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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Custer Myth: History, Music & the Arts Can, and Should, Inform Our Perspectives. June 26 2019 special feature

Hang on, options abound! As in, trail junction, so Whoa up there, pard...

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Right here, where you are now, is a short, one-topic special edition. 

The Custer Myth: History, Music & the Arts Can, and Should, Inform Our Perspectives, without the Past Being Hijacked

A look at the music, the myth, and the facts, and why we can't seem to reconcile things

The Battle of the Little Bighorn was fought in remote Montana, while it was part of Dakota Territory, on June 25, 1876. Hang on. We know you're saying, "That anniversary was Tuesday!" Yes it was. There's a reason we're presenting this today. It's because of when and how legacies take hold AFTER something happens, and how legends come from mythmaking, and how and why that starts.

      Every generation tends to think of events happening during their lifetime as shockingly significant and bigger than anything that ever happened. In June of 1876, America was about to celebrate its 100th birthday with a massive Centennial Exposition and hundreds of carefully planned celebrations from coast to coast. Then, on the very eve of the Fourth of July, word arrived from remote Montana that a Civil War hero and his entire command had been massacred by Indians -- by "savages" the public believed were subdued and pacified.

It was that era's 9/11. Irrational acts that contradicted white society's proclaimed morals followed the shock. In one example, Buffalo Bill Cody would ride to fame with his "Wild West Show" after "Taking the first scalp for Custer," and he would re-enact it for decades as part of that show.

What Happened, vs Myths and Legends that Become Dominant 

      The Little Bighorn is a river in Montana that flows north. But its name is remembered as the place where George Armstrong Custer, a possible candidate for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, was killed along with all the officers and men in his battlefield contingent of the U.S. 7th Cavalry.

"Spirit Warrior" bronze sculpture, a recent addition, looms over the horizon
at Little Bighorn National Monument. Photo: Meteor Blades
      It required years for the battle to be interpreted as an existential necessity for the Lakotah (Sioux), Cheyenne, and their allies, who had rebelliously left their reservations because the treaties they had signed with the U.S. government had proven worthless, and their people were starving. Even after that recognition, there was widespread opposition to featuring Native heroics and sacrifice, starting with renaming the battlefield.

      Today, the bronze "Spirit Warrior" sculpture in the photo looms over the horizon at the Indian Memorial at Little Bighorn National Monument. It used to be, until 1991, that the place was named "Custer National Monument," and inclusion of a monumental Native American component at the site was even longer in coming. The sculpture by Ogala artist Colleen Cutschall depicts three Native American warriors riding off to battle. 

      Still, neither old traditional tales, including, graphically, the most famous Budweiser mural to hang above frontier saloon bars (it appears below) -- nor the dozens of movies and countless other artistic and literary depictions of the battle, and eventually, the inevitable parade of revisionist historians' portrayals -- usually attempt to inclusively present much of the entire context. 

   Yes, Custer was the 23-year-old "boy general" cavalry hero of the Union in the Civil War; that IS true. In fact, Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart's attack on the rear of the Union position at Gettysburg would have succeeded on July 3, 1863, had Custer not thrown his Michigan Cavalry Brigade headlong into that isolated but pivotal fray behind the name-brand part of THE decisive battle in Robert E. Lee's bid to win the war by invasion of the North.

      Also true, Custer finished at the bottom of his class at West Point -- but who can remember who finished first in that class, despite the fact they all became officers in the Civil War? That says something all by itself. 

      And something more that's true, regiments under Custer's command captured more Confederate battle flags and took more prisoners of war than any other. Part of the Custer Myth? Yes, and also fact.

      But the primary cliches, of Custer being (a) characterized by recklessness, and (b) having a visceral contempt of Native American Indians, are just not true.

      There is plenty of evidence that Custer had an Indian mistress whom he repeatedly visited in a teepee in her band's village. He was not reviled there, and he went there alone.

      In fact there were Native Americans on both sides in the battle. Custer's scouts, with whom he had close friendships, were mostly from the Crow nation. 

