Bang for Your Bach

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Reiseclavier and Winchester at the Garrison Dam and Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota. Photo: David Yearsley.

We met in Minot. My father came from Seattle on the “Empire Builder” Amtrak train with the rifle—a Winchester 1886.

I flew in from New York with a Reiseklavier—a travel clavichord modeled on the portable instruments virtuosos such as Mozart used when on the road back in Europe in the 18th century. The gun hasn’t been fired in at least fifty years, but if it were it’d be apocalyptically louder than the whispering musical instrument.

My father was born in Bismarck in 1936, fifty years after the Winchester 1886 went into production. The rifle he brought with him had the serial number of 104101 on the metal plate that mounts the iconic Winchester lever action to the wooden stock. The last two digits indicate that the weapon was manufactured in 1901. That was the year that my great-grandfather must have bought the gun for it was also the year that he became the first elected sheriff of Dunn County in western North Dakota. He was a Norwegian with a lawman’s name: John Bang. He’d come out to North Dakota from Minneapolis at the age of nineteen in 1894 and homesteaded near the town of Dunn Center. His 160 acres were next to one of the few female homesteaders, a divorcée named Ethel Miller. She would soon become his wife.

Bang was elected sheriff again in 1914, the year that the Fort Berthold Reservation, where the Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa had been placed, was opened up to further “settlement” just north of Dunn County. Much of that area would later be flooded by the reservoir created by the Garrison Dam. That reservoir is called Lake Sakakawea, named after the Shoshone woman (more commonly translated as Sacagawea), who joined the Lewis and Clark expedition in the autumn of 1804. With the completion of the dam in 1953 the water backed up into the ravines and gullies known as the Breaks of the Missouri River and some of the Badlands where, according to family lore, my grandfather had single-handedly gotten the drop on a pair of infamous bank robbers and, as a rancher, pulled the tail off of a half-frozen steer stuck down in a draw in sub-zero winter weather.

John Bang was an ardent Non-Partisan Leaguers, the socialist-inflected Populist movement born in the 1910s that organized cooperative grain elevators and a state bank. My grandmother recited poetry at their rallies as a young child.

The Bangs lost their farm in the Depression and the former sheriff and his wife left North Dakota to find jobs in the Pacific Naval shipyard in Bremerton, Washington in 1939. The Winchester remained with John’s brother Thorvald in Dunn County. The gun was presented to my father with all due solemnity by one of his cousins,when we visited Dunn County for a Bang family reunion over a long July 4th weekend in 1989, the centennial year of North Dakota statehood.

After thirty-five years out in the Pacific Northwest where it was admired and hefted by the lawman’s great-great-grandchildren, the gun was now to be repatriated to the Dunn County Museum.

My father had insisted on taking the train from Seattle, retracing his family’s rail journey from the Plains to the Pacific in 1941, when he and his parents and siblings joined John and Ethel Bang in Bremerton.

These days Amtrak requires that a firearm of whatever vintage be locked in an approved gun case. But when my father got to the station in Seattle twelve days ago, he learned that he was also required to notify the train at least twenty-four hours in advance that the rifle would be on board. Not having fulfilled that protocol, he had to postpone the trip for the day.

So, I met him off the train late on a Wednesday at the handsome Minot station, built in 1905 and recently restored. Towards eleven at night, the Empire Builder’s whistle cried out down the Souris River Valley and soon after that the locomotive’s headlight pierced the dark haze above the track. My father stepped off the train and the station attendant asked, “Is the gun yours?”

In the rental car the next morning our two travel cases of similar size looked like they could have belonged to a couple of assassins on their way to take out a Dakota oil cartel kingpin gone rogue. Where the buffalo once roamed, fracking towers and oil derricks graze all day— and all night, their flares dancing against the sky and grass.

We headed south over the prairie and across Lake Audubon—the eastern section of the Garrison reservoir—and to the south bank of the Missouri, backed up as Lake Sakakawea.

At the Garrison Dam picnic area we stopped to survey the lake and read the historic placards. On one of these was the devastating photo of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation chairman George Gillette bursting into tears among the stony pale-faced men of “progress” signing the “deal” to sell more than 150,000 acres of land for the dam and reservoir. Gillette summed up the extortion, much more succinctly and accurately than the U. S. Supreme Court ever would or could: “The truth is, as everyone knows, our Treaty of Fort Laramie … and our constitution are being torn to shreds by this contract.”

