Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid in Silver City

Few American lives have more successfully resisted research than that of Billy the Kid. It is almost as if he decided at birth to leave behind as little documentary trace as he could of his entry into, and passage through, the world. – Frederick Nolan, The West of Billy the Kid

By most accounts, Henry McCarty (later known as Billy the Kid) was thirteen years old when he arrived in Silver City, New Mexico, and those who knew him at the time reported that he was no more a problem than any other boy. In fact, he may have been better behaved than most.

By the time he left Silver City in 1875 at age fifteen he was on his way to becoming one of the most famous thieves and killers in U.S. history. My novel
Catherine's Son attempts to explain his transformation in a way that conforms to what I think are the main themes of his life.

And I want to make clear that the story I tell in
Catherine's Son is a work of fiction. Although every significant character in my book is based on a real person in the Kid’s life, I make no claims to unadulterated accuracy in telling their stories.

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Billy the Kid's Home in Silver City

If more had been known about the two years Henry McCarty lived in Silver City, I could have told his story as nonfiction. But the documented record of his life during those years is sketchy. Only two articles from local newspapers and the recollections of a handful of people who knew him can be used to assemble any narrative at all.

We know from one newspaper, for example, that Henry’s mother died in September 1874. The obituary was short, prompting many questions about her life before coming to Silver City.

"Died in Silver City on Wednesday the 16th. Catherine, wife of William Antrim, aged 45 years. Mrs. Antrim with her husband and family came to Silver City about one year and a half ago, since which time her health has not been good, having suffered from an affection of the lungs, and for the last four months she has been confined to her bed. The funeral occurred from the family residence on Main Street at 2 o’clock on Thursday." – Silver City Mining Life, September 19, 1874

We know from another newspaper that Henry escaped from jail on September 25, 1875, one year and nine days after his mother died.

"Henry McCarty, who was arrested on Thursday and committed to jail to await the action of the grand jury, upon the charge of stealing clothes from Charley Sun and Sam Chung, celestials sans cue, sans joss sticks, escaped from prison yesterday through the chimney. It is believed Henry was simply the tool of “Sombrero Jack” who done the actual stealing whilst Henry done the hiding. Jack has skinned out." – Grant County Herald, September 26, 1875

Almost everything else that is known about Catherine and her son Henry during their Silver City years is based on a few interviews with those who knew them personally, as well as general assumptions about their lives gleaned from the town’s historical record.

Long after Billy the Kid died, several people who had known him in Silver City spoke about what they remembered about him and his mother. The people who offered recollections included the town sheriff (Harvey Whitehill), his teacher (Mary Richards), a good friend of his mother's (Mary Hudson), and several people who were roughly his same age (Wayne and Harry Whitehill, Louis Abraham, Chauncey Truesdell, Charley Stevens, and Anthony Connor). All told, Henry was described by those who knew him as a generally likable, well-mannered, and sometimes mischievous boy.

Only two people who spoke about him offered an indictment of his character. Harvey Whitehill, said he had “a proclivity for breaking the Eighth Commandment,” and Charley Stevens said that he “was a schemer, always trying to figure out some way of putting something over to get money.”

Despite what Whitehill and Stevens said, many other people offered a much different view of Henry McCarty.

One of Henry’s friends, Louis Abraham, said that Henry came from “an ordinary good American home.” Abraham also said, “Henry was a good boy, maybe a little [more] mischievous at times than the rest of us with a little more nerve.”

Another friend, Chauncey Truesdell, said, “[Henry] was quiet … and never swore or tried to act bad like the other kids.”

Mary Richards, Henry’s teacher, described him as “a scrawny little fellow with delicate hands and an artistic nature … always quite willing to help with the chores around the schoolhouse. He was no more of a problem than any other boy growing up in a mining camp.”

In describing Henry’s mother, Louis Abraham said she was “a jolly Irish lady, full of life and mischief. [She] could dance the Highland Fling as well as the best of the dancers.” Abraham also said she was “as good as she could be. [She] always welcomed the boys with a smile and a joke.” One of Catherine’s friends, Mary Hudson, said, “[She] was a sweet, gentle little lady, as fond of her boys as any mother could be.”

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Billy the Kid's mother? (an unconfirmed photo)

My original motivation for writing Catherine’s Son stemmed in large part from testimonials such as these and the fact that the portrait they painted of Henry McCarty did not conform to images of Billy the Kid as a black-hearted villain.

