Cowboy Buddy Meets The Blues

April 16, 2023

Cowboy Buddy Meets The Blues

A Short Story


R.E. Prindle

The United States us usually spoken of as one country while it is not; the US isn’t even uniformity of culture within each State.  The country is a diversity.  The races have different agendas, the nationalities can barely speak to each other knowingly.  Class divisions while denied are one of the most prominent features of the US. 

To take only one State as an example, Michigan, In Michigan its metropolis is Detroit which has nothing in common with upstate, or the Upper Peninsula , the East Side or the West side of the State.  Indeed, at one time the dividing line between Eastern Standard Time and Central Standard Time ran right through the middle od the State.  One foot could exist at 10:00 o’ clock and the other foot at 9:00.

Saginaw the key city of the Saginaw Bay has nothing in common with Grand Rapids of the West.  My head was in Michigan and my feet were in Del Rio Texas and my belly button in Waterloo Iowa where the great country radio stations were..  I was a son of Dixie though I had never been below the Mason-Dixon line.

California is an entirely different country, once briefly one, to any other State in the Union, it includes Oregon to the North and Arizona to it’s East, all enclosing Nevada.

The populations themselves were diverse and unrelated to each other as different as Black and White.  Religions are so different that they can’t speak to each other.  Even the climates are total contradictions, deserts and swamps, hot and cold.  Cold. And that brings us to our story.

Minnesota, contains the northern most point of the Lower Forty-Eight, and if not the coldest there can only be a miniscule difference from second place.  The winters in Minnesota are cold and brutal while seemingly interminable.  Up there a few miles from the Canadian border is the little town of Hibbing.  Sixteen thousand people strong.   It sits at the center of the 110 mile long Mesabi Iron Range.

The Mesabi is the greatest open pit range in the world. When it became too difficult to follow the subterranean ore veins they just ripped the top off and dug it up wholesale.  A pit train runs up and down the range a couple hundred feet down into the bowels of the earth.  Then in the fifties of the twentieth the high grade ore was depleted. This is the time this story takes place  They took most of it to Europe for the big wars and blew it up.

The pit yawns empty but the rains are slowiy filling this great gash in the earth.  It may one day be the smallest of the great lakes.

It was there in Hibbing in 1941 that a child was born, a boy child. As he lay there in the cradle he was christened Shmuelly Sabbatai Goldenbargain, a little Jewish lad.  He would not remain Shmuelly all his life but a different name under which he would become of world renown, from this little place in the wilds of Minnesota that barely merited a name, Hibbing, Minnesota.  Ask someone to find that place on the map.

Shmuelly’s people in the 1950s numbered about four hundred, but they ran the town which was mainly Scandinavian and Christian.  Shmuelly’s family owned the businesses from movie theaters to heavy equipment.  His father operated the town’s grocery store that, as a monopoly did very well, unfortunately his father’s three brothers were partner’s so the profits were divided four ways, but Shmuelly’s father managed the money.

Enough of this background.

I think you have the scene sitting pretty well in your mind, except for one thing, the main drag through town was a hundred yards wide, nearly as big as a four lane highway giving it a kind of ‘High Noon’ quality.

If it’s alright we’ll call Shmuelly by the name he would take for his career as a musician.  I’ll start calling his Buddy, his ‘real’ name, that which he would legally adopt was Cowboy Buddy Wright, but I’ll drop the Cowboy part of his moniker until it’s time.

Hibbing is a school town, education is very important.  The magnificent high school, you’d have to see it to believe it,  contained all grades from kindergarten through twelfth.  That building is a real monument, as glorious as a castle, so Buddy knew his whole class for twelve years while many of us changed our schools several times.  There were never any fresh faces for Buddy.

Buddy’s father was an Orthodox Jew even though the synagogue was Reformed.  His father led the Anti-Defamation League in town.  He ruled with an iron hand.  His dad’s name was really Abram but he was known as Jack at both the synagogue and the lodge.  He was the leading member of the congregation, made frequent trips to New York City, that is Brooklyn, while his mother lived downstate  in the St. Louis Park suburb of Minneapolis that Buddy often visited, sometimes for relatively lengthy stays when things heated up between Jack and Ester.

