March 22, 2013

First thing you ought to know about Davy Crockett is that he warn’t born on no mountaintop in Tennessee. Fact is that Tennessee warn’t no state in 1786, the year of Crockett’s birth. He also preferred to be called David.

But Davy is a good word to use in a song, and it’s that damn song — “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” — that’s the problem. America knows it all too well. Readers of a certain age hearing those words will have it spinning in their heads, complete with visions of coonskin caps and buckskins. It is also the inspiration for Bob Thompson’s droll new book, “Born on a Mountaintop,” in which the author visits sites associated with Crockett to discover the man behind the legend.

If Americans remember Crockett today, they remember him because of that song and the Disneyfication of his legacy, which was, according to Thompson, a former Washington Post staff writer, considerably Disneyfied before Walt Disney was even born. From the distance of nearly two centuries, we are not really sure who Crockett was (he is often confused with Daniel Boone). A legendary frontiersman, hunter, scout and Indian fighter who liked to jaw and pull a cork, Crockett did not have much education. He got into politics, first locally and then serving three lackluster terms in the House of Representatives. His most significant career move was dying at the Alamo in the company of Jim Bowie (he of the knife) and William Barret Travis, holy figures in Texas history. He was 49.

Crockett’s life or afterlife belongs solidly in the realm of the stories of Buffalo Bill Cody, Kit Carson, Wild Bill Hickok, Jim Bridger and other ghosts of the wild frontier, real or imagined. The reader is always wondering, and reasonably so, how much of this is true. Crockett is an appealing if confusing hero. Is he in fact a hero? If he had not died at the Alamo, we might not know him at all. Hollywood helped, too.

If we do know Crockett, we perhaps know him as Walt Disney’s Crockett: that would be Fess Parker, Crockett Lite (Parker also played Daniel Boone, but that’s another story). John Wayne portrayed Crockett in “The Alamo” (1960) at the height of the Cold War. (The Duke saw him as the enemy of communism!) And more recently, Billy Bob Thornton took on the role, too. Personally, I think Billy Bob’s portrayal is the most plausible. He looks and sounds like the barely literate “canebrake congressman” that Crockett was — by his own admission “a screamer” much in love with the sound of his own voice and his public persona. He was a celebrity at a time when we did not have so many of them.


’Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier’ by Bob Thompson (Crown)

Crockett’s legacy is considerably larger than his actual life. He spent a number of weeks when he ought to have been in Washington on congressional business making what appears to have been the nation’s first book tour — peddling a book about himself. The voters of the greenest state in the land of the free were not amused. They did not send him back to Washington. So he headed west, leaving us with what Thompson justifiably labels as one of the greatest exit lines in history. Crockett is reputed to have said (and there are a few versions of this, so I will paraphrase) that the voters of Tennessee could go to hell because he was going to Texas.

“Born on a Mountaintop” is an enjoyable journey along the trail of Crockett’s life and legend — part road trip and part history lesson. Thompson tells us early on that “the ghosts of David Crockett haunt the American psychic landscape.” His storytelling displays considerable good humor and an admirable amount of research. You can almost see him smiling at some of the madcap stuff he is told along the way.

His book also shows a fine appreciation of the truth, half-truth and no truth at all that connoisseurs of the West understand and accept. Crockett’s story is part of that world. A hell of a lot of it might not be true. Thompson reaches this conclusion, telling the reader at the end of his story: “If there is one thing I learned during my year of stalking ghostly Crocketts, it’s that you can go crazy trying to herd the ‘real’ and ‘mythic’ versions into separate pastures. It’s hard to do that with anyone’s story, but with David’s it’s close to impossible.”

But Thompson does not let that sour his affections for Davy or his respect for the keepers of the flame. And Lord knows Thompson met enough of them on the road to the Alamo, which is where, appropriately, his tale and Crockett’s life end. Thompson has a fine eye for odd details, and one of the great pleasures of this book is the little bits of Crockettology that the author deftly weaves into the narrative. I loved Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen singing “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” a capella to the Texas legislature. I loved the man who made his own Davy Crockett suit — faux buckskins — from chamois bought at Wal-Mart. I loved learning that Crockett apparently did not wear buckskins or a coonskin cap.

I imagine those baptized-in-the-waters-of-the-Red-River Crockettologists may have some quibbles with this tale. But I leave that to readers who are always sure they are right. Plenty of them in Texas. I stopped worrying about what was true on Page 13, and it made for a more pleasant read, too.

bookworld@washpost.com

Christopher Corbett is the author of “Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express” and “The Poker Bride: The First Chinese in the Wild West.”

BORN ON A MOUNTAIN TOP

On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier

By Bob Thompson

Crown. 375 pp. $27