March 2013

The man behind the coonskin cap

By Bob Thompson
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When I say “Davy Crockett,” what do you see? A man in a coonskin cap? The vaguely Taco Bell-ish profile of the Alamo? Or—be honest—did you sing “Davy, DAY-vy Crockett, king of the wild frontier”? You’re forgiven; the song is very catchy, and the guy was a legend, about whom surprisingly little is actually known. In Born on a Mountaintop, author Bob Thompson tries to find the real man behind the myths, but soon discovers that almost every “fact” about Crockett is either the subject of contentious debate or flat-out wrong.

Thompson’s research was inspired by his daughter, who heard “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” in the car and began parsing the lyrics for details. Many biographies combined fact (he was a three-term congressman who advocated for the poor) with folklore (readers may be shocked to discover he could not, in fact, grin a bear into submission)—a tradition Crockett himself encouraged, seamlessly blending celebrity into his political career. So Thompson takes to the road to seek what truths may be found. In Tennessee he sees many places Crockett might have lived, only a few of which are provable as the real deal. At the Alamo, he finds that the debate is not resolved over whether Crockett was executed as a prisoner of war or went down, guns blazing, with bodies at his feet.

A darkly fascinating aspect of Crockett’s legacy is the “Crockett almanacs,” books similar to a farmer’s almanac that combined practical information with tall tales. They were written by East Coast pulp writers, who portrayed Crockett as a racist, chauvinist monster, which got big laughs circa 1839. Later these books were mistaken for real folklore from the oral tradition, which further clouds our view of a man who actually preferred to be called “David.”

This is not to say the book is grim—far from it. The roadside attractions on Thompson’s journey often make a tossed salad of Crockett, Daniel Boone and Paul Bunyan. And watching Thompson and his wife struggle to separate fact from fiction in the “Ballad,” then explain the difference between them to a four-year-old, is a hoot; they end up having to read aloud, “at her insistence,” an entire biography of Andrew Jackson to establish historical context. There’s a fun look at the Disney miniseries that launched a million coonskin caps onto the heads of kids worldwide and made Fess Parker a household name. But Born on a Mountaintop also gives us a look at fame and image in pre-Facebook America and finds that, while the cogs moved more slowly, the machine itself was much the same as the one we know today.

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Born on a Mountaintop

Born on a Mountaintop

By Bob Thompson
ISBN 9780307720894

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