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Native American leader George Gillette weeps at the signing of the Garrison Dam Agreement, 1948. Photo: National Archives.

On this land- and lake-scape so radically modified according to the imperatives of Empire-building, it was time for a photo-op. We took out the gun and clavichord. I played some Art of Fugue with the Winchester ready to fight off Proud Boys and rabid ravens. The rifle was cocked, though unloaded. Things had to be staged. I could see the record cover: Bach in the Badlands.

Were there connections to be made between complex counterpoint and high-caliber firearms? The print of Johann Sebastian Bach’s last work was masterfully executed by Johann Heinrich Schübler. He had studied with Bach in Leipzig but had also been schooled in his family craft of shotgun making. This trade included engraving the barrels with ornamental patterns similar to those decorating the blank spaces of the Art of Fugue print of 1751.

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Contrapunctus 3, from Bach’s Art of Fugue. Engraving by J. H. Schübler.

My father came closer to listen for threads of polyphony before the wind blew them over the dam and down the lake. The rifle lay silently by.

A couple of hours later we arrived at the Dunn County Museum. The chair of the advisory board and a local gun aficionado received the Winchester. After my father filled out the paperwork, the rifle was placed in a special glass-fronted cabinet above a photograph of John Bang next to his horse. The cabinet is beneath a trophy of an elk and alongside a pair of bulky wooden skis with leather straps for the boots. Maybe John Bang, who had also been a fiddler and square-dance caller, had made his way across the wintery wastes on Nordic skis to dances or duels with desperadoes.

The Dunn County Museum is housed in a simple but spacious structure of corrugated metal with an annex of like construction where the rifle now resides along with a bright blue cavalry wagon, surreys, butter churns and other relics of the 19th– and early 20th-century “frontier.” A separate building displays tractors, threshers, fire engines, and other big machines. Music is well represented. The locals have donated their pianos and harmoniums in abundance, but not their guns. John Bang’s 1886 is the museum’s first Winchester, fittingly from the county’s first sheriff.

After our afternoon in the museum, we drove west over red dirt roads to the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield. The one-acre fenced-in site is at the edge of a ranch whose gate warns “No Trespassing” and “No Oil Field Traffic.”

Spring Creek, on whose banks John Bang built his house ten miles downstream from here, flows out of Killdeer Mountain and snakes below the battlefield. I had always thought that the town and mountain were named after the bird, once abundant in the area, and still to be seen and onomatopoeically heard here, if in declining numbers. The battlefield monument’s plaque, which appears to have been recently redone by the State Historical Society so as to represent a view of history that is less triumphantly expressive of Manifest Destiny, informs visitors that the name is a translation Tachawakute: Place Where They Kill Deer.

Lt. Col. John Pattee of the 7th Iowa Cavalry described the start of the “battle” on July 28, 1864: “An Indian, very gaily dressed, carrying a large war club gorgeously ornamented, appeared in front of the 6th Iowa Cavalry and called loudly to us and gesticulated wildly from about half a mile away.  Major Wood, chief of cavalry, approached my position and said, ‘The general sends his compliments and wishes for you to kill that Indian for God’s sake.’”

By the end of the day the U. S. army had destroyed to 1,500 lodges. At least two hundred peacefully encamped Native Americans were slaughtered. Sitting Bull, Medicine Bear, and Gall and some 5,000 others fled through a deep cleft in the mountain called the Medicine Hole, which has now had its sacred name shackled to a nearby oil field.

After a few more days along the wetlands and water holes of the Central Flyway spotting Black Terns and Bobolinks, Gadwalls and Godwits, White Pelicans and Northern Shovelers among dozens of other species, we headed back to the Minot station and departed for Seattle on Monday morning. As we approached the border with Montana on the Empire Builder, I took out the keyboard from its case and made my way with my father to the observation car. The porters had seen many instruments on their trains—Amtrak encourages music on board—but never a clavichord.

More Bach was heard—at least by me. A few snatches might have escaped the rattle of the carriage to nearby ears: a veterinarian from North Carolina just back from a choir tour to Salzburg and Vienna, a retired choral director from Oshkosh, Wisconsin and a videographer among others. The travel clavichord’s mission is to keep the fingers in shape while disturbing no one.

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Giant Fingers gallop across the Plains. Photo: David Yearsley.

Next trip to the Flickertail State we take John Bangs’ saddle engraved with his initials and his sheriff’s star to the museum.



DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at