An Interview with Bobby Bridger

AN INTERVIEW WITH BOBBY BRIDGER . . .

I’ve admired and followed the career of Bobby Bridger for some time. Well-known and respected nationally and abroad, Bridger is one of those multi-talented achievers one meets only once in a while. He is a singer, poet, songwriter, storyteller, artist, teacher—obviously brilliant and talented, but one who is not afraid of hard work, and as you’ll see in this interview, he works with a commitment that few have for any cause. Here are my questions and his responses.

RP: Tell the readers about your current or upcoming tours.

BB: I’ve clocked nearly 12,000 miles since late May…first to S. Colorado to perform Seekers of the Fleece and Lakota for contestants in a television pilot called The Real American Cowboy. Then I headed east to Knoxville, Tennessee for the annual Western Writers of America convention to take part in a symposium about songwriting. After Tennessee I headed to Lexington, Kentucky for a performance of Seekers of the Fleece at the University of Kentucky followed by three more wonderful weeks in Appalachia.  After that I returned to Texas briefly before heading to Omaha to perform Seekers of the Fleece at the Joslyn Art Museum as part of their current western expansion exhibition.

I’ve been home since mid-August working on the fine-tuning of my latest book. I head out again in early October. This time I head to Lone Pine, California for the annual Lone Pine, Film Festival. After Lone Pine, I head up to the Lake Tahoe region for gigs in Grass Valley and then in Carson City, Nevada.

I don’t travel nearly as much these days as I did twenty years ago.
RP: How many songs have you written? Share your songwriting techniques- i.e., how is a song written? Words or melody first? How do you get ideas for songs?

BB: Those are all questions that you write a book about, but I’ll try to break it down simply. First, I have no idea how many songs I’ve written; when I was about 20 I think I completed the first one that I felt like I might sing in public. That was 45 years and hundreds of songs –plus, jingles, documentary and feature film scores, co-written with other songwriters, contributions to other playwright’s musicals, etc., I long ago stopped keeping track of such things. I usually noodle until I find a melody and then –and I’m a stickler for this- match the meter of the language with the meter of the melody. I find this leads me to the words I’m searching for. So many of my songs were written from historical events and impressions of historical characters I’ve had to carry the idea, or notion for a song around in my head for years structuring and restructuring it until it gushes out when I find its context in the narrative I’m constructing.

RP: You’re not only a songwriter, you’re an author. Give us a brief synopsis of your book on William F. Cody. Do you have other books planned?

BB: Well, my career as an author is definitely related to my songwriting. Back in the early 70s when I completed Part One of A Ballad of the West, Seekers of the Fleece, an English professor at the University of Texas suggested that I should write vignettes to accompany my epic ballads to explain to my audience that these weren’t simply tall tales I was making up but instead documented historical events that I had re-interpreted as epic Homeric verse and long narrative folk songs. Those vignettes kept expanding and in 1980 1982 were published alongside of the verse and songs of A Ballad of the West in a classy art magazine called Four Winds. This led to a publishing contract that produced a lovely hardback, slip-cased, limited edition as A Ballad of the West. St. Augustine Press published a paperback of this in 1991. But the writing kept expanding –particularly with Part Two of A Ballad of the West, Pahaska. Pahaska, of course, is a Lakota word which means long hair, and was what the Sioux called William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. But my writing career was definitely launched by my best friend of thirty years, the author of Custer Died for Your Sins, God is Red, and scores of other books, the late Vine Deloria, Jr. Vine included essays I wrote in important anthologies about western literary lions John G. Neihardt and Frank Waters and introduced my work to incredible audiences. In 1996  Vine took my manuscript to the University of Texas Press and seven years later that multiply re-worked text was published as Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull: Inventing the Wild West. The book won Foreword magazine’s Gold Award as the Best Biography of 2002.  In 2009 the University of Texas Press also published my autobiography, Bridger. The book I’m working on now is my first with a so-called “commercial house” and is titled Where the Tall Grass Grows: The Mythological Legacy of the American West and it will be published by Fulcrum Publishing.

RP: Share your history and interest in art. What mediums do you use?

BB: Someone once said art is something about which there is much to learn and little to teach. I think that speaks volumes about painting and sculpture –the forms of visual arts that most appeal to me. I’ve been serious about painting since I was 11 years old. I got my first set of oils and brushes when I was 12. I went to college with the intention of taking the first steps to a career as an artist and I think I’ve accomplished that objective –only I had to do it with multiple mediums. Mediums? An old friend recently described me as thinking that ceramic sculpture would “save the world” back in the mid-1960s. That’s an accurate description I’m sure. But I was also making records in Nashville during that same period. After college I turned to wood sculpture and I still do that. But painting always has and continues to infatuate me and I’m sure I’ll be looking at the color around me and thinking about a painting the day I die.

RP: How does Native American history, ideas and imagery affect your work?

BB: Since the mid-1960s those aspects of American Indian culture have been a cornerstone of my work. Even though my space fantasy musical, Aldebaran and the Falling Star is on the surface set on the ocean and in space, the concepts explored in the musical stem from Lakota religion and philosophy. I’ve spent most of adult life either in the company of bohemian Euroamericans or in the company of Indians. These associations are explored in depth in Where the Tall Grass Grows: A Mythological Legacy of the American West, my latest book that I mentioned earlier. I’ll just let that stand as a teaser for folks to encourage them to read the book when it is published in Summer, 2011.

RP: What future projects do you have planned?

BB: In May I announced that after 38 years of performances all over the world I am retiring performances of my one man theatrical shows of A Ballad of the West. I intend to continue writing books, painting and sculpting, writing and performing folk music. But at 65 I feel I can no longer properly honor the mountain men and horse and buffalo culture depicted in A Ballad of the West. My voice is still strong and so far I haven’t had to lower my keys, but when the one man shows are perfect it is like venturing out on a tight rope and doing a yoga headstand while polishing a diamond. Sixty-five year-olds aren’t as good as doing such things as even a strong 55 year-old. I’ve reached the time to make a dignified exit with performing the ballads.

As for the future, I have been offered a small character part in a feature film called Fancydancer. It was written and will be directed by a long-time Quapaw Indian brother/friend named JR Mathews and is about contemporary American Indian culture. I’m also in the pre-production stages to work on a new studio album.

RP: Is there anything else you wish to say to my readers?

BB: Just to be strong, or as the Lakota say, “Hoka Hey!” Most believe that Hoka Hey means “it’s a good day to die”, and that is in fact one interpretation. Another is “Hold fast! There is always more!”

Read more about Bobby Bridger at his website, here: http://www.bobbybridger.com/

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