Family, History, Music

The Ballad of Davy Crockett

Born on a mountain top in Tennessee
Greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so he knew ev’ry tree
Kilt him a ba’ar when he was only three
Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the wild frontier!

My family first descended on the United States on October 29, 1963, when we arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport and settled for a year in a cramped second-story apartment in Brookline, MA.

I was in the fourth grade and attended Edward Devotion Elementary School, JFK’s alma mater. When Kennedy was shot, just three weeks after we arrived, the grief was palpable. Dad was a Fellow at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, and the entire area came to a standstill.

It was a rude introduction to life in a new country, and something of a crash course in American culture, politics, and current events. I’ll never forget it, or the events of a couple of days later when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald at close range and on live television. I’d never seen anything like it before, and I don’t think I have since. Perhaps the greatest exemplar of Reality TV ever, it occurred years before such a thing became popular, and maybe that’s why the carefully staged attempts of more recent times always seem like such a letdown to me.

I’ve loved history, and historical stories, books, and poems ever since I was a tiny child, although I think that prior to the events of late November 1963, I only knew two pieces of American history, both of them imaginatively portrayed and highly fictionalized.

I was familiar with Longfellow’s retelling of the exploits of one Boston silversmith named Paul Revere, and of his brave ride in April of 1775, to warn the treasonous patriotic colonists that British troops were on the move towards Concord and Lexington. (I was dismayed, years later to discover that he didn’t shout “The British are coming!” at every house he came to (to be fair, Longfellow never claimed that either), but moved with much stealth, and probably muttered, sotto-voce, something like “The regulars are coming out. Pass it on.”)

Longfellow’s poem was included in The Golden Treasury of Poetry, one of my favorite books when I was a kid. It’s a marvelous compendium of hundreds of poems of every sort, lavishly illustrated, and with a very short foreword by Louis Untermeyer which begins, “This is a book to grow on. It is also a book to grow with. In these pages are poems that will become favorites; you will never lose your taste for them.”

He was right: It is. I did. They did. I didn’t. It’s a wonderful book. My original volume didn’t fare so well, but several years ago I found a second-hand copy for a reasonable price, and my ancient self today loves it as much as the younger me did, all those decades ago.

The other US historical luminary I had some truck with at a very early age is the subject of today’s quote of the day, Tennessee’s native son, Davy Crockett.

For reasons which I was too young to inquire closely into at the time, Davy Crockett was a bit of a cultural phenomenon in the 1950s, in both the United States and the UK. Disney devoted several episodes of their Disneyland program to his life and legend (they later edited and pasted them together into a “movie,” and rebroadcast the TV shows, this time in color, in the 1960s. For those of you interested in finding out if nostalgia ever does actually measure up to what it used to be, they’re still available.

And the theme song, written by George Bruns and Thomas W. Blackburn (who scored a number of Disney movies), shot up the charts in several incarnations, one by the show’s star, Fess Parker, another by Tennessee Ernie Ford, and still another by the popular Bill Hayes. All three of them made the top ten on 1955’s Billboard US charts, as did a subsequent release by the bluegrass singer Mac Wiseman. Still more US recordings, from Burl Ives, The Sons of the Pioneers, and The Wellingtons did well, and numerous popular British artists covered it too. Many years later, in 1968, it was even recorded, in his own inimitable fashion, by Louis Armstrong.

Although many of his exploits are exaggerated for effect, or simply invented for the purposes of the song, Davy Crockett certainly did have an interesting life and deserved his reputation as a hunter and outdoorsman. He served three (non-consecutive) terms as a Tennessee Congressman between 1827 and 1835. His campaign for a fourth congressional term ended in defeat, and Crockett said his farewells, both to the nation’s capital and to his home state, by memorably announcing:

I told the people of my district that I would serve them as faithfully as I had done; but if not, they might go to hell, and I would go to Texas.

He did go to Texas, signed an oath of fealty to the Provisional Government of the soon-to-be Republic of Texas, and traveled down to San Antonio, arriving on February 8, 1836.

Davy Crockett’s life ended 27 days later on March 6, 1836, at the Battle of the Alamo. His legend has only continued to grow with time and, in keeping with his mythic status as an American folk hero, the circumstances of his death are disputed, with no-one being sure if he died in battle; or if he surrendered, or was captured, and subsequently executed.

I’m including the Bill Hayes version of the song with this post, because it’s the one I grew up with. (“The Ballad of Davy Crockett” was Hayes’s only UK hit, peaking at number two on the charts.) Dad loved it, and was prone to whistling it, tunelessly and irritatingly, to himself while engaged in home improvement projects. True to our treasured family traditions of eccentricity and cultural incoherence, he’d make up his own words when he occasionally burst into song. The most memorable of his efforts in this regard (I know this is true because it’s the only one I remember) was the refrain which went “Kwame, Kwame Nkrumah, King of the wide, wide boys.”

But that, my poppets, is another tale for another time.

Happy 101st Birthday, Dad. Miss you much.


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