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The Rise And Fall Of The Comanche 'Empire'
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for
If you're interested in movie Westerns or American history, you should be very
intrigued by the story our first guest has to tell. His name is S.C. Gwynne,
and his nonfiction bestseller, now out in paperback, is about Quanah Parker,
the last chief of the Comanches, which Gwynne describes as the most dominant
and influential Indian tribe in American history.
Quanah's mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was a white woman who was kidnapped when
she was nine years old during a Comanche raid on her family's home in Texas.
That was in 1836. She was raised by the Comanche as one of their own and had
When her eldest child, Quanah, was 12, Cynthia Ann was kidnapped back by Texas
Rangers, but she kept trying to return to the Comanches.
S.C. Gwynne's book "Empire of the Summer Moon" tells the story of Quanah and
his mother. It also tells the larger story of the rise and fall of the
Comanches and how their dominance in the middle of North America determined how
the American West was opened.
Gwynne is a former senior editor at Time magazine and former executive editor
of Texas Monthly. He's now with the Dallas Morning News. Terry spoke with him
TERRY GROSS, host:
Sam Gwynne, welcome to FRESH AIR. So let's start with the story of how Quanah's
mother was captured by the Comanche when she was nine. I mean, the family lived
in a fort on the outer edge of white settlements, about 90 miles from what is
now Dallas. So they were very exposed. Why were they there?
Mr. S.C. GWYNNE (Author, "Empire of the Summer Moon"): They were part of that
kind of vanguard of Scots-Irish settlement that really, you know, in effect,
was what eventually beat the Indians. But they were people who were determined.
They were hard-nosed. They were predestinarian Baptists, and they settled, as
you say, about 90 miles south of what is now Dallas.
It was the outermost edge of the frontier. What they didn't know when they
built their fort in 1836 was that it was right at the point where this giant,
250,000-square-mile Comanche empire touched this nascent American empire. They
were exactly at that point.
And so the Comanches raided the fort in May of 1836, killed five people. There
were a bunch of people wounded. Some escaped, but five captives were taken. And
one of those captives was the nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker, which became,
in effect, the start of a 24-year-old captivity that she came to see not as
GROSS: You describe very vividly what the raid, what the Comanche raid on the
Parker fort was like, and it's gruesome.
Mr. GWYNNE: Extremely.
GROSS: So I'm going to ask you to describe it, but first I'll say if you don't
want to hear a gruesome description, this is your opportunity to tune out for
maybe two minutes. Come right back.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: But, I mean, this is history. So - and I think it's very important and
interesting history. So please describe what happened.
Mr. GWYNNE: Well, what happened was what happened in every Plains Indian raid
going back for centuries. In other words, it was - this is what Indians did to
Indians, and this just happened to be Indians meeting whites.
But the automatic thing in battles, adult males would be killed. That was
automatic. That's one of the reasons that Indians fought to the death. The
white men were astonished at it, but they were assuming - assumed that they
would be killed.
Most - the small children were killed, very small children were killed. A lot
of the, say, children in the, I don't know, three-to-seven or three-to-10 range
were often taken as captives. The women were often raped and often killed.
And so it was an extremely brutal - and it was when - all of the people in the
settlements back in those years knew what it was, knew what a Comanche raid
meant, which was the same as a Kiowa raid or an Arapaho raid or another kind of
But they were grim. They were grisly. Captives were usually involved. and it's
an interesting kind of moral question that you have to - as an historian about
Plains Indians or about American Indians in general, you have to come to terms
with this, with torture, which they practiced all across the West - and in
fact, all across the East - and these kind of grisly practices that scared
white people to death.
GROSS: I mean, you're talking not only about scalping. You're talking about
various forms of mutilation, cutting off fingers and toes, gang...
Mr. GWYNNE: Torture by fire, torture by all sorts of different things - I mean,
putting, you know, hot coals on your stomach. I mean, there were lots and lots
of imaginative tortures that were indeed practiced by Indians all across the
GROSS: And this includes gang rape.
Mr. GWYNNE: It includes gang rape.
GROSS: And what I find provocative about this right now is that in Americans'
attempt to reconcile the atrocities that Americans committed against Native
Americans, a lot of the Indian story was maybe rewritten a little bit to leave
out some of those atrocities?
Mr. GWYNNE: Oh, I think absolutely.
GROSS: After focusing so much on like...
Mr. GWYNNE: Yes.
GROSS: ...you know, cowboys versus Indians in Western movies, I think so many
Americans felt bad about that kind of, like, good guy versus bad guy
description when white Americans were responsible for so much bad stuff
themselves, that maybe - are you suggesting in your book that history maybe got
rewritten a little too much in terms of leaving out some of the atrocities...
Mr. GWYNNE: Oh, I think so.
