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Born on a Mountaintop

July 15, 2013 by Reader's Connection

Thanks to Irvington’s Steve Bridge for his review of Bob Thompson’s Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier.

TITLEWhich is more important to American history? The real life and accomplishments of Davy Crockett or the legends about him? There’s no contest – it’s the legends. For almost everyone my age, the mention of the name “Davy” or “Crockett” – even with other names attached – immediately fires thousands of neurons in our brain, bringing up images of the Alamo, with Fess Parker or John Wayne as Davy, the coonskin cap (usually fake) we wore as kids, and that song. You know the one: “Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.”

David Crockett was a typical, if overly restless, pioneer of the early 1800’s in America. He was born in Tennessee, fought in some Indian wars, never made much money, served two terms in Congress, and eventually went to Texas, hoping to find land and profit in the new Republic of Texas, which was trying to break away from Mexico.

The Alamo

The Alamo, San Antonio

Davy’s timing was poor, however, and he ended up dying at the Alamo in San Antonio in 1836 in a misguided defense against a huge force of Mexican troops. His lasting reputation for a century was both as a comic teller of tall tales and a dying hero.

In 1954 Walt Disney was obsessed with building a giant theme park – Disneyland. He made a deal with ABC television. “ABC would invest in Disneyland (and guarantee millions in loans) while Disney provided programming for an ABC TV show. Walt decided to build the show around the four ‘lands’ he was planning for the park: Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, and Frontierland.” To promote Frontierland, Disney’s team chose to make a TV movie about Davy Crockett.

At that time Crockett was less famous than Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, and other pioneer heroes. And apparently Walt Disney himself didn’t understand that his hero had to die at the Alamo in Texas. The show was to cover all of Davy’s adult life in three parts, broadcast several weeks apart. An unknown actor named Fess Parker was chosen as Davy (the story of his discovery is typical Hollywood serendipity).

iStock_000007446933XSmallThe whole country went nuts over Davy Crockett. Sales of Disney merchandise soared. (I had a Davy Crockett lunchbox.) Twenty different artists recorded the theme song in the first six months and sold around 7 million copies. As Thompson says, “Disney Davy taught advertisers how to sell to baby boomers. America would never be the same.”

The whole story of the song has several interesting sidelights. There was no intention to have a song; but after the final edit, they realized they were a little short on the time needed to fill three hours. So the scriptwriter and a veteran Disney composer quickly hammered out a song to take up a couple of minutes. They grabbed a singing actor named Bill Hayes who did the song in one take. Bill Hayes later became one of the most popular soap opera actors of all time. He was also a graduate of DePauw University, here in Indiana. I went to college with two of his children, Carrie and Bill, Jr.

Most of this book is an entertaining travelogue as Thompson goes around the country looking for the real history of David Crockett, in the places he lived and in all of the Crockett museums, homes, and historical sites (some of which are of dubious authenticity). Picking out the truth from the legend turns out to be more difficult than the author thought it would be, because Crockett himself and the purveyors of adventure legend of the 1800’s had mythologized his life while he was still alive. Almost every supposed fact or colorful tale about his life has more than one version. It isn’t even clear how he died at the Alamo, with witnesses (including two Mexican officers, and a surviving wife of one of the other Americans killed at the Alamo) later telling very different stories of what happened.

iStock_000004502192XSmall

This commemorative stamp was issued in 1967.

What we are left with is still fascinating – the effort to track down the real Davy Crockett teaches us a lot about how history is made, how every hero is mythologized, and how influenced we humans are by the act of storytelling. When the reality isn’t as good as the story, we choose the story every time. Why? Because the truth may be random; but the story has “meaning.” We want to believe that life has meaning – that OUR lives have meaning – so we impose meaning on every story. We know that actions have consequences and we want to believe that we can understand WHY something happened; so we impose order on a series of events, accurate or not.

If you were (or are still, as many apparently are) obsessed with Davy Crockett, this is essential reading. But it’s pretty interesting even if you are just curious.

Now I’ve got to get that darn song out of my head……..

Born on a Mountaintop is also available as a downloadable e-book

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