       And it wasn't just the blue-uniformed troopers who died on June 25th. In fact, most of them did NOT die, after surviving being besieged atop a shallow bowl-shaped hill, under command of Custer's subordinates, Maj. Marcus Reno and Capt. William Benteen. Both of them helped precipitate disaster; and with them were surviving members of the detachment led by Capt. Weir, whose efforts to reach and rescue Custer's unit got as close as modern-day Weir Point.

      The thing you've always heard about the Black Hills of (now) South Dakota being ancient sacred lands of the Sioux? Not until the Sioux ran the Crow out of those hills, which had been their ancient sacred lands. Which explains why the Crow, wanting the Sioux defeated and subdued, were with Custer and the cavalry.

      So if it was about the Black Hills, why did this happen in Montana? The many millions of buffalo that had roamed the plains from Texas into Canada had been reduced to just one sizeable herd. And that herd was in Montana. The buffalo -- to say it correctly, American Bison -- was the commissary of all Native American nations on the plains. No buffalo meant starvation, or subservience to the white invaders, or both. Defying orders from the military and leaving the reservation to seek the buffalo was an existential decision.

      In 2017, the popular annual re-enactment of the battle in Montana, just a few miles from where it happened, was the lead feature story on CBS "Sunday Morning." That piece by Mo Rocca covered multiple topics including some relevant obscure ones, interviewed Native re-enactors, and is worth watching here

      We have written about the battle before, and you can use the search function to find several past years' features. But we're keeping this fresh and not sending you off to chase links of our own past treatments. 

      We decided a fresh look was needed, in the light of our previous efforts, because in light of current events, we saw history not repeating but rhyming, and then we saw something else, specifically.

     Tuesday's Daily Kos has a story by their staff writer Meteor Blades titled, "On this date 143 years ago, America began creating the Custer myth, much of which survives today"

      The Daily Kos story is accurate as far as it goes, and it includes a good measure of context and an excellent if brief reading list with its references. But it seems to justify its omissions with the blanket idea that the Custer Myth must be un-done, seemingly by purging its every trace. Thing is, that myth is inclusive of facts that need their convolutions undone, a fuller context applied, and the justifications for their long period of cultural acceptance examined.

      We aren't writing here to challenge the points of substance raised by Mr. Blades, but to enable consideration, and even to amplify, a few points and expand the context beyond where he went.

       While not claiming to be an expert on the Custer battle, your editor has been over the ground there, as well as reading about and studying the battle and what led up to it. 

      Writing this taps the indelible memory of riding the battlefield on horseback with the late Joe Medicine Crow, last war chief of the Crow Nation. It was June 25th, the anniversary date of the battle. It was just the two of us, our horses, Joe's dog, the indigenous wildlife, the tall grasses undulating in the breeze, the big sky, and sounds and scents of a series of places so gently beautiful that the horror of what happened on that distant June 25th seems inconceivable. 

      More than anything, viewing the rises and falls of the landscape -- fording the narrow, rushing river on horseback at the places where Reno's command did, to attack a narrow end of a massive, but not visible encampment; riding up Medicine Tail Coulee and the other routes the Indians raced up into the heights to stop Custer; going into the tangle of trees on the riverbank where Reno's charge fell apart; hearing bird songs while riding up steep draws on the route of the Indian counterattack; seeing Last Stand Hill from atop Weir Point; and more, much of it on ground outside the National Monument -- and having a most remarkable guide who grew up there, talking and sharing and listening to encourage us to work together, he and I, to evaluate and explain things. It allowed me not just to see, but experience, as much as possible, the landforms as the participants saw them aboard their horses. 

      In the same context, learning that the sharp line of ridgetop had disappeared without a trace, when the Park Service built the visitor road, helps to understand why seemingly obvious things were invisible to cavalry participants and decisively useful to counterattacking Natives.

       Riding those routes of the battle's participants, up from the wide bulge of meadow that held the massive gathering of tribal bands whose members knew the ground and were rushing to protect their families -- and the route of the precipitating participants, the cavalry who lured themselves into the fatal notions they developed without opportunity for reconsideration, informs everything about what actions were actually open to the people who took part.