GROSS: ...that Native Americans did commit in those wars?
Mr. GWYNNE: I think that's a good point. And there was even an attempt at some
point to deny that Indians were warlike. They were - Comanches were incredibly
They swept everyone off the Southern plains. They nearly exterminated the
Apaches. They were warlike by nature. And you know, if you look at, say, the
Comanches, and then you look back in history at, for example, you know, Goths
or Vikings or Mongols or Celts - or old Celts are actually a very good parallel
- in a lot of ways I think we're looking back at earlier versions of ourselves.
We - we being white Europeans - did all of those things. Not only that, but
torture was institutionalized in things like the Counterreformation, the
Spanish Inquisition. It was part of, you know, the Russian empire. I mean,
torture is not the exclusive province of the Indians.
But I think you're right. I think there was a certain wave of books, a certain
type of book that wanted to kind of set the record straight in a different way.
But yes, it was - life was extremely brutal, and it was extremely brutal on
both sides. And in my book I don't - I try not to take sides. The whites were
perpetrators of some of the most astonishing massacres in history, but so were
GROSS: So in this raid in which Cynthia Ann Parker was taken captive, how many
people were killed, and who was taken captive?
Mr. GWYNNE: There were five people killed, and there were five captives taken.
GROSS: ...taken, and the children?
Mr. GWYNNE: As it turns out - well, if you can sort of look back on what
happened to them, one of the captives, Rachel Parker Plummer - who became very
famous because she wrote a memoir of 15 months of captivity - she was actually
kind of taken on as a - what amounted to a slave.
And Indians, Plains Indians, were buffalo-based, and they needed women,
actually, to work buffalo hides. This was a part of the economy. So that's what
Now, Elizabeth Kellogg, who was one - who was the other adult captive, was
ransomed back within about three months. And that showed another way, or
another reason for taking a captive, is you can - there was a trade. There was
a commerce in captives.
The three younger children were actually adopted into the tribe, and this was a
very common Comanche practice. The Comanches were - they had high mortality
rates among the men and low fertility rates among the women, and they actually
needed people. So they were more or less indiscriminate in who they took in.
So there were Apache captives and Mexican captives and various types of
captives that, you know, many of whom grew to become part of the Comanche
tribe. Cynthia Ann was one of them.
So she was a loved - what I call a loved captive. She had a family. She became
the ward of a chief. She became a fully fledged member of the Comanche
GROSS: So Cynthia Ann had three children, the oldest of which, Quanah, became
one of the fiercest and most respected Comanche war chiefs. How did he become a
warrior? I guess - are you automatically a warrior if you're a male, a male
Comanche in that period?
Mr. GWYNNE: Oh yes, you are. You were. The Comanches were kind of like the
Spartans. They were - because of their incredible mastery, military mastery,
which derived from the horse - they were the prototype horse tribe, the tribe
that could do more with a horse than any other tribe could - because of that,
it was a military community and it was - their old way of life was supplanted
by the new way of life, which was largely to do with war.
So they pretty much hunted buffalo, and so a Comanche male would hunt buffalo,
and made war. And that's what they did. And they were remarkably stripped down
in the sense that they didn't have elaborate social organization or religious
They didn't weave baskets or do art. They had a very, very elemental culture.
And so within that culture, the boys learned to hunt at a very - hunt and ride
at a very early age and then would become a warrior in their mid-teens. So he
had kind of a, I guess, a normal â a normal rise, except that he was an
exceptional â he was an exceptional warrior.
GROSS: Now, did being half-white affect his standing within the Comanche?
Mr. GWYNNE: It did. He - until he was 12, when his father was killed - an
interesting event happened when Quanah was 12. Until that point, he was the son
of a chief, a powerful chief, who would have had many horses and would have
been, you know, wealthy in Comanche terms.
And then at the Battle of Pease River in 1860, when Cynthia Ann was recaptured,
Quanah's father was killed. And now he was an orphan. His mother was back with
white society, and his father was dead. And at that point, yes, he was - he
paid a price for having white blood.
It probably stood him in good stead later in life, after - in the reservation
period, but then I think it was hard. And Quanah compensated for that, becoming
probably the, you know, the most capable warrior of his era.
GROSS: Tell us the story of how Cynthia Ann was kidnapped back by white people
in 1860, when Quanah was 12.
Mr. GWYNNE: This was an amazing story. When she - to back up - she was
kidnapped in 1836. In the 1840s she was spotted a few times. And each time she
was spotted, the people that saw - usually Indian agents - tried to negotiate
to get her back.
This is kind of a set piece on the frontier. You try to get the, you know, the
hostage, the captive back. Well, they figured out that she didn't want to come
back, and she refused to come back. And this was the first kind of - her first
fame was built on that. She was the white squaw who would not return.