Buddy was one of the kids who didn’t fit in it and wasn’t just because he was Jewish, he was also intellectually from a different planet, or living on a different plane.  I put no negative meaning to his being Jewish but his family and people maintained a strict distance from the town folk.  They cherished their separateness.  And they owned the town.  Everyone acknowledged that and they quietly resented it because the family shut out all competition. As a result Buddy was a shy little lad and developed a forlorn expression.   The boys all laughed at him and the girls too.  Could give a kid a complex and it did Buddy.  It’s not easy to be forced to the outside where life’s greatest tragedy awaited him.

I’ll skip the description and get to the tragedy with maybe a couple of back flashes.  All Buddy’s friends, meaning few, were outsiders like him, even his girl friend Sweet Sue.  Sue’s father was a handyman, possible rum runner at one time there on the border, for certain adventures over the state border in Superior, Wisconsin, a city infected by the mob, as his family lived above their visible means.  The means were slight but noticeable, so above doesn’t mean much.

But Sue’s father was the righteous sort, he had a fabulous Country and Western record collection, LPs, and they didn’t come from Buddy’s cousin’s record store, he must have gotten them downstate.

So, let’s skip a decade.  We’re now in late 1958, late meaning that every thing but the air was frozen solid and you had to spoon that into your nostrils.  It was in the midnight hour.  Buddy and Sue were meandering down that wide main street, she holding his hand in her coat pocket when they drifted over to the Masonic Temple.  Stepping into the recessed doorway to get to get out of the wind, Buddy mused that they had a nice grand piano inside that he had always wanted to play.

‘Why don’t we in and do it Shmuelly, I’ll dance.’ Said Sweet Sue.

‘But the door’s locked, Honey.’  Buddy pointed out.

‘Oh, that’s no problem.’  Sue said, pulling a jackknife from her pocket while in a deft move she inserted the tip of the blade and popped the lock.  I did say she was an outsider, didn’t I?  Buddy gaped but it was like magic.  When his eyes focused next he was standing in front of the piano, Little Richard style.  Now for the heartbreaking part; this is where Buddy’s life took a left turn.  He slid into ecstasy  hardly knowing what he was doing.  He hammered the keys and began to play.

Buddy had been a Little Richard fan from day one when Little Richard’s scream rent the air from the radio:  Oop Bop a luna…it rattled your brain and shook your nerves, a new person was born in that instant. Little Richard had burst on the scene like Jack from his box. 

That entry into society was alone a life changing event.  The circus had come to town.  Even today if you were there the memory will still slay you.  People who didn’t grow up with the music won’t understand.

Buddy put his hand on the keys and hammered them as hard as he could then began screaming Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti as loud as he could.  Sweet Sue shrilled jumping on the piano to do a go go dance.  This went on for ten minutes until Buddy and Sue simultaneously focusing their eyes saw two gentlemen in blue standing there with grim looks on their faces.

‘We weren’t doing anything.’ Buddy bleated.

‘It’s called breaking and entering.’ The policeman said.  ‘It’s a crime.’

They put the cuffs and Buddy and Sue and marched them to the station which was just around the block.  Sue was dismissed for being a girl although she was the one who actually broke in.  Buddy was marched to a holding cell while his father was notified that his son was downtown in the can.  He was in the jailhouse now.  Shades of James Dean in ‘Rebel Without A Cause.’

So, now, Buddy came hard up against the wall.  Jack and Ethel were aghast.  Certain members of the city smiled a little glow of satisfaction.  They were not only getting one of them, but the chief instigator.  This fly in every ointment.  Buddy who in his real life sometimes had his real name pronounced ‘Smelly’ because Shmuelly was too hard to say and damn hard to spell didn’t have the best reputation.

In fact, he seemed to be known in Duluth where a newspaper reporter called Walter Eldot even wrote an article about the arrest saying that the Iron Range didn’t need characters like Shmuelly.  Of course both Hibbing and Duluth were backwoods towns where the news of Rock and Roll was received with extreme distaste.  Perry Como was much more honored.  And Buddy’s performance of Little Richard at the school assembly had terrified nearly all, the news of which had reached Duluth, ruined Buddy’s reputation forever…and ever.

And there was that one time he ran down that kid when passing down the street on his Harley, but the kid had darted out between two cars so it wasn’t like Shmuelly had been careless.  Still it had cost father Jack four hundred dollars to fix it.  That would have been forty thousand in today’s dollars.