Contrasting images, conflicting views of deadly conflict as civilizations collide
"Custer’s Last Fight" hung above every saloon bar in America. The oldest piece of
American breweriana known to exist, Anheuser-Busch commissioned the original
painting by Cassilly Adams in 1884, and a lithograph was made from it by F. Otto
Becker in 1889. Note the African Zulu warrior shields, "borrowed" from images of
a British colonial war also fought to "expand civilization."
Depiction made by Native participant Kicking Bear, aka Matȟó Wanáȟtaka, an Ogala Lakota who was a first cousin of war chief Crazy Horse (Tȟašúŋke Witkó). Painted at the request of Frederic Remington in 1898, as he remembered the "Battle of the Greasy Grass," the Indian name for the Battle of the Little Big Horn. (Spelling of Native names from Meteor Blades.)
      Research to understand which options they chose, and why, requires developing an understanding of who they were and what they knew, or thought they knew, on that fateful day.

      It isn't myth that Custer believed he was being supported by an entire army that, unknown to him, had been defeated a few days earlier in the truly greatest victory of the Plains Indians over U.S. troops. Strangely, that part is usually left out -- and has been since the 1870s, when the army didn't want its living generals to look bad.

      To some extent, the dead Custer became the fall guy, the scapegoat to protect the reputations of others with career ambitions.

      A popular belief resurrected since the movie "Little Big Man" is that Custer was crazy with hubris, and just plain insane. The historical record says otherwise.

      We are always ill-served by simplistic myths that overemphasize false notions from any direction, particularly when somebody has an agenda to pursue or an axe to grind.

      Custer was, not unlike Patton 65 years later, a harsh taskmaster who allowed himself many contradictory and even flamboyant excesses, holding himself in a place beyond his rules for subordinates. But Patton, who could read all his adversary's communication dispatches, thanks to the "Ultra" secret, ended-up an unquestionable success. And Custer had only scouts reading smoke and trail signs (yes, they did tell him he was heading into a massive gathering of Indians) but he
 is sensationally and mythically remembered for the battle he lost rather than for his brilliant Civil War career.

      There is always more to know. We wrote that paragraph without yet knowing that only two officers are referenced in "The Army Goes Rolling Along," the official U.S. Army theme song -- the two are George Custer and George Patton. (Odd, when you consider the first commander of the army was also a George, as in Washington, and he's left out.)

      Eighteenth century people, particularly men, placed a large value on the pursuit of glory. People were judged in those terms. Today, we seem less able to allow for that difference in perspectives than to abruptly ridicule it.

      The larger point is, there's a big bucket in which our culture enjoys dumping things, labelled "Disaster Caused by Hubris of Runaway Ego." It popularly includes the RMS Titanic sailing too fast and hitting an iceberg; launching the Space Shuttle Challenger after its o-rings froze; believing the Alamo could be held in the face of the entire Mexican army; sending Pickett's Charge into the Union center; the charge of the Light Brigade; Thermopylae; rushing the Apollo 1 spacecraft into production before assessing it for flammables and electrical sparks; most recently, putting complicated autopilot features into 737 MAX commercial airliners that crash the airplane and exprcting it won't be a problem; and plenty more that you can add.

      Go ahead. Name more. But do it knowing that relentlessly simplistic labelling of our short-attention-span society deprives us of any opportunity to understand much when we oversimplify it, whether it's dissecting the past or analyzing the present. Every time and any time we allow ourselves to smugly accept the simplistic answer to complex conditions or circumstances, we set ourselves up to be satisfird with "answers" that are incomplete, and therefore, probably wrong.

      As for why we asked you to read this, after the anniversary date of an event? We could say, "that should be obvious by now," but wouldn't that betray what we just said, and exhaust your patience, by asking you to settle for excessive simplicity?

