December 1, 2018

Duke Ellington, The Nutcracker Suite (1960)

Duke Ellington's Nutcracker Suite works on me like a time machine. I’d call it nostalgia, but I was only four years old when it was first recorded. At that age I had little knowledge of a world beyond my family and home. I certainly had no awareness of Duke Ellington.

I did not begin listening to Ellington until I was in my twenties, and I should probably be waxing nostalgic about the 1980s when I first fell in love with Ellington's music rather than a time when Eisenhower was president. However, that is not how Ellington's music affects me. It does not take me back to a time in my own life when I first discovered the music's soulful elegance, it takes me to the time of its recording, a time when big band music was an integral part of American culture.

My faux nostalgia therefore comes from a longing for an era when Ellington's music was heard with ears more acclimated to big band music. I yearn to hear Ellington's music as an unalloyed product of its time, to hear it without the iconic adulation that came from a later age. I am envious of those who heard Ellington's music when it was first performed, before it was reshaped by familiarity. How groundbreaking and imaginative it must have sounded when it was new.

In 1965, a music jury voted to make Ellington the first African American and first jazz artist to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The Pulitzer committee, to its everlasting shame, refused to accept the recommendation and decided not to give an award for music that year rather than recognize Ellington. Not until 1996 was an African-American (George Walker) awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music. In 1997, Wynton Marsalis became the first person to win a Pulitzer for composing jazz.

“Critics have their purposes, and they're supposed to do what they do, but sometimes they get a little carried away with what they think someone should have done, rather than concerning themselves with what they did."
– Duke Ellington

The Nutcracker Suite, arranged by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn,
performed by ARC Studio Jazz Ensemble & The Sacramento Jazz Orchestra

The Nutcracker Suite, performed by Steven Richman conducting the Harmonie Ensemble,
followed by a performance by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

© 2018 James L. Smith

November 24, 2018

Herbie Mann

I know nothing about Herbie Mann as a human being. I know only his music. 

His recordings tell me nothing about his family, personal temperament, or worldview. They inform me only of his skills as a musician — his ability to improvise and perform in sync with other musicians, his ability to remain true to the harmonic progressions that underscored his solos and the syncopated rhythms that propelled him forward.  The recordings tell me nothing about whether he was a great guy or a rascal, and I don’t really care. His music makes me smile, and that's enough.

Herbie Mann died in 2003 at his home in Pecos, NM. His music has brought me great joy over the years, and I still mourn his loss.  

Bless you, Herbie Mann. Whether you were a saint, a demon, or just a regular guy, may you rest in peace. As a jazz musician, you were, for this former flute player, a demigod. 

The Family of Mann performing “Memphis Underground,” 1982

Newport Jazz Festival, 1989

November 21, 2018

The Convalescent's Soul: Beethoven's Opus 132 (1825)

"[Beethoven's] last quartets testify to a veritable growth of consciousness, to a higher degree of consciousness, probably than is manifested anywhere else in art." 
J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Journey  

"You never get to the bottom of [Beethoven’s quartets]; they may be the most single profound statement that any human being ever contributed to the world of art."
– Peter Oundjian, violinist and conductor (Toronto Symphony Orchestra)

Take the quotes above as an example of the well-deserved and universal praise for Beethoven’s late string quartets. The maestro’s last five quartets (Nos. 12-16) plus the Grosse Fuge, which was originally composed as a finale for No. 13, have received almost universal recognition as some of the greatest music ever composed.

Beethoven began composing the quartets at the request of Prince Nikolaus Galitzin, an amateur cellist from the Russian aristocracy. Galitzin loved Beethoven’s music and offered fifty ducats for each of three quartets. Two years after Galitzin made his offer Beethoven delivered what the prince had requested — three quartets — and was only paid for one. Even so, Beethoven wrote two more quartets and a different finale for No. 13. No one had asked him to write the new music, and he composed it with no commission. One can’t help but feel that Beethoven had discovered something to say with the first three quartets and felt compelled to get the rest of his ideas written down. Whether or not he was paid seems to have made no difference, and the quartets serve as one of history’s greatest examples of art that was created for the sake of art.

As with any music containing as much content as Beethoven’s late quartets, listeners must do some research and expose themselves to repeated hearings. Rest assured, however, that the time invested in Beethoven’s late quartets will provide tremendous rewards.

If you are new to the quartets, I recommend beginning with the Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132. Although Beethoven composed it as the second of his late quartets, it was published as the fourth and is therefore labeled No. 15.