If Billy the Kid deserved the notorious reputation he gained toward the end of his life, one can’t help but wonder what happened to change him. How did a “scrawny little fellow with delicate hands and an artistic nature” end up on the wrong end of Pat Garrett’s gun?

Historian Frederick Nolan may have said it best in
The West of Billy the Kid when he wrote that Henry was “a bright, alert, intelligent boy with an impish sense of humor, thrown early and unprepared upon his own inner resources … doing the best he could in a world that rarely extended a helping hand.”

Anthony Conner, who claimed to have been a boyhood friend of Henry’s, is often quoted in history books describing Henry as a good boy who loved to read. Connor, however, may not have moved to Silver City until after Henry had left the town. For that reason, Conner has not been used as a character in my novel.

Nevertheless, information provided by Connor has been used in my book to help flesh out Henry’s character. To me, much of what Conner said rings true when I look at other descriptions of Henry, and even if Connor didn’t know Henry McCarty personally, he may have been relating what people in Silver City had told him after he moved there.

Jerry Weddle, who wrote
Antrim is My Stepfather’s Name, an excellent book that primarily deals with Henry’s life in Silver City, provides this composite description of the young man who became Billy the Kid.

"Young Billy liked to dress well, and everyone noticed his neat appearance and clean habits. He was unfailingly courteous, especially to the ladies. Like his mother, he was a spirited singer and dancer. He had an alert mind and could come up with a snappy proverb for every occasion. He read well and wrote better than most adults. A taste for sweets resulted in bad teeth, and two of his upper incisors protruded slightly. His rambunctious sense of humor always got a laugh, whether it be on himself or someone else. Because of his small stature, he took a lot of ribbing from those bigger and stronger, but what he lacked in size he made up with tremendous energy and quick reflexes. Anxious to please, eager to impress, willing to take extraordinary risks, Billy would dare anything to prove his worth. The other schoolkids soon realized that he had genuine courage. – Jerry Weddle, Antrim is My Stepfather’s Name

In the end, so little is actually known about Billy the Kid’s short life that readers must forever beware of books claiming to tell the “real” story.

The date and location of the Kid’s birth, for example, is conjecture, even though most writers place his birth in New York City in 1859. The name given to him at birth is also open to debate, even though most say his name was Henry McCarty. Historians know he had a brother named Joseph or “Josie,” but it’s not
known whether Henry and Josie shared the same father. Historians also argue over whether Josie was younger or older than Henry.
The identity of Henry’s father is unknown, and there are numerous questions about Henry’s mother, Catherine, especially her life before moving to Silver City, New Mexico. Historians speculate that she was an Irish immigrant but cannot confirm it. We know that she lived for a time in Indiana before moving to Wichita, Kansas, where she evidently owned and operated a successful laundry. She was also probably involved in Wichita politics and reportedly became the only woman to sign a petition calling for the incorporation of the town.

Although an understanding of Catherine’s life in Wichita comes from some documentation, no records exist of Henry or his brother before March 1, 1873. On that date, they served as a witnesses in Santa Fe to the marriage of their mother and a man named Bill Antrim. Within a few weeks after the wedding, Catherine and Bill then moved with Henry and Josie to Silver City in the southwestern corner of the New Mexico Territory.

Henry’s years in Silver City provide many false stories to feed the myth of Billy the Kid. One famous story said that he committed his first murder in Silver City, killing a man for insulting his mother. It’s also been said that he slit the throat of a Chinaman in Silver City. According to those who knew him in Silver City, those stories were simply not true. Legend has even proclaimed that while he lived in Silver City he used a knife to decapitate a neighbor’s kitten. If so, there’s no mention of that event or anything like it in any of the interviews with the people who knew him at the time.

Any writer trying to tell the story of Henry’s life in Silver City must resort to speculation and guesswork to fill the gaps in his story. Much of the myth surrounding Billy the Kid is no doubt a result of the insufficiency of the historical record, and few characters in American history are surrounded by as much mythology as Billy the Kid.

As the author of
Catherine’s Son, I plead guilty to using speculation and guesswork to tell the Kid’s story. I simply hope that my version of how Henry McCarty became an outlaw is plausible enough to be entertaining and thought provoking. The book, after all, is a work of fiction.