     And as for the beginning of the "Custer Myth" which underlies the Daily Kos piece that got us started? In fact, its author asserts -- if his title does not -- that the genesis of that myth started with the widowed Elizabeth "Libby" Custer. We'll add that she proved herself one of the greatest legend-makers in American history. We'll also point out that the Custer Myth therefore did not start with the still-bleeding corpses of cavalrymen at Little Bighorn, contrary to Mr. Blades' story title.

      Libby Custer is worth study as a substantial historical figure and pioneer in an arena beyond her authorship of four books. Her successful mythmaking predates everything we might attribute to the madmen of Madison Avenue. Or the recent multi-season cable tv myth about them and their era of imagemaking advertising. After all, kind of "image-over-substance" salesmanship would elect Ronald Reagan, and er, more recent marketers of sizzle with no steak. Granted, Libby had her late husband's heroics in the Civil War to build on. But it took a long time for the public consciousness to "discover" that the hero had an 1868 massacre of Black Kettle's Southern Cheyenne camp on the Washita River near present-day Cheyenne, Oklahoma.

      Libby is a fascinating character. Instead of allowing the salacious and titillating tales of her husband's Indian lover to take hold, the grieving widow martyred herself, never re-marrying after portraying him in the perfect, fairy-tale relationship with her -- and as the shining knight of civilization, giving his life subduing the savage. Now, isn't that a better topic to examine, anyway?

       Is it just us, or are there echoes here in our reflex of worship of today's veterans who were sent, in our name, to destroy entire countries and leave survivors homeless (in the ruins of the cities they had once worked to build) and instead leave them "free" of regimes we don't like? 

      History isn't about the incontrovertible dead past. The past is prologue to all that comes. And much of what has come has been musical. That's extensively covered as we continue with listening and video links, next.

Music: Comedy, Custer, Dramatis, the Battle, the Myths, and Our Cultural Contradictions

      An astonishing amount of music has invoked Custer and the Little Bighorn. Here's our picks for important examples, with video or audio links.

David Wilkie & Cowboy Celtic, with The McDades, recorded their original folksong, "Custer Died A Runnin'" and named the album for the song which incorporates the "Garry Owen." Their take on things is obvious, though history says otherwise. Still, it's musically superb.  Listen here.

"Garryowen" was adopted  as th
e 7th Cavalry's theme song in 1867. It's an old Irish quick-step that goes back to the early 1680s. Every cavalry movie has used it, some as the soundtrack for inspiring nick-of-time rescues by the arrival of the cavalry, others as the ironicly tragic soundtrack for troops committing massacres of Indians. Hear the Eastman Wind Ensemble rendition, with original lyrics, which has 1,342,590 views, here

"Mister Custer" / "Please Mister Custer, I Don't Want to Go" was a 1960 Number-1 hit song by Larry Verne. (Listen here.)  A "marching novelty song" written by Al De Lory, Fred Darian, and Joseph Van Winkle, it topped the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for the week of October 10, 1960, and remained on radio play lists for years. Verne released 9 versions, 7 of them in 1960, plus it was put on K-Tel vinyl and tape compilations into the '70s. Ray Stevens put it on "Gitarzan" in 1969. His celebrated fourth studio album propelled the song to again enjoy airplay and popularity, this time as an expression of resistance to the Vietnam War. Stevens' version, stylistically very different from the original, is here.

Johnny Cash's 1964 archetypal concept album, "Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian" included the song "Custer." In it, the Man in Black mocks the popular veneration of George Custer. It was his 20th album release on Columbia Records, and an entire record evoking the perspective of what Native Americans had that was stolen from them. A latter-day live performance by Johnny Cash with Marty Stuart is here.  You can hear the complete original album here

Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Native American singer-songwriter who hit the mainstream of '60s folk-rock, did a truncated version of the Johnny Cash "Custer" song as a concert cover, which she called "Custer Song." It's here. Notably, she also wrote the song "Soldier Blue," subtitled "The Custer Girl." It was used in a movie that did well in Europe but was abruptly pulled from theatres in the U.S. Watch her live music vid of that song here.