Listen to Opus 132 and think of it as an exploration of the universal human struggle against both physical and spiritual pain. The first, third, and fifth movements provide the greatest intellectual and emotional challenges, while the second and fourth movements provide time aways from those challenges. If you have never heard the quartet, the third movement is the one that is most likely to catch your attention. The movement shows a spiritual side to Beethoven that allowed him to create one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed.

Beethoven titled the third movement, “Holy Song of Thanksgiving by a Convalescent to the Divinity in the Lydian Mode.” The title speaks volumes about what is in the music.

First, the Lydian mode heard in much of the movement was used in medieval church music to represent healing and recovery. If you are a musician, think of the Lydian mode as a major scale with a raised fourth. If you are not a musician, think of the Lydian mode as sounding “bright,” somewhat like music in a major key.

Second, the movement is a hymn of Thanksgiving that Beethoven composed after surviving an illness in April 1825 that almost killed him (possibly Crohn’s disease). The movement was a product of Beethoven's premonitions of death.

Third, take note that Beethoven describes himself in the title as a “convalescent.” He had suffered for years from health problems that were most likely a result of lead poisoning. And, as almost everyone knows, Beethoven was deaf, an affliction that caused him also to suffer from the devastating pain of loneliness.

As Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon writes in Late Beethoven, “He was a deaf composer, painfully confined within an ever-darkening inner space.” In reference to Beethoven describing himself as a "convalescent," Solomon states, “the invalid is another kind of prisoner, afflicted and weary, in whom there is need to cross a threshold, or to awaken from a frightening dream. The invalid, too, yearns for an open space, looks upward to the presumed realm of the deity. Beethoven’s sufferer — later convalescent — prays for deliverance more from a sickness of the soul than of the body.”

Watch the animated recording I’ve embedded below and notice how the music moves back and forth from a hymn of thanksgiving to an expression of joy for being alive. 

0:10 — Hymn of Thanksgiving 
This section explores the world of the spirit. It is composed in the Lydian mode and employs few flats and sharps.

3:10 — Interlude
This section explores the world of the flesh. The music in this section is highly chromatic.

5:08 — Hymn of Thanksgiving

8:35 — Interlude

10:34 – Hymn of Thanksgiving

15:16 – Coda

Beethoven, String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, Third Movement
Performed by the Alexander String Quartet, graphical score by Stephen Maliinowski

If you have not yet heard all of Beethoven’s late quartets, I urge you to check out the graphical scores at

Happy Holidays!

September 13, 2018

Carl Orff, Carmina Burana (1937)

The ubiquitous presence of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” in movies, television shows, and even commercials makes it difficult to imagine that someone has never heard it. Although it might sound a little spooky or devilish, it is actually part of a larger piece of music based on a collection of twelfth-century poems about the pleasures of love, nature, and alcohol. The piece is titled Carmina Burana (Songs of Beuern), and “O Fortuna serves as an introduction and coda to the piece. 

Here’s the lyrics to “O Fortuna" to follow as you listen to the video below. I have also embedded a playlist of Carmina Burana in its entirety. 

O Fortuna, (O Fortune,)
velt luna  (like the moon)
statu variabilis, (you are changeable,)
semper crescis aut decrescis; (ever waxing and waning;)
vita detestabilis (hateful life)
nunc obdurat et tunc curat (first oppresses and then soothes)
ludo mentis aciem; (as fancy takes it;)
egestatem, potestatem (poverty and power)
dissolvit ut glaciem. (it melts them like ice.)

Sors immanis et inanis, (Fate — monstrous and empty,)
rota tu volubilis, (you whirling wheel,)
status malus, (you are malevolent,)
vana salus (well-being is vain)
semper dissolubilis, (and always fades to nothing,)
obumbrata et velata (shadowed and veiled)
michi quoque niteris; (you plague me too;)
nunc per ludum (now through the game)
dorsum nundum (I bring my bare back)
fero tui sceleris. (to your villainy._

Sors salutis (Fate is against me)
et virtutis (in health)
michi nun contraria, (and virtue)
est affectus et defectus, (driven on and weighted down,)
semper in angaria. (always enslaved.)

Hac in hora (So at this hour)
sine mora (without delay)
corde pulsum tangite; (pluck the vibrating strings;)
quod per sortem  (since Fate)
sternit fortem, (strikes down the strong man,)
mecum omnes plangit! (everyone weep with me!)

September 4, 2018

Grieg, Piano Concerto in A minor (1868)

Edvard Grieg stood only five feet tall and composed music while sitting on copies of Beethoven’s piano sonatas so he could reach the keyboard. His diminutive size, however, did not keep him from writing titanic music, as evident in his Piano Concerto in A minor. Except for the Peer Gynt Suite, the piano concerto is probably Grieg’s most well-known composition — and it’s a beauty. The great Franz Liszt performed it in Rome and made recommendations to Grieg for revising the score. Grieg responded by telling Liszt that he had performed the first movement too fast. 

