Rupert Cornwell: Farewell to Davy Crockett – and the wild frontier

Out of America: When Fess Parker died in California last week, part of an innocent, earlier era passed with him

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Fess Parker died at the age of 85 last week, and with him died a part of me and surely every other early babyboomer. When I was a lad, in England in the 1950s, life during the school holidays seemed to largely revolve around American Western shows on the television. How avidly we watched them on the crackly old black-and-white sets of the day: Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, with Cassidy in his black suit, The Cisco Kid and, closing out that blessed era, the first series of Bonanza and Rawhide, with the young Rowdy Yates in the last named played by an impossibly fresh-faced Clint Eastwood.

Even now, reminders of those times thrill. A year or two ago, I visited the Petersen car museum in Los Angeles, one of the city's unsung wonders, and it all came flooding back. There stood a magnificent 1948 Chrysler Town and Country convertible. It had belonged to Leo Carrillo, who, aficionados will know, played Poncho, the ever-cheerful sidekick to Duncan Renaldo's Cisco Kid. They would end each episode by saluting each other – "Ey, Poncho", "Ey, Cisco" – and galloping off into the sunset.

The car was in mint condition, shiny and glistening, painted the sandy palomino colour of Carrillo's pony. Best of all were the steer's head mounted on the bonnet, with eyes that lit up at night, and the horn that, when you honked it, bellowed like a bull. They don't make 'em like that any more.

But the best show of the lot, for a brief and wondrous interlude, was Davy Crockett, courtesy of Disney. Maybe it was because there were so few episodes – only five of them, as I recall. But the biggest reason was Fess Parker, a rangy hunk in a raccoon-skin cap, who played the frontiersman and hero who died at the Alamo in 1836.

Parker never went on to be a Clint Eastwood (though he might have done if Disney hadn't stopped him taking a serious role in that greatest of all big-screen Westerns, John Ford's The Searchers). But we young fans cared nothing about that. We just revelled in the Crockett persona – and, of course, in that song.

The Parker/Crockett phenomenon was extraordinary. It barely extended beyond the single year of 1955; by 1957 it was virtually forgotten. But at the time, as Parker later told the Los Angeles Times: "If I may immodestly say, it was bigger than anything, ever, including the Beatles and Elvis."

Every other child wanted a Crockett buckskin shirt, Crockett-style moccasins and a toy Crockett rifle. Most of all, they wanted a coonskin cap. I doubt my enthusiasm extended that far. But here, at the height of the craze, the price of racoon fur shot up from 25 cents a pound to $8. Total sales of Davy Crockett merchandise hit an astounding $300m ($2bn or more today).

And then there was "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" – maddeningly catchy even now. The song spent 13 straight weeks on top of the US hit parade, and its words, in those drab post-war years in England, made America sound the most exotic and heroic place on earth.

The opening line, "Born on a mountain top in Tennessee", alone was enough. These days you associate Tennessee with worthy, rather dull entities such as FedEx and Al Gore. But for us then, the place might have been Timbuktu. And in Crockett's time it really was "the wild frontier", home of the warrior president, Andrew Jackson, and nicknamed "The Volunteer State" for the number of soldiers it sent to America's early wars, including the 1812 dust-up with the British.

"The greenest state in the land of the free," the song continues, long before anyone dreamt of an environmental movement. Rather, you can argue Davy Crockett was one of the earliest "Disneyfications" of US history: the pioneer hero turned into an embodiment of America's original virtues, the "buckskin buccaneer" and "champion of us all".

These were the days before the Wild West, when little Davy, as the ballad has it, was "raised in the woods so he knew every tree", and "killed him a bear when he was only three". An exaggeration, we must presume, but one that seals Crockett's image, almost from the cradle, as "a man who don't know fear".

Thereafter, his career could be the manifesto of any aspiring 21st-century US politician. After his yeoman service on the frontier, he answered his country's call by going to Washington as a Congressman and "fixing up government". By then, Andrew Jackson was president. But Crockett was not afraid of taking on his fellow Tennessean, even though it would cost him re-election in 1830: "I bark at no man's bid," he declared. "I will never come and go, and fetch and carry, at the whistle of the great man in the White House, no matter who he is."

In 1832, Crockett returned to Washington to serve another two-year term, before heading back to the frontier. From there, he found his way on to the front lines of the Texas War of Independence, dying at the hands of the Mexicans in the siege of the Alamo, America's most glorious martyrdom. It was a soldier's death for the ultimate American hero.

Parker ended his days in far less stressful circumstances, as a Californian businessman and owner of a successful winery that featured briefly in the hit movie Sideways. There, he loved to talk with visitors about his glory days, posing for photos, and ensuring that coonskin caps were prominent items in the winery's souvenir shop.

The real Davy Crockett wouldn't have been seen dead with a glass of pinot noir. Even so, on Friday, the city fathers of San Antonio arranged a special tribute for Fess Parker at the Alamo – a symbol of life imitating art, and of a country's nostalgia for a wild frontier that has fizzled out in the gentle vineyards of California.

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