Buddy didn’t dress other that middle class, no black denim trousers, motorcycle boots with a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back.  But he still became a bohemian to the old folks.  Perhaps, Eldot did overstate though.

Jack tried to fix this new charge but not only was the price out of range, the faux pas was unfixable.  What the heck it was a first offence, the alibi was reasonable enough for a couple kids, maybe a couple keys did have to be replaced on the piano but how much did that cost.   Buddy was cold irons bound.  He was sent to Redwing Reformatory School down on Highway 61.  The fabled route from the Canadian border down to the Gulf of Mexico.  Riding downstate  toward Minneapolis in the police cruiser Buddy was in a daze remembering  when he received the sentence that Jack couldn’t fix but was at least limited to his eighteenth year a few months away in May.  Jack was able to arrange things so that Shmuelly could graduate with his class.

Buddy might have been able to handle that but his own father Jack Goldenbargain stood him up and sternly advised that the a son could become so defiled that even his father would reject him but that God in his mercy would redeem him if in his future life he followed the straight and narrow.  And then his mother turned on him.  Lordy, lordy.  Stressed and half dead he got into the police cruiser for the drive down highway 61 to Redwing.  His body was tied in knots, his stomach churning, his brain whirling.  Buddy could remember nothing of the next few days until he woke up one morning to realize that he was in prison.  His soul had died but his body lived on in a miserable second birth.

The next year or so was just a hazy mirage that was never clear in his mind.  The most apt description of this horrible period that I’ve found was recorded in a couple songs by the current recording artist Bob Dylan who was a schoolmate of Buddy’s in Hibbing although they a=had never known each other, unaware that the other existed.  Just as Buddy chose a musical and performing career so did Mr. Dylan, they both went on to great success in what might be called parallel careers they were so similar.

Mr. Dylan captured Buddy’s moment in one song called ‘The Chimes of Freedom’ and the other ‘Highway 61 Revisited’  in which he surely must have had Buddy in mind.  These two songs match Buddy’s experience too closely and so sympathetically that one must believe that Mr. Dylan, the same age and a schoolmate, watched Buddy in his plight carefully, almost putting himself in Buddy’s shoes.  At any rate, in later life, Buddy would play these two songs until the groove’s wore out.  The whole first song stirred Buddy to his chill but most especially this verse:  ‘The Chimes of Freedom’ flashing


Starry eyed and laughing as I recall when we were caught

Trapped by no track of hours for they hang suspended

As we listened one last time an’ we watched with one last look

Spellbound an’ swallowed ‘till the tolling ended.

Tolling for the aching whose wounds cannot be nursed

For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung out ones an’ worse

An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe

An’ we gazed upon the chimes  of freedom flashing.

Yes, Mr. Dylan hit Buddy’s plight on the button.  As Buddy sat shocked, morose and crushed in a bottomless depression he ruminated on those feelings if not in those words to numb even to cry.  He and Sue would never meet again for she was as devastated as he if not more so.  And then stunned when Buddy refused to see her ever again.  Never again, never again, without even a last goodbye.  Just, boom, out of her life.

Of course, Buddy was not yet able  consciously to put his misery into such words as those of Mr. Dylan that might have been some consolation.  His other care even more debilitating than Sweet Sue was what he considered his father’s betrayal.  Buddy conveniently forgot his aggravations to his father including the motorcycle incident of which his arrest capped the climax but his mind was captured by the image of Abraham in the Bible about to sacrifice his son just as God stayed his hand and saved the son.

No god saved Buddy.  A few years later when he heard Mr. Dylan’s line from the song Highway 61 Revisited, ‘And God said kill me a son’, and Abe answered, Where you want this killing done?’, and God said, ‘Out on highway 61.’  There was none to spare poor Buddy.  No.  It was the midnight of his soul.  He died the death.  He now spoke of his former existence.  He had been searching for an identity to relieve him of him of the lesser self of being Shmuelly Goldenbargain and he found it in prison.

He entered Redwing as Shmuelly Goldenbargain and left in a nebulous state of being Cowboy Buddy Wright.  It would look better on the marquee anyway.  All the Jews did it for that reason.

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