Redbone, the first Native American rock band to reach the mainstream, recorded their song "Custer Had It Coming" on their 1989 album, "Peace Pipe." Listen here.

Johnny Horton's 1960 song "Jim Bridger" prominently features Custer in its lyrics: "He spoke with General Custer and said 'Listen Yellow Hair / 'The Sioux are a great nation, so treat 'em fair and square / 'Sit in on their war council, don't laugh away their pride' / But Custer didn't listen, and at Little Big Horn Custer died." Listen here.

"The Army Goes Rolling Along," the official U.S. Army theme song originally written by John Philip Souza in 1917, acquired modified lyrics in the 1950s. In them, George Custer and George Patton become the only officers named in the Army's official song. (Odd, when you consider the first commander of the army was also a George -- as in, Washington.) Music vid from an album of U.S. Military Bands, with on-screen lyrics, is here.

Especially important is a brilliantly choreographed scene with a rousing Hollywood music score, for Custer's key Civil War cavalry charge at Gettysburg. It's from the largely fantasy 1941 epic, "They Died with Their Boots On," casting Errol Flynn in THE role that inflated the Custer Myth into the mid-20th century, and Olivia DeHavilland as Libby Custer, whose role as
archetype mythmaker is established in the movie's final scene. This film is Hollywood magic depicting the Custer you wish had been. Watch and listen to that scene here

Check-out these for accounts by Native American participants, turned to video

First is "Crazy Horse's Account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn" as it appeared in the Bismarck Tribune, June 11, 1877, just a year after the battle. It's a video reading, produced with period photos and maps. Incongruously, it includes the white man's music -- "Garry Owen" and "The Girl I left Behind" -- performed by the Brass Mounted Army band. It's here.

The other is "The Battle Of Little Bighorn: Chief Two Moon's Own Words - June 25-26th 1876" an account from his meeting with Hamlin Garland, published in September 1898 in McClure's Magazine. Video reading is here.

Custer is still a popular subject for limited-edition heroic military lithographs
Through it all, the power of the arts has played a key role. From Libby Custer's literary campaigns, to America's most-distributed saloon poster, to songs and soundtracks, to a brisk market for limited-edition heroic military lithographs, it's been working its influences for over 140 years. Art has played a role of such demonstrable importance that it makes all things Custer worthy of study as successful examples of imagemaking, propaganda, and how portrayals in the most advantageous manner can produce enduring mythical heroes. And it should compel us to ask if our art serves in a manner for which we would like to be remembered.

      Certainly, the propagandization of things to reinvent reality is a topic with more -- make that FAR more -- implications for our time. Including the opportunity to recognize how some myths can flourish long after the mythmakers are dead.


The LATEST EVENTS EDITION, frequently updated, has our coverage of festivals, concerts, film events, gallery openings, musicals, other live theatre, and more.
    Get there by scrolling past this special news edition, or go there directly at:

We published a single-topic edition titled "Dishonoring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ 70th Anniversary -- prepare to be furious," on June 24. It's at: 


Last week, THE GUIDE published a special edition calling on you, our readers, to take a simple action to STOP the build-up to yet another war, this time with Iran. That edition has been read by many thousands, all around the world. "Time (just barely enough time) to stop the next war, and help suffering victims of the last one" was published June 20, 2019.


The Guide's special edition for the 75th anniversary of D-Day and its meaning in our world today, has been read by many thousands of people in over 30 countries (so far); it is still available, at:

The most recent 'uge, 2-volume NEWS FEATURES edition was a while back, but it's still available. You can find it at:

As always, we have lots of MUSIC NEWS features in the works, and they'll be along as we get them dressed, shoes tied, cowlicks combed down, bowties cranked straight, and strings tuned.

'Til we catch ya on the flip side,
as Buford the Wonder Dog looks on, 
and in our best Kathy Baker
"Hee Haw" voice: "THAT's all!"
Stay tuneful!


We'll be back again soon with music news and more "News of the Non-Trumpcentric Universe." (c)



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