Bob Thompson’s fascination with Davy Crockett began on a car trip with his wife and two young daughters, listening to an old Burl Ives collection of folk songs — “Shoo Fly,” “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and then a song that immediately grabbed the girls’ attention.
“Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, greenest state in the land of the free,” Ives warbled. And when it ended, voices from the back seat insisted that dad play that song again.
That began a family immersion into all things Crockett, and more than a few surprises. Finally, Thompson’s need to separate fact from fiction, wild yarn — occasionally spun by Crockett himself — from the real David Crockett, led him on a meandering journey through much of the Southeast, up to Washington, D.C., and all the way to the Alamo.
An amiable, graceful writer and a thoroughly curious researcher, Thompson invites us along for the ride. Almost immediately, we learn that “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” isn’t 100 percent true.
Crockett’s official birthplace sits at the edge of the Nolichucky River in Tennessee, where it splashes down into a valley, and not on a mountaintop.
And while Crockett loved hunting bear, he was much older than 3.
So what about that iconic image of Crockett decked out in buckskin? Unlikely.
“You try walking around out here with buckskins on and get ’em wet one time,” one period re-enactor tells Thompson. “It will freeze you to death. And they get slimy, and they’re just — they’re terrible.”
Even the great accolade “King of the Wild Frontier” is a better fit for Daniel Boone, according to the manager of the Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park.
Much of what passes for Crockett history in the current culture has its roots in film and TV. Walt Disney shaped a good bit of it in his three-part series on Crockett’s life that hit the small screen in December 1954. The John Wayne movie “The Alamo” added to the legend.
Born to an extremely poor family, the fifth of six sons, along with three daughters, Crockett left home for the first time at 12, hired out by his father to help “a perfect stranger” to drive a herd of cattle, on foot, from eastern Tennessee to near Natural Bridge, Va., a trip of about 250 miles.
A year later, he left home again after a row with his father, this time for 2½ years. He hired himself out, helping to drive a herd of cattle to northern Virginia, 400 miles away. From there, he was off to what is now West Virginia, and then to Baltimore, where he marveled at the tall ships, and thought of joining one bound for England.
Instead, he found his way home, 16 years old and so changed that his family didn’t recognize him.
This would be a pattern for Crockett, who tried farming and milling and other businesses but couldn’t resist an adventure and sure couldn’t stay home.
His final temptation came from Texas, and he followed a stream of settlers who were heading west, looking for land.
In movies and TV, Crockett is a powerful voice at the Alamo, telling tales with his usual bravado to keep spirits up, and then fighting with a particular ferocity. But other accounts paint a different end.
In the end, Thompson writes, Crockett’s tale is both history and myth, and the trouble is separating the two.
“You can go crazy trying to herd the ‘real’ and ‘mythic’ version into different pastures,” he writes. “It’s hard to do that with anyone’s story, but with David’s it’s close to impossible, because his legend sprang up at a point where there were hardly any facts on the ground.”
Ultimately, it was Crockett himself who created his own persona, and his fans took that and ran.