Oatman Redux: Hell on Wheels

Monday, December 5th, 2011

If tattooed Eva on “Hell on Wheels” seems to have stolen Olive Oatman’s chin tattoo, it’s because she’s based on her, as the HOW blog explains (with a quote from The Blue Tattoo). Eva’s Oatman has been tweaked: she’s a prostitute, which Oatman never was; she’s blunt and outspoken, which Oatman never was; and in 1865 when the show is unfolding, Oatman was a national celebrity, newly married to a wealthy Michigan cattle rancher and living in Texas during what she called the happiest period of her life. Eva’s the latest of more than a dozen tributes Oatman has inspired in art, film, theater, fiction, t.v. and music over the last 150 years, from Elmore Leonard’s “Tonto Woman” to Phantom of the Black Hills’ “Olive Oatman,” a song that, come to think of it, would work beautifully on Hell on Wheels. What’s AMC waiting for?

Arizona Death Trip: Phantom of the Black Hills

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Since she was ransomed back from Mohave Indians in 1856 wearing a tribal chin tattoo, Olive Oatman has inspired a sculpture by Erastus Dow Palmer, two biographies, two novels, a play starring John Wilkes Booth’s brother, a 1965 episode of “Death Valley Days” (featuring Ronald Reagan), four children’s books, a 1982 short story by Elmore Leonard, and an Oscar-nominated short film (2008), but never a song.

Until now. Last month the country grindcore band Phantom of the Black Hills released a fittingly Deadwoodesque tribute to America’s first tattooed white woman on “Ghosts,” tweaking some interesting themes, like whether or not Oatman, a Mormon, lost her religion as a white Mohave. If the facts in “Olive Oatman” are iffy (twisted as they’ve been for over a century), the mood is right: Here’s the Oatman clan heading west:

Her and her family prayin’ to the moon
Piled in a wagon, rolling to their doom
Bones of the past rattlin in the back
That’s when the mountain roared

Indeed, the Yavapai Indians who killed Oatman’s family in southern Arizona (then Mexico) were mountain dwellers. (Note to Governor Brewer: back then, the state was filled with nativists–none of whom were white). Phantom nails it in saying Oatman, who was taken captive, then traded to the Mohave, “had to bend but she never bowed.”

The song’s gritty vocals and driving rhythm–slow in the intro, then double time–evoke Oatman’s ride on a prairie schooner driven by a reckless and monomaniacal father of seven, bound for California (the place, wrote Didion, “where we run out of continent”). A banjo traces jittery lines of fingerpicked beauty across this well-worn gothic narrative. Though Phantom of the Black Hills’ website is damnably uninformative (perhaps a masked dude aiming his banjo at you like a loaded weapon is all you need to know), I’m glad an L.A. band with a pistols-at-dawn attitude was the first to claim this California dreamer.