Then, well, then kind of she sort of fades from memory in the '50s. She's no
longer seen. Then in 1860 this extraordinary event happens. Her husband,
Cynthia Ann's husband, Peta Nacona, is raiding just west of Fort Worth. He's
leading these incredibly brutal raids, who - that had a political purpose,
which is basically to roll the frontier backward.
They're so brutal that the white men kind of get a posse together under a guy
named Sul Ross - who was later governor of Texas - under another guy named
Charles Goodnight, who was one of the more famous cattlemen later in Texas -
and they pursue the Indians back to what amounts to the camp where Cynthia Ann
and her husband are.
At that moment, most of the men were not at the camp, and so the Rangers attack
and they kill everybody, including Quanah's father. And as Sul Ross literally
is running down the last Indian and about to shoot, he realizes the Indian has
a child, then realizes the Indian's a woman, then realizes that the Indian has
And lo and behold, soon enough they realize that he's recaptured the famous
Cynthia Ann Parker, who indeed then becomes famous again for having been
And it was curious because the, you know, the white men all that her - the
tragedy of Cynthia Ann's life was that she had been captured the first time by
In fact, the great tragedy of her life was that she was captured the second
time by the whites, because she never adjusted. She tried to escape for the
rest of her life and never adjusted. She had adapted once brilliantly to a
foreign culture, but she couldn't do it twice.
GROSS: So where did she live?
Mr. GWYNNE: Well, after she was captured - well, the first thing that happened
is they kind of, they took her to Fort Worth, and they literally put her up on
a stand where people could come and gawk at her because she was such an object
She had her two-year-old, you know, half-white, Indian child with her, Prairie
Flower. And she ended up at the - first at the house of her uncle near Fort
Worth, and she kept trying to escape. And she, you know, mourned, and she wept,
and she cut herself, and she - I mean, she simply was a lot to handle.
And so Isaac, that uncle, Isaac Parker, then moved her to another group of
relatives and then onto - and then she was eventually moved to another group of
relatives deeper into East Texas, away from the plains. She was always a
handful. She eventually kind of settled down a little bit, but she never
stopped trying to escape.
BIANCULLI: Author S.C. Gwynne, speaking with Terry Gross last year. More after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with S.C. Gwynne. His book
"Empire of the Summer Moon" is about the last great warrior chief, Quanah
Parker. His mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was a white woman who was kidnapped by
the Comanches when she was nine and raised as one of their own. But 24 years
later, a posse of white men captured Cynthia Ann Back against her will and took
her away from the tribe.
GROSS: So when Quanah grew up and became a warrior, did he want revenge against
the white people who had taken back his mother?
Mr. GWYNNE: Yes. No one burned hotter than Quanah did. Quanah later became
famous during the reservation period as a very wealthy and successful and
influential Indian, but he never talked about what he did.
We can sort of theorize the kind of raids he was on. We knew where the
Comanches were raiding during the years when he was in his late teens and early
20s. The raids were particularly brutal.
He was known as a brilliant fighter of both Indians and whites. He was someone
who was never defeated in battle, and it was sort of the source of his fame.
GROSS: To give us a visual image of what Quanah looked like, I want you to read
something from your book that is from the journal of someone from the Army who
fought against him. So granted, this is a very kind of biased description of
him because it's from an Army person fighting against Quanah, but tell us who
wrote this, and then read the paragraph.
Mr. GWYNNE: Okay. The account is from a Robert Carter, who actually won the
Medal of Honor for this fight against Quanah in 1871. And Carter wrote memoirs,
a really extraordinary memoir, and it offers us one of the best looks at
This particular description comes from the Battle of Blanco Canyon, where
Quanah did something that I don't know that there's any precedent for in
military history, where Quanah, in effect, took an entire village of 200 lodges
and hundreds of people and women and children and dogs and led it on an escape
from 600 mounted bluecoats. It was a piece of military maneuvering - as I say,
I don't think it's ever been done before.
But anyway, this was the beginning - the beginning of that was sort of a
battle, the beginning of that escape was a battle, and this is what Robert
Carter is describing. He's describing actually Quanah, just at the moment that
Quanah blows the brains out of one of his sergeants. So here we go.
A large and powerfully built chief led the bunch on a coal-black racing pony.
Leaning forward upon his mane, his heels nervously working in the animal's
side, with six-shooter poised in the air, he seemed the incarnation of savage,
His face was smeared with black war-paint, which gave his features a satanic
look. A full-length headdress or war bonnet of eagle's feathers, spreading out
as he rode and descending from his forehead, overhead and back, to his pony's
tail, almost swept the ground. Large brass hoops were in his ears.
