Sunday, March 22, 2009

Foot-Stompin' Music

I love music, but I must confess that as a history writer I do not explore the music world as much as I do the world of the past. I was pleasantly surprised when I stumbled across the myspace page of Curbside Jimmy and Washboard Jean and listened to some of their songs. Their rendition of “Will the Circle be Unbroken” reminded me of a childhood Sunday morning. Their music has a down-home, country feel that left me tapping my feet, humming and smiling. I was equally surprised that I somehow managed to catch Curbside Jimmy for a quick interview, and at the end of the interview, he made some interesting comments about history, as well!

DSD: Jimmy, your website identifies you and Jean as the sole survivors of the Curbside Jug Band, a popular San Antonio band from the 1990s. Can you tell us a bit about this group?

Curbside Jimmy: It is true that we played out of San Antonio. However, we weren't popular. We always got a good response wherever we played but we were never well known. Live music is not popular. Most live music venues end up being musicians watching other musicians. The band started in 1999 when I was a cab driver. I kept a guitar or banjo in my car. Over time several of us began playing at cab stands when we were waiting for fares. Hence the name curbside. That’s where we started, on the curbside.

DSD: When did you first start playing music?

Curbside Jimmy: My grandmother gave me a harmonica when I was about 12. I have carried one ever since. I started playing guitar as a young teenager. In the 60's I played bass with a band rock and roll band called the Runaways. Also as a teenager, I played bass with a country band at an ice house on Sunday afternoon. I got paid $8.00 for 4 hours and that was good money for a kid on Sunday. The rock and roll band paid better. We each usually got $25.00. The rock and roll band actually was popular.

DSD: How would you describe your music, and what attracts you to this particular style?

Curbside Jimmy: What I play now is raw and unpolished blues and old country. I am a minimalist in everything I do. The music sounds the way it does mostly because I am slightly awkward, and not good at copying others. With a lot of practice I have become little less awkward, so it comes across as relaxed I guess. My mistakes have started sounding like they belong in the music.

DSD: How does one learn how to play a “jug?”

Curbside Jimmy: It helps if they have played bass and have bass lines rolling around in their head. The jug is played by vibrating the lips while blowing into the jug. The most important thing is knowing what a bass part sounds like. The technique takes practice.

DSD: You play the Guitarron, as well. What exactly is a Guitarron and how does the sound add to your music? Is it difficult to play?

Curbside Jimmy: A guitarron is a bass instrument that is made in Mexico and played in different types of Mexican music. It serves the same function as a string bass. I find that it has a stronger presence acoustically than a string bass.

DSD: You apparently have strong feelings about electronic sound tracks and virtual instruments. Could you explain that for us?

Curbside Jimmy: I don't have any feelings about it. If someone makes music by programming a machine that is real skill. Most people love electronic drums. They are used in most commercial recordings. Virtual instruments offer a degree of precision that persons such as I can't match. But there is a warmth and a sense of sincerity that is lost in virtual music. I can offer warmth and sincerity in my music. A musician has to trade one for another. Both goals are worth while.

DSD: How do you feel about musicians who record their own music?

I must like them because I am one of them. Any other song I record is public domain.

Jimmy: I need to say something about music and history since you are a history person. Music gives a very accurate account of history as experienced and perceived by the poor and middle class. A person could read a book and find out how dangerous train travel was 100 years ago and back. The same person could listen to the "Wreck of The Old 97" and get a clear picture also.

The myspace page for Curbside Jimmy and Washboard Jean can be found at:

The Fastest Gun in the West!

After learning about Rodd Redwing from Western writer Erv Bobo, I now believe there really was a “fastest gun in the West”--in Hollywood, California! Rodd Redwing (1904-1971), a full-blooded Chickasaw, was a Hollywood actor who appeared in over eighty movies and television shows including Key Largo, Elephant Walk, and Gunsmoke. He made his film debut in 1931 in The Squaw Man. He also coached Henry Fonda, Dean Martin, Anthony Quinn, Jerry Lewis, Glenn Ford, Alan Ladd, and other Hollywood greats in the use of guns, knives, tomahawks and whips. Redwing was able to hit a target at twenty feet in two-tenths of a second. One of his most famous stunts was tossing a knife at a target while at the same time reaching for his gun, drawing, and firing to make a bullet hole for the knife to stick into when it reached its mark.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Natural Fort

When my children and I first moved to Fort Collins, Colorado we spent many days in nearby Cheyenne, Wyoming enjoying the Old West atmosphere. One day, as we returned to Fort Collins, we noticed what appeared to be a natural fort. It is actually a rock formation carved by centuries of wind and rain. It is covered with graffiti--some dating back to 1866--and often littered with beer bottles and garbage from insensitive troublemakers. This natural fort rock formation was the place where many brave Crow, or Apsaalooke, and Blackfoot hunters died when fate brought them together as they searched for food during a drought.

In 1831 a lack of rain forced the buffalo to follow the streambeds and the Crow and Blackfoot, staunch enemies whose tribes were generally on opposite sides of Yellowstone, both risked the wrath of their foes to follow the source of food. The odds were against the Blackfoot hunters when 160 men encountered 600 Crow near what is now the Wyoming and Colorado border not far from the popular Terry Bison Ranch. A fierce battle ensued and the Blackfoot hunters took cover in the natural fort, but they were quickly overcome by the Crow. All 160 of the Blackfoot hunters were killed along with forty of the Crow.