Billy the Kid is a controversial character, to say the least. For some, the Kid was a symbol of rebellious youth standing up to the overwhelming force of New Mexico’s political and financial power structure. For others, he was no more than a murderous thug.

Regardless of the position one takes, this much seems true: Billy the Kid was a charismatic young man with a pleasant disposition and an instinctive ability to escape from trouble. In so many words, even Pat Garrett, the sheriff who killed him, described him in those terms.

In the final analysis, Billy the Kid was an outlaw and thief who killed at least four men and was ultimately sentenced to die for killing an officer of the law. The degree to which someone wants to believe he was justified in his actions and should have been pardoned for his crimes is open to debate. The argument will always be contentious and emotional.

So much has been written about the last four years of the Kid’s life—his participation in the Lincoln County War, his capture and sentencing, his escape from jail, and his death at the hands of Pat Garrett—that I had no desire to add another book to that part of his story. Instead, what I wanted to explore was a narrative of his life during the years before he became an outlaw, the time he lived in Silver City with his mother and the time he was learning how to survive without her after she died.

I might have approached his life during those years much differently, developing the theme that his criminal nature was evident from the beginning. If so,
Catherine’s Son would have told the story of delinquent child, a wild boy causing his mother much concern and distress before her premature death. I have no doubts that a version of the Kid’s life based on that theme would have made a good story. But that’s not the story I wanted to tell.

For me, the historical record, although unreliable, paints a different picture. In a book titled
Antrim is My Stepfather’s Name, Jerry Weddle wrote about reconciling “the difference between a hostile press, politically motivated by the Lincoln County War, with the warmer perceptions of those who actually knew him.”

In the end, I wrote Catherine’s Son in the spirit of reconciling that difference. If anything, I hope I have provided readers with a story worth reading.

"Like fairy tales or folk songs, all versions are true. The more versions there are, the truer it is."

– Phil Lesh, bassist for the Grateful Dead when asked which version of a song
that the Dead never played the same way twice was the “true” version



Why Billy the Kid?

One of the reasons I enjoy studying history is that it gives me an opportunity to learn about extraordinary people — people as varied in their achievements as Joan of Arc, George Washington, Ludwig van Beethoven, Vincent Van Gogh, Albert Einstein, and Nadia Boulanger.

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Billy the Kid, 1859-1881

It might sound odd, but my interest in Billy the Kid is on par with the people listed above. I’m saying the Kid was an admirable character or that he necessarily achieved anything good in this world. All I'm saying is that I find his story is endlessly fascinating.

In many ways, the Kid seems an unlikely character to catch my attention. In all likelihood, he was nothing more than a punk, a young man who settled his problems through violence. For someone like me — someone who abhors violence — the Kid is, to say the least, an unusual obsession.

But, oh, what a great story the Kid gave us!

Without providing all the details, let me outline the traditional tale told about the Kid. Keep in mind that I’m not providing the
real story of the Kid's life, just the traditional story that surrounds the myth.

  • The Kid was born in New York in 1859, and after the Civil War his widowed mother took him west. His mother then raised him and his brother on her own while running her own businesses in Indiana, Kansas, and New Mexico.
  • The Kid was orphaned at the age of fourteen in Silver City, New Mexico Territory, and then forced to survive in a lawless society populated by the often-violent migrants of the frontier. He got into trouble in Silver City, escaped from jail, and went to Arizona.
  • The Kid became a horse thief and cattle rustler in Arizona, and after killing a man — probably in self defense — he joined a gang of ruthless outlaws in New Mexico.
  • After moving to Lincoln County in eastern New Mexico Territory, the Kid was given an opportunity to make an honest living when an Englishman named John Tunstall gave him a job as a ranch hand.
  • The Kid worked for Tunstall only a few months before Tunstall was assassinated by men working for The House, a business organization that had monopolized Lincoln County. The Kid was then thrust into a war against The House, as well as a group of ruthless businessmen and politicians running the entire New Mexico Territory, a group known as the Santa Fe Ring.
  • After the Lincoln County war ended, the Kid kept fighting against The House and those who were in cahoots with the Santa Fe Ring. He chose not to leave New Mexico Territory and made himself a nuisance by rustling livestock from his enemies.
  • In an attempt to put his life on the right side of the law, the Kid made a deal with the Governor of New Mexico. He agreed to testify in open court against allies of The House. In return, the governor offered him a pardon for crimes he had committed during the Lincoln County War. Although the Kid kept his part of the bargain and testified, the governor never gave him his pardon. The Kid also tried to get on the right side of the law when he played a leading role in calling a truce between the opposing sides in the Lincoln County War. The truce didn't last long when it was violated by men who worked for The House.
  • The Santa Fe Ring, probably trying to turn attention away from their own crimes, began using newspapers to portray the Kid as the worst of the worst in the New Mexico Territory. After being made a scapegoat for the violence in Lincoln County, the Kid became a symbol for the lawlessness of the American West.
  • Captured and sentenced to hang, the Kid became the only person convicted of a crime for actions committed during the Lincoln County War.
  • In a daring and bloody escape in which he killed two guards, the Kid fled his Lincoln County jail only a few days before his execution. Unwilling to leave New Mexico Territory, the Kid found refuge among those who supported him near Fort Sumner.
  • After walking into a dark room at midnight, the Kid was ambushed and shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett.
What a story! The arc of the Kid's life has the makings of a timeless myth, and I suspect historians, novelists, and filmmakers will be reshaping the Kid’s legend for generations to come.