He was naked to the waist, wearing simply leggings, moccasins and a
breechclout. A necklace of bears' claws hung about his neck. Bells jangled as
he rode at headlong speed, followed by the leading warriors, all eager to
outstrip him in the race. It was Quanah, the principal war chief of the
GROSS: So did Quanah go on raids, did he lead raids on white settlements that
were as brutal as the raid on his mother's family?
Mr. GWYNNE: Absolutely. You have to understand that raiding is what mounted
Plains Indians did. That was their, in effect, the Comanche way of life.
They didn't, you know, they didn't really fight in the traditional way. They
weren't - when they fought the white man, they did not usually, you know, draw
themselves up in ranks of 1,000 with gleaming spears against - and charge. That
really didn't happen.
Most of the warfare was what we would call sort of guerrilla warfare. These
were attacks on ranches and things like that, and settlements. So, yes, this is
what Quanah did. The idea was to improve your stock or increase your stock,
you know, get more horses, eventually also cows. The idea was also to get
scalps, and simply the way of Comanche life.
There was, you know, a traditional, you know, way of the raid was to, was to,
you know, go steal as many horses as you could and so forth. Eventually it
acquired more of a political cast. As the frontier swept westward through
Texas, you know, the Comanches at some point realized that there was more to
raiding than simply stealing cattle. They were making a political statement.
They were, in effect - you know, the more brutal the raids were, the more the
frontier rolled backward.
GROSS: Now, so you say between 1868 and 1881, 31 million buffalo were
slaughtered and that that destroyed the source of Comanche wealth and food. So
was that the downfall of the Comanche, the slaughtering of the buffalo?
Mr. GWYNNE: It was pretty much - you know, the Plains Indians, their lives were
built - the Comanches, their lives were built on two things, really - it was
war and buffalo. And really, all of the Plains Indians, once they got the horse
from the Spanish, you know, buffalo hunting became easier for them. It was
their way of life.
The buffalo hunting began as a simple market exercise. I mean, the hunters
figured out that they could get $3.50 a hide. Then they figured out that they
could ship these hides east on the new railroads.
And they also figured out that buffalo were not smart enough to realize that if
a buffalo next to the buffalo dropped, that there was something wrong. The
buffalo had to see the source of the danger so that you had these people who'd
kill like 3,500 buffalo in 28 days and crazy numbers like that.
But it started that way, but it ended up being a political act because the
United States could've done something about that, probably. But it occurred to
the generals in the West, specifically Sherman and Sheridan, that by allowing
the buffalo to be destroyed, they were creating kind of the most efficient way
to destroy Indians.
And Sheridan had a famous quote. He said, you know, you kill the buffalo, you
destroy the Indian's commissary. So it became in a way political at the end.
Yes, let's kill all the buffalo, and then it's the end of Plains Indians
because there is no Plains Indian without a buffalo.
BIANCULLI: Author S.C. Gwynne, speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. His latest
book, "Empire of the Summer Moon," is now out in paperback. We'll have more of
their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and
this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Let's get
back to Terry's interview with S.C. Gwynne, author of the non-fiction
bestseller "Empire of the Summer Moon," which is now in paperback. It's about
the rise and fall of the Comanches, an Indian tribe Gwynne describes as the
most powerful in American history.
His book focuses on the last Comanche chief, Quanah Parker, and his white
mother, Cynthia Ann Parker. She became a Comanche after she was kidnapped at
the age of nine during a Comanche raid on her family's Texas home.
Gwynne is former executive editor of Texas Monthly and is now with the Dallas
Morning News. Terry spoke with him last year.
GROSS: So how did Quanah decide to give up fighting and settle for a land deal
with the U.S. government?
Mr. GWYNNE: Quanah, in 1875, after something called the Red River War, in which
Quanah again evaded, miraculously evaded capture and didn't lose any battles,
Quanah led the last of the Comanches, who were starving - and of course they
were starving because there was no buffalo - the last of the starving
Comanches, they were the last ones to surrender, in 1875. They came on to a
reservation in Oklahoma.
Quanah, who had been, as I said before, like the hardest of the hard cases, the
one who burned hottest for revenge against the whites, had sort of a
revelation. His family lore says it was a vision with a wolf and an eagle in
it. But something happened and changed and he decided he would walk the white
man's road. And he decided it as he was coming into the reservation.
GROSS: What do you mean walk the white man's road?
Mr. GWYNNE: Well, he would become, in fact - you know, Quanah, the notion seems
almost ridiculous of the bourgeois kind of Comanche, citizen Comanche, but
that's what Quanah wanted to be. Quanah was going to, was going to walk the
white man's road. In other words, try to learn the language, try to understand
white man's business. He actually turned out to be a brilliant businessman,
controlled rather a small cattle empire, outfoxed the whites at their own
cattle leasing games, actually ran these kind of protection rackets for a
He was actually a brilliant businessman. But he - he just figured he would
adapt and he would try to help his tribe adapt. And of, you know, of all the
Indians in the reservation period, he was the wealthiest and most influential.