The natural fort is a mysterious place where the wind blows through stone gateways with a howling, haunting sound. Every few feet there are rain-carved holes in the rocks, deep enough for individuals to take cover. There are some areas shaped like rooms with high walls. Walking through these isolated sections one can imagine the fierce, determined warriors of days past crouched in the sand, scratching into the ground with sticks and stones, planning their defense.

Through the years the natural fort was stripped of all remains of the battle, including arrowheads and other artifacts. At one time there was a marker explaining the battle but this, too, has disappeared with time. The January 2007 issue of The Senior Voice reprinted an article by Greeley, Colorado historian Hazel E. Johnson who explained the battle for those who weren’t around when the marker was still in place. Johnson’s father once homesteaded on the property where the natural fort still stands.

Eventually, Interstate 25 came through the area and the natural fort was forgotten by many, but my children and I will never forget the enigmatic feeling of this place. It is sacred, a hallowed ground where dedicated family men surrounded their enemies and equally dedicated family men crouched in holes and took shelter in cold, dark, stone rooms, waiting for the inevitable.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Interview with a Western Writer

I have always been a fan of Western movies and literature particularly when they’re comedies, and I recently had the opportunity to interview my favorite funny man and Western author Erv Bobo. I own, and have read, most of his books. Bobo is a talented, intellectual writer known for both humorous and serious Western novels, short stories, political essays and satires. Throughout his extensive writing career, Bobo has continuously produced well-written, entertaining tales, including at least twelve action stories to various men's magazines and twelve western stories to Far West Magazine. His books include The Velvet Brand, The Cheyenne Brand, Seven Against Texas, The Velvet Scar, and All the Glory Gone. He was nominated for the Western Writers of America SPUR Award twice. He is also a member of the Missouri Writers Guild. He currently has a series of four fiction books and a collection of short stories in print and another fiction book coming out this month. You will find books by Erv Bobo at:

DSD: Mr. Bobo, your characters and plots are both interesting and unique. How do you come up with ideas for your books? Are they based on real people?

Bobo: Several of the short stories in All the Glory Gone--those dealing with a callow youth contending with an old-timer - are inspired by (but not based on) my father, whom I came to know only near the end of his life.

I think every writer puts some of his own character into his creations and, as I explain in one of the "story behind the story" notes in that volume, I surprised myself when re-reading those stories and finding how much of my own circumstances found their way into tales of the old west.

As for the Hellbenders series, I flatter myself in thinking that many of the off-center characters might have been created by Lewis Carroll if he had imagined a Wonderland of sagebrush and cactus.

DSD: With your intellect and talents I have no doubt you could choose any number of topics to explore in your writing. Why did you choose the Wild West?

Bobo: I've always been a fan of western movies and of some of the better western writers, but my entry into the field had a lot to do with formulas. Although I'd had some success in writing for men's magazines, they were stories that required heavy infusions of sex and violence. When I wrote my first western story, I was a new father and wanted to write something I would someday be proud to show my children.

Aside from that personal note, I see the West as a stage on which any kind of story can be played out: comedy, tragedy, love stories - anything.

Although it was not a reason for writing, I soon found that the writer of westerns is heir to a kind of shorthand: If your character enters a saloon, there is no need to describe the interior; everyone has seen enough western movies that he'll supply his own mental image, leaving the writer free to write about the action.

DSD: Is there a reason why you choose to approach the Wild West from a humorous perspective?

Bobo: Yes. My first humorous story was “The Night They Shot the Piano Player.” The title came first and as I tried to frame a story that fit it, I came up with a simple theme: that Texans don't care who wins as long as they get in on the fighting. In shaping the story toward that end, I had to invent believable characters that would live up to that theme.

Wayne Denton and Roy Lee McAllister performed just as I wanted them too, with a certain kind of batty logic, and I liked them so well I used them for two more short stories (all three were later incorporated into The Velvet Brand.)

Then I thought about doing a novel about them but I had only the title and a mental picture of the climax. Novel lengths are daunting for short story writers (which is why I included the short stories as chapters) but once I had those and the climax, everything else fell into place.

DSD: Lifestyles in American have changed tremendously since the days of the Wild West. If you could bring back one aspect of life in the Wild West, what would it be?

Bobo: This may shock you: I'd like to see every man with a six-gun on his hip and every woman with a Derringer in her reticule.

Now, it's not that I want to see people shooting one another at high noon. But what I like most about that period is that, in the absence of duly constituted law, people were responsible for their own lives and their own actions. The carrying of guns symbolizes that.

Too often today, we expect the government to take the responsibility we won't take for ourselves. In effect, we place our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor into the impersonal hands of politicians and bureaucrats and then we listen to the evening news and wonder where everything went wrong.

DSD: You obviously know a great deal about the Old West. If you could meet one person from this time period, who would it be?

Bobo: Wild Bill Hickok. Once you strip away the myth and the fluff of the dime novels, you're still left with an authentic man of the west. Hickok was a wagoneer, a hostler, a spy for the Union, a lawman and so much more. Probably one of the best gunfighters and most accurate shots of that era. Even today, he is the model for every fictional town-tamer you've read about or seen on a movie screen.

Next choice would be Buffalo Bill Cody. Aside from his many adventures - as authentic as Hickok's - his Wild West Show not only kept the West alive beyond it's allotted time, he introduced the West to most of the civilized world.

DSD: Thank you, Erv! I can't wait to see your next book!

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...