And why the Kid? Why do so many people, me included, find his story so compelling?

First, I would point out that although the Kid may have been an outlaw, he was an uncommon one. He loved music and dancing. He liked to sing, and by many accounts he liked to read. In the heat of battle, he was said to be daring, brave, and loyal. He was intelligent and charismatic. In short, he was the type of historical character who makes a good story.

Second, his life provides us with a mythic tale that can be told in a variety of ways to meet a variety of needs. So little is known for certain about the Kid's life that it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction when hearing his story. From questions about the date and place of his birth to the controversies surrounding his death, people can take his story almost anywhere they want it to go. He can be portrayed as a black-hearted villain or the American Robin Hood. His story works both ways.

Finally, the Kid’s story is timeless because he will remain forever young. Dead at age twenty-one, the Kid never had a chance to grow old and look back on the recklessness of his youth. We must also think about how an untimely death can place an exclamation point at the end of someone's life and make that person a legend. Just think about how premature deaths helped turn the following people into icons: Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Huey Long, James Dean, John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Harvey Milk, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, and Tupac Shakur. Billy the Kid can certainly be placed on that list.

I am often asked about the reasons I am so interested in Billy the Kid. My answer, in part, stems from the fact that I have lived my entire life in southern New Mexico, and Billy the Kid is part of my cultural DNA. I also spent thirty years as a high school teacher and taught many students who reminded me of the Kid. I taught students who were intelligent and charismatic but nevertheless headed the wrong way in life. Something traumatic may have happened to them at a vulnerable age that changed them forever. Their stories, as well as the Kid’s, are timeless.

All told, I really have only one answer to the question about what got me so interested in the Kid: Who wouldn’t be interested in Billy the Kid?

  


    

Garrett Killed the Kid

Studying history begins with the process of asking questions. How did people prepare their food in medieval Europe? Who was Beethoven's “Immortal Beloved”? What caused the American Civil War?

Once a historian is armed with a question, the research begins, and the historian examines diaries, letters, official documents, newspaper reports, artifacts, works of art, interviews — anything that might lead to enough evidence that the historical puzzle can be assembled into a satisfactory answer for the question at hand.

Easy enough. A child can understand the process.

What takes a little more maturity for history students is understanding how the questions that historians ask reflect the times in which they live. Quite simply, we don’t wonder what we don’t wonder about, and we most likely only wonder about the things that relate to our own lives and the world in which we live.

In 2006, C.A. Tripp published
The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, a book that makes the argument that Lincoln was gay. The book obviously set off much historical debate.

However, the book — and the debate it started — probably teaches us less about Lincoln than the times in which we live. I doubt few, if any, books written in 1926 or 1966 addressed Lincoln’s sexuality. Today, however, we live in a world in which people are more openly dealing with issues of sexuality.

Decades from now, people will look at books and articles that our generation has written about Lincoln’s sexuality and learn more about us than about Lincoln.

Before the 1960s, U.S. history books rarely included issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. Since the 1960s, however, history students have been inundated with issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. The civil rights movement prompted historians to begin asking questions they hadn’t asked before the 1960s, and the history books changed.

If we read a history book from the 1920s about the Civil War, we are likely to learn more about the 1920s than the Civil War. In the same way, a history book written today probably reveals as much about modern times than the topic of the book. As a sign of our times, for example, many textbooks today include information about environmental history.