And you know, he became a friend of Teddy Roosevelt and rode in his inaugural
parade and so forth.
GROSS: So during this period, was he not only aware but did he make other
people aware that he was half-white? Did he use that to work in his favor when
trying to deal with white people?
Mr. GWYNNE: That became known right after Quanah surrendered. He went into the
commandant at Fort Sill and he told him, because what Quanah wanted to know was
what had happened to his mother. Quanah's first question was: What happened to
my mother? And that's how - in other words, as soon as that happened, everybody
GROSS: And what had happened to his mother? Was she already dead?
Mr. GWYNNE: Yeah. Cynthia Ann leads this kind of miserable life, shuffled off
to, you know, one Parker relative after another, pretty miserable. In 1864 she
lost her daughter to influenza, this lovely little girl name Prairie Flower. In
1870 she herself died. And its not exactly clear how or why. She - some said
she starved herself to death. Some people said she died of a broken heart. But
either way, she never she never adapted. So that it was a tragedy, I guess part
of that family tragedy, that Cynthia Ann died in 1870, and her husband did not
I'm sorry, her son, Quanah, did not come in to surrender until 1875.
So he never saw his mother again, although he spent enormous efforts trying to
find her and eventually did find her and eventually got the government to pay
to ship her bones up to lie with his in Oklahoma.
GROSS: So how do you see American history differently as a result of
researching this book?
Mr. GWYNNE: To me, the original reason I was interested was because it provided
- the Comanches were kind of a history lesson. They were sort of here is how
and why the middle of the country opened to white civilization. If you go back
through Comanche history, you can see that they were, you know, they were the
ones who stopped the Spanish from coming north. They have answer to that
question. Why did the French stop coming west from Louisiana? Comanches. It was
fear of the Comanches that caused the Mexicans to bring white Texas settlers
into Texas, you know, to create a buffer between them and the Comanches, which
eventually backfired, and of course Texas became a republic, and things like
the Alamo and San Jacinto happened.
I mean they account for, you know, the Rangers and the six-gun and so many
different things. And to me, to me, what I understood, what I came away
understanding from the Comanches was that here is why the West Coast and the
East Coast settled before the middle of the continent did. Here is why there
was this enormous basically 40-year wait before you could develop the state of
Texas or before other Plain states could be developed. So it was kind of a -
it's just this, to me, a great history lesson in how America settled itself, I
GROSS: Sam Gwynne, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. GWYNNE: Well, you're welcome, Terry. I really enjoyed it.
BIANCULLI: S.C. Gwynne speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. His book "Empire of the
Summer Moon" is now out in paperback. You can read an excerpt on our website,
Coming up, country artist Jimmie Dale Gilmore. His new CD features fresh
versions of what he calls old-timey music from the '30s and '40s.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Jimmie Dale Gilmore: Classic Sounds On 'Heirloom Music'
(Soundbite of music)
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Our next guest, country artist Jimmie Dale Gilmore, has a new CD with the band
The Wronglers. It's titled "Heirloom Music," and features fresh versions of
old-timey tunes dating back to the '30s and '40s.
As a songwriter and singer, Jimmie Dale Gilmore is considered part of the
alternative country music scene. He grew up in Lubbock, Texas, and his new CD
is full of songs he'd heard and played most of his life. They're songs from an
earlier era, associated with such country icons as Bill Monroe, Charlie Poole
and the Carter family.
Terry spoke with Jimmie Dale Gilmore earlier this year just before he and The
Wronglers performed songs from "Heirloom Music" at the South by Southwest Music
Festival in Austin, which Gilmore considers his adopted hometown.
But before we hear their conversation, let's listen to the opening track from
"Heirloom Music," and song called "Time Changes Everything."
(Soundbite of song, "Time Changes Everything")
Mr. JIMMIE DALE GILMORE (Musician): (Singing) There was a time when I thought
of no other, and we sang our own love's refrain. Our hearts beat as one as we
had our fun, but time changes everything.
When you left me, my poor heart was broken. Our romance seemed all in vain. But
the dark clouds are gone, and there's blue skies again because time changes
TERRY GROSS: Jimmie Dale Gilmore, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's such a
pleasure to have you back. I love the new record. Is there a story behind why
you chose "Time Changes Everything"?
Mr. GILMORE: Well it's funny. Because we kind of were thinking in the realm of
bluegrass with this record, although that's not exactly what it is, really,
it's not an accurate description, that songs had been a real favorite of mine
from a lot of different directions. And I found a recording of it by Bill
Monroe that I didn't even know about. I never had associated - that's a Western
swing. You know, I think Tommy Duncan wrote it.
