That’s what my friends roll their eyes and say after asking me what I’ve been up to lately. The object of my obsession: the great American sharpshooting icon Annie Oakley. I’ve now spent more than two years in research and creative devotion after, by chance, catching a PBS documentary of Oakley’s life. I became engrossed as I learned of her often-tragic childhood and her heroic triumph over incredible adversity. How different the reality when compared to the selectively glamorized spin of the Annie Get Your Gun play and movie.
She deserved better, I thought. I vowed then and there to write a song to honor her life, and hopefully encourage new interest in this astonishing woman. So I wrote one song, and quickly realized that one was not enough. I ended up writing a suite of five songs that exemplify aspects of her personality and key events during her full and transformational life.
Oakley (born Phoebe Ann Mosey) was a paradox. She was apolitical, yet influenced 19th century society (and 20th as well, one could argue) in ways we would now define as very political. While she disavowed herself from the suffrage movement of the day (she, the ultimate tough girl, thought it “unladylike”) she also feared that “not enough good women would vote.”
She became a hunter for the market by the time she was 13 and would have been self-sufficient if not for having taken on the responsibility of lifting her family out of poverty. She competed against and bested most men at sport shooting while maintaining her “ladylike” Victorian manner and dress. She increasingly championed a woman’s right to education, work, exercise and defend herself with a gun if necessary. She even wrote President McKinley to organize a regiment of fifty women sharpshooters should war break out with Spain in 1898. She was frugal from a lifelong fear of poverty, yet gave generously to others–including funding at least 20 young women’s college educations. Oakley was renowned for innumerable kind deeds, large and small, throughout her life and career.
During her time, Annie Oakley’s fame and legend as a markswoman in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show grew beyond the United States, with kings and queens, tribal leaders and European peasants all counted among her legion of fans. She could be considered one of the first truly global superstars–all during a time predating the Information Age. Perhaps because she took pains to be such a proper Victorian lady, her success was non-threatening, compelling women and men, young and old, to embrace and cheer her. By example, she opened minds that led to positive changes toward women’s achievement and power.
Today, we celebrate her 150th birthday, so it’s a good time to once again share Annie Oakley’s story of integrity, strength and triumph over tremendous odds.Yes, I’m obsessed, amazed and in awe of all she accomplished. Who wouldn’t be? Even though I’ve completed my CD, Songs of a Midwestern Girl, I realize five songs will never be enough to tell her story. But it’s a start.
Happy Birthday, Annie!
Michele Isam singing “Hey Little Sure Shot” about her obsession, Annie Oakley.
Photo above in public domain.