The 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica includes an entry for “negro” that states, “Mentally the negro is inferior to the white … the arrest or even deterioration of mental development [after adolescence] is no doubt very largely due to the fact that after puberty sexual matters take the first place in the negro's life and thoughts.”

That entry obviously speaks volumes about the world of 1911.

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Pat Garrett, 1850-1908

To further illuminate my point, take an innocuous historical statement such as “Pat Garrett killed Billy the Kid” and examine how responses to that statement might have changed over the last 120 years.

If I had made that statement in the 1890s, I probably would have received responses that were variations on one theme: “The Kid got what he deserved.”

In the 1890s, people had been exposed to numerous newspaper reports, dime novels, and books that generally portrayed the Kid as a cold-hearted killer. The Kid represented the old ways of settling problems in the American west. Many Americans at the turn of the century were looking forward to an end of the Code of the West and the “civilization” of a modern urban society.

If I had said, “Garrett killed the Kid,” in the 1920s or 1930s, I would have received a much different response. During those decades, the Kid was portrayed as much more of a hero. On the jacket of a bestselling book about the Kid published by Walter Noble Burns in 1926, the Kid was described as the “Robin Hood of the Mesas.” In 1930, a King Vidor film titled Billy the Kid was shown to test audiences who were so disturbed by the Kid’s death that the producers were forced to change the ending. In the version released to the public, Pat Garrett fakes the Kid’s death and lets him escape to Mexico with the girl he loves.

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Billy the Kid, 1859-1881

Again, the way the story was told in the 1920s and 1930s tells us more about that time in history than it does about Billy the Kid. At a time of gangsterism, financial corruption, and economic depression, the Kid was portrayed as a romantic hero fighting against the corrupt business forces of his time. In short, he was a heroic figure.

And what if I said, “Garrett killed the Kid” in modern times. I have made several presentations and taught classes on Billy the Kid, and the reaction is often the same. “Did Garret really kill the Kid?” “Didn’t Garrett kill someone else and cover it up.” “Didn’t the real Billy the Kid die in Hico, Texas, in the 1950s?

Today, an innocuous historical statement such as “Garrett killed the Kid” leads to questions of conspiracy and coverup that reflect much uncertainty and cynicism about official stories. I believe that reaction says more about us than it does about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
What it says, I’m not sure, but wouldn’t all this be fun to talk about in a history class?



The Myth of Billy the Kid

At midnight on July 14, 1881, Sheriff Pat Garrett ambushed Billy the Kid and ended his life. The Kid had stepped onto a porch at a home near Fort Sumner in New Mexico Territory and spotted two men he didn’t know (both were Garrett’s deputies). The Kid asked, “¿Quien Es?” (“Who is it?”), and when the men didn’t answer, the Kid backed into an unlit room. Pat Garrett was sitting on a bed in that room, and when the Kid sensed someone present, he asked again, “¿Quien Es?” At that moment, Pat Garrett shot the Kid in the chest, killing him instantly. The Kid was twenty-one years old.

Billy the Kid’s death became international news and pushed the assassination of President Garfield off the front pages of American newspapers. The Kid has not left the national and international consciousness since. On the night he died, his myth became large enough to survive more than a century and has shown no signs of diminishing. He is still making news and will probably continue to do so into the foreseeable future. His myth is timeless.

The traditional story told about Billy the Kid—a story full of many questions regarding its accuracy—is enough to keep myth makers busy for generations. Read my summary of his life story below and think about the countless books and films that have been, and might still be, inspired by the Kid's fascinating biography.

***

Henry McCarty was born to Irish immigrants in the slums of New York on the eve of the Civil War. After his father died, his widowed mother moved Henry and his brother out of New York to Indiana. After living in Indiana, they moved to Kansas, where his mother ran a profitable laundry in Wichita. Consumption soon made his mother too weak to run her laundry, and to find relief from her illness, she moved her family to a higher and drier climate in New Mexico Territory. When she moved, she was accompanied by her long-time companion, Bill Antrim, a man whom she married in Santa Fe.

After moving to a three-year-old mining camp named Silver City, young Henry seemed on track to becoming a good man. As those who knew him in Silver City later attested, his “jolly Irish” mother provided him with an “ordinary good American home.” His teacher described him as “a scrawny little fellow with delicate hands and an artistic nature … always quite willing to help with the chores around the schoolhouse.” She said, “He was no more of a problem than any other boy.”