Arthur Rubinstein (piano) with André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra

00:00 – First Movement
14:25 – Second Movement
21:32 – Third Movement

Grieg died on September 4, 1907, and his ashes were interred outside his home in Bergen, Norway. The photo below of his gravesite was taken by yours truly three years ago when I had the wonderful opportunity to tour Grieg's home. 

August 30, 2018

Guthrie, Rimbaud, and Billy the Kid

I often find legends and myths about Billy the Kid more fascinating than the so-called factual narratives of his life So little is actually known about William H. Bonney, that I read most histories of his life with a suspicious mind, and the novels, television shows, and movies are sometimes more interesting than the history books. 

Someone with a creative mind might, for example, begin with these lines from Woody Guthrie's song "Billy the Kid" and tell a complicated and transfixing story.

There's many a man with a face fine and fair
Who starts out in life with a chance to be square,
But just like poor Billy he wanders astray
And loses his life in the very same way.

Someone might even take these lines from the "The Seven-Year-Old Poet" by Arthur Rimbaud, a French writer who most likely never heard of William H. Bonney, and create a new and compelling myth of the Kid's life.

And so the Mother, shutting up the duty book, 
Went, proud and satisfied. She did not see the look 
In the blue eyes, or how with secret loathing wild, 
Beneath the prominent brow, a soul raged in her child.

Long after all of us who are alive today are gone, people will still be telling stories about Billy the Kid.

That's all ... 

The lyric quoted above is not used in this version of Woody Guthrie's song.

August 26, 2018

Arvo Pärt, Spiegel im Spiegel (1978)

People who don’t think they like classical music will probably say they like the music of Arvo Pärt (b. 1935). He is a deeply spiritual man, who composes music that works as a form of prayer, music that can make you look inside yourself and find something good.

In the piece I have embedded below, Pärt provides music that defines “stillness.” It contains no moments of conflict and works as a benign counterpoint to the noise of the modern world. “Spiegel im Spiegel” translates from German into “mirror in mirror,” the perfect title for a piece of music that should feel as if you want it to go on forever.

Leonhard Roczek (cello) and Herbert Schuch (piano)

August 25, 2018

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein's contributions to educating people about classical music in general and Gustav Mahler in particular are legendary. For almost fifty years he brought a depth of passion to the musical masterworks he conducted that touched audiences around the world. If only he had been able to live two lifetimes so that he could have given us even more original compositions. 

(Bernstein was born on this date 100 years ago.)

Bernstein, "Simple Song" from Mass (1971)
Joseph Kolinski (baritone)

Bernstein, score for On the Waterfront (1954)
(The music begins at 2:53.)

Bernstein, "Mambo!" from West Side Story (1957)
Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra

August 21, 2018

Billy the Kid and The Westerners of Silver City

I recently made a presentation to The Westerners of Silver City, NM. Although I spoke extemporaneously, the gist of what I said can be found in this blog. 


If you live in southern New Mexico, you have certainly seen the iconic image of Billy the Kid standing with his rifle next. You simply cannot avoid bumping into something to do with Billy the Kid. The Kid is our claim to fame. We cannot escape him. People from all over the world travel to this part of the world to visit Billy the Kid country.

I have lived in southern New Mexico all my life, and there’s no way to count the number of times I have eaten and shopped in businesses named after Billy the Kid. Like thousands of other people who grew up in this part of the world, I wrote reports about Billy the Kid when I was in school. For me, and probably everyone else in this room, Billy the Kid is part of our cultural DNA.

I’ll also say that my personal interest in Billy the Kid comes from my experiences as a high school teacher. Over my thirty years in the classroom, I taught lots of Billy the Kids. Those of you who are teachers can probably relate to what I am saying, especially if you look at what those who knew Billy the Kid in Silver City said about him in later years. Keep in mind that when he moved to Silver City he was only thirteen years old

Those who knew him at that time generally described him as a well-mannered and likable young man. He enjoyed music and performed in musical theater. He enjoyed reading. It was said he wasn’t as bad as the other boys in town and that he came from a good American home. His teacher said he always helped with chores around the school. She also said he had an artistic nature. He evidently loved his mother, and those who knew her described her as a "jolly Irish woman" who would do anything for her sons. The Kid’s mother died of consumption when he was only fourteen years old — and the rest is history. Without the guidance of a loving mother he ended up on the wrong side of the law.