GROSS: From the Bob Wills band.
Mr. GILMORE: Yeah, and the Bob Wills version was the one that I first knew, you
know, as a kid. And then the one that I actually learned it from though was
Mr. GILMORE: Yeah, there was a collection that - I think it was called "Now
There Was a Song," and it was my dad's favorite - well, he had two favorite
records. He had that one and a collection by Marty Robbins, of the same kind of
thing, you know, cover songs, where they had done old cover songs.
And "Time Changes Everything," you know, I've heard it in many, many different
versions. It's just always so funny because it's self-referential when you
hear, you know, you can change the words of an old tune.
GROSS: So you say that bluegrass would not be an accurate description of this
album, even though you kind of set out to make a bluegrass album. So what would
an accurate description be?
Mr. GILMORE: Well, you know, we were calling it old-timey music, but that has
kind of acquired a ring, you know, a sort of a - it still wasn't quite
accurate. And Warren Hellman had said that somebody had referred to all of this
sort of music as heirloom music, and I loved that phrase.
There's something that, that old-timey sort of - you know, there's something
dismissive about it, and kind of part of our point was that this music is old,
but it's really good, really still pertinent.
GROSS: Well, let's hear another song from the new album, and this is a Charlie
Poole song. Or at least he - I don't know if he wrote it, but his recording is
certainly the first famous one. And the song's called "Leavin' Home." So tell
us how you learned the song and what the song means to you.
Mr. GILMORE: Well, I very first heard it from the New Lost City Ramblers. And,
well, I just fell in love with the song because it's just so peculiar and
quirky. And as a result of hearing that, I went and looked further into it, and
it caused me to discover some of that really older stuff, their source
And the Charlie Poole one is still one of the strangest recordings, and I think
my recording of it is somewhat true to the original. You know, this Frankie and
Johnny theme that - there was probably 100 different versions of "Frankie and
Johnny," and this is a different version, but it's so extremely different that
it veered off into another world, I think.
GROSS: So this is Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Wronglers from their new album
(Soundbite of song, "Leavin' Home")
Mr. GILMORE: (Singing) Well, Frankie said to her Johnny: Now your hour done
come because underneath her silk kimono she threw a .44 gun. These love affairs
are hard to bear.
Johnny, he fled down the stairway. My love, Frankie, don't shoot. Frankie done
aimed that .44, and the gun went rooty-toot-toot. And Johnny fell, then Frankie
I'm going away. I'm going to stay. I'm never coming home. You're going to miss
me, honey, in the days to come when the winter wind begins to blow, the ground
is covered. And when you think of the way you're going to want me back, your
loving man, you're going to miss me, honey, in the day they say's to come.
GROSS: So in talking about your musical past, last time you were on the show,
you performed songs that you learned through your father, country songs, and he
used to play in a country band, although he worked at a university, where he
was the director of a dairy lab. Do I have that right?
Mr. GILMORE: Yeah, the Dairy Industry Department, they called it. It later on
became the Food Technologies Department.
GROSS: Oh, so he had two really different sides of his life, music and his
Mr. GILMORE: Right.
GROSS: And while we're on the subject, you went to Texas Tech, where he worked.
You went there briefly. Is that the right word?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GILMORE: Yeah, right. Yeah, I went for a couple of years and I actually - I
studied a couple of things pretty intensely, but I never did get a degree. I
made really good grades in philosophy and anthropology, but I was already
beginning to spend too much time in the nightlife, the honkytonks and, you
know, the bootleg joints and stuff, to be able to handle college.
GROSS: Bootleg? Literally bootleg?
Mr. GILMORE: Oh yeah, Lubbock was, until very recently, was dry. You know, and
it's - Lubbock's a fairly large town. I mean, it's not a village. It's close to
100,000 people, university town, and but it was dry. So any of the nightlife,
you know, that involved alcohol was illegal.
As a matter of fact, Joe Ely and I got to be friends because - we met each
other because we both played at some of these places that were not - not only
was it illegal for us to be there at the age we were. Actually, there were no
age restrictions because the entire thing was illegal.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GILMORE: So that was part of the backdrop. And then I had a group of
friends that were - well, I had - I sort of lived in these two different worlds
at the time. There was - I had a lot of, like, intellectual and creative, you
know, music and artists and writers and, you know, kind of university sort of
people. And then I had this other group of friends, because of that music
nightlife stuff, that were professional gamblers. And I hung out with them a
lot. And that's where - I never did - I never could play cards or anything. I
was terrible. But I played music. I just hung around with these guys and played
music, and I took requests from them.
That's how I grew a lot of my repertoire, a lot of songs that I knew a little
bit, these guys would want me to sing them, and so I would I'd learn them.
That's how I ended up knowing so many Hank Williams songs and, you know, Johnny
Cash, that sort of stuff.