However, after Henry’s mother died and he was abandoned by his stepfather, he became a mischievous orphan and began stealing from Silver City’s residents. When the sheriff arrested him for stealing from a Chinese laundry, he escaped jail by climbing up a chimney. He then left for Arizona Territory where he learned the art of stealing horses from a former cavalry man. In a bar fight, he killed his first man. Not waiting to see whether he would be excused on the grounds of self-defense or indicted for murder, Henry ran back to New Mexico Territory. He was an undersized seventeen year-old-boy with no money and no home. Although he now called himself William H. Bonney, most people simply called him “Kid.”


The Kid rustled cattle with the notorious Jesse Evans gang for a short time before taking a job as a ranch hand in the eastern part of New Mexico. As an employee of John Tunstall, an Englishman with business interests in Lincoln County, Billy found honest work for a man he respected. When Tunstall was assassinated by corrupt forces running the county, the Kid and Tunstall’s other hired hands sought revenge, thrusting themselves into a full-scale war between rival business factions in the county.


Needing a scapegoat for the violence and lawlessness in Lincoln County, newspapers and politicians eventually began portraying the Kid as a notorious outlaw, painting him as the symbol of everything wrong in the New Mexico Territory. Although the Kid attempted to redeem himself and sought a pardon for the crimes he had committed, he was betrayed by a governor who had promised him a pardon if he turned himself in. Instead of a pardon, the Kid was prosecuted for murder and sentenced to hang. After a daring escape from jail to avoid execution, the Kid was hunted and eventually killed by Pat Garrett.


Although hated and feared by a few, Billy the Kid was loved and admired by many, especially the Spanish-speaking people of the territory. According to New York City newspapers, his death marked the passing of wild west lawlessness. For many others, his death represented a victory for the powerful and corrupt forces controlling the New Mexico Territory.

***

Many falsehoods and questionable facts have been used to embellish the Kid’s story. Although the embellishments number too many to list here, I have listed five of the most well-known below. I should note that I don’t mind any of these five added to good works of fiction, whether in books or movies. In fact, sometimes they even make the story better. However, I would protest if they were added to works of nonfiction.

  1. The Kid killed his first man in Silver City after the man insulted his mother. (Not true.)
  2. The Kid killed twenty-one men, not counting "Mexicans and Indians." (He actually killed four to nine men.)
  3. John Tunstall was a father figure to the Kid. (Tunstall was only twenty-four when he died.)
  4. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid were friends before Garrett became sheriff. (Although they knew each other, it's a stretch to call them "friends.")
  5. Pat Garrett did not kill the Kid at Fort Sumner, and the Kid went on to live a long life under a different identity. (Probably not true.)
I have described the traditional story told about Billy the Kid above and supplied a few of the more common falsehoods. Keep in mind, however, that the traditional story is so full of holes that the historical record allows us to create several versions of Billy the Kid. He can either be a murderous thief or a young boy with the courage to take on corrupt politicians and businessmen. As historian Frederick Nolan wrote in his wonderful book The West of Billy the Kid.

“Few American lives have more successfully resisted research than that of Billy the Kid. It is almost as if he decided at birth to leave behind as little documentary trace as he could of his entry into, and passage through, the world.”

In spite of the sketchiness of the historical record, the Kid’s story has long been fun to tell, and I am certain we will find a way to keep telling it long into the future.

   

  

Aaron Copland and Billy the Kid

Aaron Copland finished composing his ballet suite about Billy the Kid in 1938. The music portrayed the Kid in a sympathetic light, and I suspect that had Copland composed it a dozen years earlier, he would have used a different musical style and presented an entirely different version of the Kid's story.

I say this, in part, because Copland had reinvented himself as composer during the decade after he left Paris and returned to America in 1924. After he finished his studies at the Fontainebleau School of Music, he came home determined to create music that was “as recognizably American as Mussorgsky and Stravinsky were Russian.” He then embraced modernist dissonance and tone clusters, composing avant-garde music that seemed intentionally designed to provoke audiences. His music may have sounded “American,” but it was music that would never find a wide — or let’s say, “democratic” — audience.