I’m certain that those of you who have taught school have known students who were smart, likable, and cooperative, students who could have done something good with their lives, but circumstances sent them down the wrong path.

And that’s the story I’ve tried to tell in my novel Catherine's Son. I wanted to tell the story of what might happen to make a good boy go bad. I used the historical record dealing with the years the Kid lived in Silver City as the framework for my book and then I fleshed out the story by simply making stuff up, which I assume is the approach any writer takes when writing historical fiction.

And I make no bones about my book being a work of fiction.

In the end, it’s difficult for the scholars to write about Billy the Kid, because we actually know so little about most of his life, and what we do know is often nothing more than myth.

Even so, the myths about Billy the Kid are endlessly fascinating.

For those of you who don’t know his story, let me take a moment and go over it. Even though much of what happened to the Kid is open to debate, what I’ll tell you is the standard, traditional story that has served as a foundation for an uncountable number of other stories created from his life.
  • William Henry McCarty was born in New York in 1859. Nothing is known about his father, but, as the story goes, his widowed mother took him and his brother west after the Civil War. His mother then raised the two boys on her own while operating her own businesses in Indiana and Kansas before she moved to Silver City in the New Mexico Territory.
  • While living in Silver City the Kid’s mother died of consumption. The Kid was fourteen and left alone to survive in a lawless and violent society. He got into trouble after his mother died and got arrested for stealing from a laundry. He then escaped from his jail cell by crawling up a chimney and heading toward Arizona. He was only fifteen when he left Silver City.
  • In Arizona, he became a horse thief. He also killed his first man in a bar fight, probably in self defense. He then returned to New Mexico and joined a gang of cattle rustlers and thieves. He also changed his name to William H. Bonney. Those who knew him called him "Billy" or "Kid." He wasn’t known as Billy the Kid until the newspapers created that name for him about six months before he died.
  • Within a few weeks after returning to New Mexico, he moved to Lincoln County in the eastern part of the Territory. In Lincoln, he 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 an organization called the The House. The House was a ruthless group of businessmen who had monopolized almost all business activity in Lincoln County. The House also had the support of a group of powerful businessmen and politicians who ran the entire New Mexico Territory, a group that was known as the Santa Fe Ring. After The House assassinated John Tunstall, the Kid found himself fighting in a war of revenge those who ran Lincoln County and the New Mexico Territory.
  • After the Lincoln County war seemingly ended with the defeat of Tunstall’s forces, the Kid would not give up and kept fighting, making himself a nuisance by rustling livestock from his enemies. In an attempt to put his life on the right side of the law, however, the Kid made a deal with the Governor of New Mexico, agreeing to testify in open court against allies of The House. In return, the governor offered him a pardon for any crimes he had committed. The Kid kept his part of the bargain and testified. Even so, the governor never granted the Kid a pardon.
  • Meanwhile, newspapers that were in cahoots with The Santa Fe Ring began portraying the Kid as the worst of the worst in the New Mexico Territory. The Kid became a scapegoat for everything wrong in New Mexico and a symbol for the lawlessness of the American West.
  • The Kid was eventually arrested and sentenced to hang, making him the only person convicted of a crime for actions committed during the Lincoln County War. However, in a daring escape in which he killed two guards, the Kid left his jail cell in Lincoln only a few days before his execution. He then found refuge among his friends and supporters near Fort Sumner.
  • Three months after he escaped from jail the Kid walked into a dark room at midnight where he was ambushed and shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett. The story goes that Billy the Kid was only twenty-one years old when he died, but historians are not certain. He may have been as young as nineteen.
All told, the Kid gave us one heck of a story! 

What happened to him has provided novelists, filmmakers, playwrights, and artists of all types with a mythic tale that can take a variety of forms. The Kid can be portrayed as a good boy gone bad or a boy who was born bad — bad to the bone. He can be portrayed as a cowardly punk, a black-hearted villain, a rebel without a cause, or a young hero — the American Robin Hood. His myth works any way you want to tell it, and his myth is as strong today as when he died 137 years ago.

Recently, I have made my living as an education consultant. In short, I train teachers to teach history, and a central theme of my workshops is that history teachers should not only provide students with historical information, they should also help students learn to think historically. It may sound odd, but Billy the Kid has become an essential element in the workshops I lead. The Kid’s story is perfectly designed to help students learn to think historically.

Historical thinking involves much more than I can really explain today, but let me give you an example of a few ways that I use Billy the Kid to teach historical thinking.

First, historical thinking entails the ability to ask questions. All historical research begins with a question of curiosity. History teachers should therefore routinely ask students, “What questions do you have? What do you wish you knew more about?”