GROSS: Would you describe one of the bootleg joints that you played in?
Mr. GILMORE: Well, they were really - basically, they were just little, dark
bars, sort of like a cross between a bar and a coffeehouse. And the only thing
is that at any time, it might be raided.
GROSS: Were you ever raided?
Mr. GILMORE: I never did happen to be there when one of the raids happened.
And, of course, later on, you know, that world sort of blended real easily into
the drug world when that happened, you know.
GROSS: I was just thinking about that. Like you're playing at these bootleg
joints, right probably right on the verge of the era when a lot of young people
were not only smoking marijuana but doing psychedelic drugs...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GILMORE: That's exactly what happened, and there have been - so there came
to be this convergence of these groups of people, you know, the intellectual
crowd I was talking about that also, you know, were also music lovers and
nightlife people, some of them.
GROSS: So you must have felt like you were in two completely different worlds
at the same time.
Mr. GILMORE: I did. I always had a schizophrenic feeling about my social
position. You know, I talked about that on - I think on "After A While," that
was my first actual major-label record. I talked about having an epiphany one
time when I read a phrase by Ezra Pound because I was so much into country
music, and most of my friends weren't. They really only liked rock 'n' roll at
the time, or, you know, Top 40 kind of stuff.
But I read this thing by Ezra Pound where he said: The poem fails when it
strays too far from the song, and the song fails when it strays too far from
the dance. And I loved that. I loved that so much, and for some reason, that
had the effect of, like, bringing my two worlds together in my own head, you
know, that honkytonk music was dance music. It was almost like Ezra Pound
giving the intellectuals' endorsement to this, you know, this low-brow kind of
GROSS: So I have a suggestion for your next record, and I'm sure you'll want to
do it, since I suggested it. Do you want to know what it is?
Mr. GILMORE: All right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: You ready?
Mr. GILMORE: Sure.
GROSS: So it's an album of cowboy songs. And I'm...
Mr. GILMORE: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah? Because I love that stuff. And I'm suggesting it in part because I
hear this affinity, this connection between your voice and Gene Autry's voice.
Do you like Gene Autry?
Mr. GILMORE: Oh, yes. As a matter of fact, you know, there's an interesting
link between us. My great-aunt, I never did know her, but my dad's aunt
actually, she was from Tioga, Texas. They always called it Tiogee(ph). And I
remember that because it came up in a conversation I had with Colonel Tom
Parker one time, who I didn't realize had been Gene Autry's manager.
GROSS: This was the guy who was Elvis' manager.
Mr. GILMORE: Yes, yes, Colonel Tom Parker had - his history was even more
amazing than most people know about. And he remembered that Gene Autry was from
Tioga, Texas. You know, it's like my relatives, you know, the East Texas kind
of people, you know, it's like they say No-wee(ph) instead of Noah.
Anyway, my aunt actually sort of helped raise Gene Autry.
Mr. GILMORE: Yeah. He - apparently her son, who would've been my dad's cousin,
who also I don't know, I never have met, but apparently they were best friends.
And Gene Autry lived with them a lot. I think he was - I don't really know the
details of the background to all of it. But apparently, he was closer to their
family than he was to his own.
And my dad said that my aunt told him one time that she played Gene Autry his
first Jimmie Rogers records.
GROSS: Wow because his early songs are really influenced by Jimmie Rogers.
Mr. GILMORE: Yes. In the early days, he was an outright imitator of Jimmie
Rogers. He sounded...
GROSS: And he yodeled.
Mr. GILMORE: he sounded just exactly like him. Yeah.
GROSS: Wow. So did you grow up hearing Gene Autry records because of this
Mr. GILMORE: Well, I didn't know the family connection until many, many years
later. That was just a little story that came up somewhere around the supper
table one time, a long time later.
GROSS: But did you hear his records?
Mr. GILMORE: I loved Gene Autry when I was a little kid. You know, I had that
little red vinyl record of "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer." And the flip side
was "Frosty the Snowman" by Gene Autry.
Mr. GILMORE: And that was way - and I was in the first grade, I think. And I
really loved Gene Autry. Although, later on, you know, I kind of veered more
towards, well, the blues and the honkytonk music was more appealing to me than
that sort of movie cowboy music.
GROSS: Well, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, it's been great to talk with you, and I
really want to thank you a lot.
Mr. GILMORE: Well, thank you, Terry, and it's so much fun to get to actually
talk with you instead of just listen to you because I hear you just about every
GROSS: That's so great. I'm so glad you listen.
BIANCULLI: Jimmie Dale Gilmore speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. His
new CD with The Wronglers, "Heirloom Music" has just been released.
