Wheeling, West Virginia

The Ballad of Billy the Kid by Billy Joel

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Well he never traveled heavy
Yes he always rode alone
And he soon put many older guns to shame Read full Lyrics
Billy the Kid was from a town known as Wheeling, West Virginia; except that he wasn't. Billy Joel fooled us all. "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" has an epic feel to it as the Piano Man recounts the life, times, and exploits of the 19th-century, Wild West gunman, William H. Bonney – aka Henry Antrim – aka Billy the Kid. The truth is, the whereabouts of his birth remains mostly uncertain, although it has been theorized by historians that he was born in one of the Irish neighborhoods in New York City (no records exist).

Billy The KidBilly The Kid
Billy the Joel also claims that the protagonist of his song robbed his way from Utah to Oklahoma, in spite of the fact that William Bonney never robbed any banks. He did kill a few men. Legend claims he was responsible for ending the lives of over 20 men. However, the reality is that number is less than 10 and may have even been less than five. Finally, Joel sings that Billy was hanged when, in fact, he was shot and killed.

In a 1975 interview, Joel came clean when he stated the song "was an experiment with an impressionist type of lyric. It was historically totally inaccurate as a story." Why would Joel choose to write an impressionist song and not make an effort for historical accuracy? The answer is a baffling mystery, because the truth about the Kid is just as, if not more, interesting than the fictitious version Joel created. None of this can really be blamed on Joel, since the Kid lived a relatively unknown life until 1881, when the governor of New Mexico put a bounty on his head. Following his death, different biographers portrayed Billy in many various ways, adding to both his mystery and the legend.

Charleston has been the capital city of West Virginia since 1885, but Wheeling was made the first capital over 20 years earlier. Interestingly enough, during the Civil War the heads of state felt the need to move their location around so often the cities were nicknamed the Floating Capitals (mostly in a tug-of-war with Charleston, but also Martinsburg and Clarksburg). As far as Wheeling goes, it's never been proven Billy the Kid even set foot within the city limits, let alone was born there.

Historic buildings in Wheeling<br>Photo: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/8308527@N02/16204082650/" target="_blank">Sonja</a>, via Flickr, CC 2.0Historic buildings in Wheeling
Photo: Sonja, via Flickr, CC 2.0
A century earlier, during the Revolutionary War, Native Americans laid siege to Fort Henry (located on the spot that is now downtown Wheeling) when Major Samuel McColloch made his legendary "leap" – 300 feet down to the bottom of an almost perpendicular cliff to avoid an onslaught of angry Indians who anticipated coming upon his dead corpse at the mountain's base, but who were instead surprised to find him alive and still mounted on his horse as it galloped away.

More recently, Wheeling had boasted the longest suspension bridge in the world: the cleverly named Wheeling Suspension Bridge (until it was unseated in 1851 by the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge between Niagara and Ontario). Also, as of 2007, the city is the location of the state's first concrete skateboard park, measuring in at over 12,000 square feet. Clearly, Joel couldn't have cared less about these stories when he placed the Kid's fictional birthplace in the West Virginian city. Still, it makes for an interesting story as well as a well written lyric.

Justin Novelli
July 17, 2016
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