. By the time the "Prince of the Pistoleers" was killed in Deadwood in 1876, he had been a stagecoach driver, a cavalry scout, a lawman, a sharpshooter, an actor, a prospector, and a gambler, among other things. Although he lived in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, a scant six weeks before Jack McCall, that dasterdly villain, immortalized him with a bullet to the brain, the town still claims him as their leading citizen. Doc Pierce, the Deadwood citizen who laid Hickok out, said the man bled out nicely and was "the prettiest corpse I've ever seen."

Others, like Butch Cassidy, (Robert LeRoy Parker, 1866-1908), the "Robin Hood of the West," and his partner, the Sundance Kid, (Harry A. Longabaugh, 1867-1908), rode the outlaw trail. They and their gang, the Wild Bunch, were robbers, plain and simple. Although Butch and Sundance left the States for South America late in their careers and actually went straight for a few years, they eventually returned to what they did best and died in Bolivia after a 1908 robbery and gun battle. Some historians say they were wounded and committed suicide rather than surrender, then were hastily buried in an unmarked grave, which actually added to their legendary status. They were sighted in various parts of the United States for many years thereafter. Americans generally looked upon them as charming, good old boys who fought the Establishment and thus, earned the right to be called folk heroes.

Still others, like Annie Oakley, (1860-1926) were entertainers. Dubbed "Little Sure Shot" because of her five-foot stature, Annie was a markswoman without equal. She could easily hit a dime tossed into the air at 90 feet and did so regularly as the star attraction of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

Annie's employer, William Frederick Cody, (Buffalo Bill, 1846-1917), was also a showman in his later years and toured the world with his wild west show. Prior to this, his reputation was built on his record as a scout, first during the civil war and later on the frontier, and also as a buffalo hunter for the railroad. During one seventeen month period he reportedly killed over 4,000 buffalo (by his own count.)

John Johnson, aka (John "Liver Eating" Johnson, 1824-1900), received his nickname by allegedly turning cannibal and eating the livers of the Crow Indian warriors he killed, a practice he steadfastly denied. This six foot six inch giant spent most of his life in the rugged mountains of Montana. He was a true mountain man who earned his reputation as an Indian fighter by waging a personal vendetta against the Indians who killed his Indian wife. He also was a lawman in his later years but as his health declined he eventually had to leave his beloved mountains. Robert Redford portrayed Johnson in the 1972 film, "Jeremiah Johnson," which is still one of the all-time classic western films.

There are common traits among these characters. They lived very public lives. They possessed outstanding skills or personal traits such as bravery, charm, glamour, charisma, fighting ability, or marksmanship and as such, they were role models. They projected a positive image with which the common man could identify. They tended to be egotistical; they were self-promoters or knew how to inspire others to promote them so that word of their exploits became common knowledge. They were individuals of strong, well-defined character who were dramatic and entertaining. They tended to be dashing and photogenic, and they enjoyed their reputations.

Where does western folklore go from here?

Today, the western folk hero does not enjoy the popularity achieved in the last century, but there are indications on the horizon that the western genre may be headed toward a renaissance. Organizations such as the Western Writers of America, home of the prestigious Spur Award, Taylor Fogerty, with her online American Western Magazine, and yes, even television and Hollywood seem to be taking a new look at preserving our western heritage along with our folk heroes and legends.
Western authors such as Loren Estleman in his book, Writing the Popular Novel, (2004 - Writers Digest Books) indicates that predictions that the Western is dead is far from the truth.

"Without exception, the forecasts have proven false," Estleman says. "Following the lead of Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, and Annie Proulx, the Western is entering its greatest period."

Neither "folk hero" nor "legend" is a static concept. This creates both a challenge and an opportunity for storytellers in the world literary community and in a variety of mediums to contribute to folklore, to enhance existing legends, to create new ones (like Harry Potter), and to assure their characters a small piece of immortality in the process.

Finally, it is significant to note that a folk hero is a delicately blended creation of both fact and fiction. It is the right combination of reality and myth that transforms a folk hero into folklore and legend. The importance of this combination is explained in the 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. The whole country thought Ransom Stoddard killed the outlaw Liberty Valence and in gratitude, elevated Mr. Stoddard to the rank of folk hero. Jimmy Stewart, who portrayed Stoddard, now a senator, returns to the scene of the killing several years later to attend the funeral of Tom Doniphon, portrayed by John Wayne. He tells the editor if the Shinbone Star that he did not shoot Liberty Valence but rather, that Tom Doniphon killed the outlaw. The editor, who is taking notes for a front page story in the newspaper, throws the notes away and declares: "This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

The editor of the Shinbone Star said it well.

Steven Merrill Ulmen, author of Toby Ryker, a western novel

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