Coming up, film critic David Edelstein on Woody Allenâs new movie "Midnight in
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
A 'Paris' Review: Woody Allen, In Fine Form
(Soundbite of music)
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Keeping to his extraordinary pace of making a film a year, Woody Allen returns
with a new comedy called "Midnight in Paris," which arrives in the U.S. after
premiering at this yearâs Cannes Film Festival. The movie stars Owen Wilson as
a screenwriter visiting Paris who magically travels back in time to meet his
artistic heroes of the 1920s.
Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Woody Allen isn't religious, but he has a rabbinical side, and
over the last decade his films have become more and more like Talmudic parables
for atheists. On the surface, these movies are streamlined, even breezy, and
they often have voice-over narration to get the pesky exposition out of the way
fast. Philosophically, Allen has settled on resignation, a cosmic shrug:
There's no God, no justice, people are inconstant, life is meaningless â so
where do you wanna eat?
I have a problem, though, buying into the worldview of someone whose world is a
closed ecosystem. There's no evidence that Allen lets any contemporary culture
penetrate his hard, defensive shell. Music stopped in the '40s, if not earlier,
ditto literature, ditto film - with a pass for select European directors. He
seems locked in a daydream of the past.
The good news is that Allen has made the lure of nostalgia the theme of his
supernatural comedy "Midnight in Paris," which might be why this is his best,
most emotionally pure film in over a decade. It's a romantic fantasy that's
also a sly act of self-criticism.
The time-traveling hero, Gil, played by Owen Wilson, is a successful Hollywood
screenwriter on holiday in Paris with his brisk, upwardly mobile fiancee, Inez,
played by Rachel McAdams. Gil considers himself a hack and, to Inez's horror,
wants to write novels instead of movies. How he wishes he could be a writer in
Paris - better yet, Paris in the '20s, alongside Scott and Zelda, Hemingway,
Gertrude Stein, and all those other giants living high, yet creating enduring
works of art. It would certainly be preferable to being a tourist in Paris with
Inez and her old professor, Paul.
(Soundbite of movie, "Midnight in Paris")
Ms. RACHEL MCADAMS (Actor): (as Inez) I hope youâre not going to be as
antisocial tomorrow at Versailles.
Mr. OWEN WILSON (Actor): (as Gil) How was I antisocial?
Ms. MCADAMS: (as Inez) Oh, please. I mean you could totally tell you didn't
want to go.
Mr. WILSON: (as Gil) Well, I mean they're your friends and I have to admit, I'm
not quite as taken with them as you are.
Ms. MCADAMS: (as Inez) Heâs brilliant. You know, I had such a crush on him in
college. And Carolâs very bright.
Mr. WILSON: (as Gil) Honey, he's a pseudo-intellectual, just a little bit.
Ms. MCADAMS: (as Inez) Gil, I hardly think heâd be lecturing at the Sorbonne if
heâs a pseudo-intellectual.
EDELSTEIN: You can almost hear the familiar Woody Allen cadences, yet Owen
Wilson isn't the usual East Coast intellectual Allen hero, and he makes the
lines his own. Apart from Mia Farrow's in "The Purple Rose of Cairo," this is
the finest lead performance in an Allen film that wasn't by Allen - and finer
than many of Allen's, too. You sense the vein of wistfulness under his stoner
cool, the longing for definition behind his spaceyness(ph). It's a thrilling
moment when he sits forlornly on some steps in the rain at midnight, a vintage
automobile rumbles by, the champagne-swilling occupants invite him in, and he's
suddenly back in the '20s.
How? No explanation. Allen just breezes past all that, the way he did in
"Purple Rose" and, before that, in his great â70s short story, "The Kugelmass
Episode," happily eliminating the sci-fi wheels and pulleys that tend to suck
up so much screen time. Gil is just there - counseling Scott about Zelda,
drinking with Hemingway, showing parts of his novel to Gertrude Stein, and
falling in love with a woman named Adriana, played by a stunningly beautiful
Marion Cotillard. Adriana bonds with Gil over his love of the past - except the
past she loves is the 1890s and not her vulgar present. His '20s ideal woman
hates the '20s - a bitter irony.
Allen doesn't do anything particularly interesting with Scott and Zelda - my
guess is he's too in awe of them. But his Hemingway, played with forthright
manly-manliness by Corey Stoll, is a riot; and as Gertrude Stein, Kathy Bates
proves that in an absurd context, playing it straight can make you funnier than
a thousand clowns.
"Midnight in Paris" is a doodle, but it's easy and graceful, and its ambivalent
view of nostalgia has all kinds of resonance. As I watched, I felt a different
sort of nostalgia: not for the Parisian '20s, but the days in which Allen
regularly turned out freewheeling, pitch-perfect tall tales in print and
onscreen. The movie is so good it takes you back to those days, which were the
days, my friend.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
(Soundbite of music)
For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.