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Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

Not until 1936, when he composed El Salon Mexico, did Copland begin to develop the “populist” style for which he is so well known, a style that often incorporates the simplicity of folk songs.

The change in Copland’s compositional style came partially from the social and political changes stemming from the Great Depression, as well as the rise of fascism in Europe. He wanted to expand his audience and create music that was accessible and inspirational. He wanted to give Americans a sense of ownership and pride in their nation’s heritage. He wanted to help people feel good about being American.

Copland's change in philosophy should lead to an obvious question: If he was so determined to celebrate what was good about America, why did he choose to compose music about an outlaw like Billy the Kid?

To answer that question we must begin by understanding that music and art are a product of the time in which they are produced. Copland's version of Billy the Kid, in many ways, was nothing more than a product of its time.

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Billy the Kid (1859-1881)

At the time Billy the Kid was shot dead by Pat Garrett in 1881 (over fifty years before Copland's ballet), he was portrayed by the media as a black-hearted villain and cold-hearted killer. The Kid represented anarchy and lawlessness and throughout the late 1800s became a symbol for everything wrong with the American West. After he was killed, one newspaper even referred to him as the “devil’s meat." By the early 1900s, the Kid began to disappear from American media and history books, having become a character from the past who Americans wanted to ignore and forget.

Then, in 1926, a Chicago journalist named Walter Noble Burns published
The Saga of Billy the Kid. Burns had visited New Mexico and heard firsthand accounts of the Kid that changed his view of the boy outlaw. Burns interviewed people who had known the Kid and used those interviews to write a book that was eventually listed as a main selection of the Book of the Month Club. In short, Burns had written a bestseller that resurrected and redefined the Kid in popular culture.

In
The Saga of Billy the Kid, Burns portrayed the Kid as a young boy fighting against a powerful and corrupt political machine. According to Burns, the Kid was a noble and charming champion of the oppressed. The Kid may have been a violent young man, but his actions were justified, and he personified a type of individualism that was disappearing in America. All told, Burns created a hero for an America that felt betrayed by the financial corruption of the 1920s and economic depression of the 1930s.

During the 1930s, the Kid was at the height of his popularity as a hero in popular culture. In 1930, MGM made a movie titled
Billy the Kid that showed the young outlaw fighting for the powerless and downtrodden, a heroic character at war with villainous bankers and big landowners. Preview audiences for the film reacted so negatively to the Kid’s death at the end of the film that MGM was forced to create a new ending, showing Pat Garrett shooting at the Kid and intentionally missing. The Kid then fled on horseback across the border into Mexico.

As for Aaron Copland’s
Billy the Kid, the music did nothing more than conform to the popular image of Billy the Kid that was widespread during the 1930s. Had Copland composed Billy the Kid in 1925 it might have been a dissonant portrayal of a villainous desperado. The version composed in 1938, however, provided a folksy depiction of a young boy who was muy simpático.

Today, Copland’s
Billy the Kid can be heard as a timeless piece of music, a composition that represents much more than a milestone in Copland’s evolving compositional style. It is also much more than an artifact of the 1930s. Despite the changes that are sure to come in how music is composed or how Billy the Kid is portrayed in popular culture, Copland’s Billy the Kid will remain an emotional and romantic portrait of an American icon.


Giancarlo Guerrero conducting the National Youth Orchestra of the USA

0:26 Part 1 — The story begins with Sheriff Pat Garrett leading pioneers westward across the open prairie.

3:38 Part 2 — The story shifts to Silver City, NM, a small frontier town where the young wide-eyed and innocent Billy lives with his mother. Toward the end of this section Billy’s mother is killed by a stray bullet during a gunfight (9:44). Billy then kills the man responsible for his mother’s death and goes on the run, living the life of an outlaw.

9:42 Part 3 — The scene shifts to several years in the future. Billy is an outlaw living in the desert, playing cards with his companions at night. The solo trumpet (11:57) portrays the Kid as a lonely character.

13:17 Part 4 — Billy finds himself in a gunfight with a posse charged with arresting him. Billy is captured and taken to jail.

15:11 Part 5 — People celebrate the capture of Billy the Kid. During the celebration, the Kid kills two guards (18:30) and escapes from jail.

17:26 Part 6 — Billy, alone on the prairie, is hunted by Pat Garrett and shot dead.

18:46 Part 7 — The opening theme returns with Sheriff Pat Garrett leading pioneers westward across the open prairie.