And there’s no better way to help students learn to ask questions than to tell them about Billy the Kid. Almost anything you say about Billy the Kid generates more questions than historians can possibly answer. Our knowledge and understanding of the Kid’s life is so incomplete that students quickly learn to understand a standard rule for all historians — you must be able to tolerate uncertainty.

For historical thinkers, the Kid’s life is also a good lesson in contextual thinking. Good historians learn to place documents and artifacts from the past in historical context. Historians know they must place people from the past in the context of the world in which they lived. Billy the Kid lived in New Mexico in the 1870s, and it is impossible to understand him without understanding the society in which he lived.

During the Lincoln County War Billy the Kid was only eighteen years old and the men allied against him were the wealthiest and most powerful men in New Mexico. He also lived in New Mexico at a time when it had the highest murder rate of any state or territory in the nation. New Mexico had .2% of the population of the United States and 15% of the murders, and most of those murders were never prosecuted or punished. At least, they were not punished within the law. Billy the Kid certainly killed his share of men, but he also lived in an environment where killing was commonplace.

Another element of learning to think historically is learning to recognize how things change over time. Documents from the past change meanings according to the time in which they are studied. If you read a book from the 1920s about the Civil War, it will reveal more to you more about the 1920s than the Civil War. It will certainly give you a different version of the Civil War than books written in the twenty-first century.

The story we tell about Billy the Kid, like any story from the past, has gone through several transformations. The stories told about the Kid in the 1890s are much different from the stories we tell today. What’s important to keep in mind is that whenever the stories are told they always reflect the time in which they are created.

Let’s take an innocuous historical statement such as “Pat Garrett killed Billy the Kid,” and let’s examine how responses to that statement might have changed over the last 130 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 with a gun. Many Americans at the end of the nineteenth century were looking forward to an end of the Code of the West and the development of a modern and civilized urban society. Americans wanted nothing to do with people like Billy the Kid who settled their problems through anarchy and violence.

If I had said, “Garrett killed the Kid,” in the late-1920s or 1930s, I would have received a much different response. During that time, the Kid was generally portrayed as a hero. On the jacket of a bestselling book about the Kid, published in 1926, the Kid was described as the “Robin Hood of the Mesas.” In 1930, a movie film about Billy the Kid starring Johnny Mack, an All-American football player 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 doesn't kill the Kid and lets him escape to Mexico with the girl he loves.

The way the Kid’s story was told in the late-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.

If I said, “Garrett killed the Kid” in the 1950s or 1960s, I would probably get a response that provided some version of how the “system” or the “establishment” always wins — some version of how the good die young. During that time, the Kid was portrayed as a rebel without a cause, a James Dean or Marlon Brando of the Old West.

And what happens when I say, “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. It either sets off an argument over whether the Kid was a hero or villain or questions about whether the Kid actually died in 1881. Someone always asks me, “Didn’t Billy the Kid die in Hico, Texas, in the 1950s?” To me, these reactions reflect how polarized we seem to be in modern times over every issue. The reactions also reflect how many people are likely to see conspiracy and coverup in any official story.

As I said before, I find Billy the Kid endlessly fascinating. For those of us who live in this part of the world, he is part of our culture and we cannot escape his presence.

As for where the Kid’s myth goes next, your guess is as good as mine. Wherever it goes, the new myths created from the Kid’s story will certainly reflect the changes in our world.

I am also certain that wherever the myth of Billy the Kid goes, it will not go away. Long after all of us in this room are gone, people will still be telling stories about Billy the Kid.

Silver City, NM

August 4, 2018

Debussy, Préludes (1910, 1913)

"Music is the silence between the notes." 
– Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy, a French composer known for his revolutionary use of melody, harmony, and timbre wanted a piano to sound as if it were "floating" and had no hammers. In his Préludes for solo piano, published as two books in 1910 and 1913, he composed twenty-four pieces that each create a different mood and sound. I have embedded a recording of the Préludes performed by the pianist Krystian Zimerman, a recording that, for me, perfectly captures the impressionistic spirit of Debussy. (You may need the Spotify web player or app to listen to the Préludes from the embedded playlist.)

As a bonus, I have also embedded an arrangement for five cellos of "The Girl with the Flaxen Hair," the eighth prelude of the first book, and an orchestral version of "Fireworks", the twelfth prelude of the second book. 

"The Girl with the Flaxen Hair," SAKURA cello quintet

"Fireworks," Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Phlharmoniker
Animation by Victor Craven

August 3, 2018

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.

Billy the Kid's Home in Silver City
(according to some sources)
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 report 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 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.”

Billy the Kid's mother?
(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. 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


© 2013 James L. Smith