Searching for the real Davy Crockett

Michael E. Young / The Dallas Morning News /

“Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road With Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier” by Bob Thompson; Crown (384 pages, $27)

Bob Thompson’s fascination with Davy Crockett began in the family car, on a 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 along the way. 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.

It turns out that 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. Crockett, a pretty fair amateur public relations man, gave them plenty to work with.

Thompson spent a year on his quest, “my year of walking where Crockett walked,” he writes.

And along the way, he ran into a series of generous folks who patiently detailed Crockett’s history in their part of the old frontier, although history might be better defined as local tradition.

The difficulty, Thompson found, is getting hard facts. There are some from Crockett’s later years, especially his years in politics.

Even his final great act, volunteering to fight for the Texans in their rebellion against Mexico, can be murky.

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, clubbing enemy soldiers with his long rifle, his ammunition long gone. But other accounts paint a far different end.

In the end, Thompson writes, Crockett’s tale is both history and myth, and the trouble is separating the two.

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