May 16, 2010

DJs whoop over Running Bear

Listeners interpret song, talk as racist

By Tony WalterA 1959 tear-jerker song about two Native Americans who can only be together in death stirred up some people this week and led to the re-examination of racial stereotyping.

The song is "Running Bear," and it became a Friday morning staple on the WIXX (101.1 FM) "Murphy in the Morning" program. According to the station's program director, Jeff Murray, the song was requested by a member of the Menominee Tribe of Indians.

It's a cheesy song that was fairly common back then, mixing music with pathos.

Running Bear, the male member of one tribe, is separated from his love, Little White Dove, a female from a rival tribe. Between them is this raging river, so they swim to each other and are swept away to their deaths.

As the lyrics say, "Now they'll always be together in their happy hunting ground."

What vexed some listeners, however, was what they interpreted as inappropriate comments and whooping from the program's hosts while the song played. It was an example of the difference between what was said and what was heard.

"For me, it reminded me of the '50s and '60s mentality concerning Indians," said Jim Reiter, general manager of the Menominee Bingo Hall and Casino and an advertiser on WIXX. "You'd like to believe we're beyond that stuff."
Running Bear"Running Bear" is a song written by J. P. Richardson (aka The Big Bopper) sung most famously by Johnny Preston in 1959. Preston first sang the song in 1959 with background vocals by Richardson and George Jones, who do the Indian chanting of "UGO UGO" during the three verses, as well as the Indian war cries. and it was number one for three weeks in January 1960 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States. The song also reached number one in the UK in 1960.Comment:  With its clichéd Indian names and "happy hunting ground," Running Bear sounds stereotypical. Note also the warring tribes, the war cries, and the "ugh"-like chants.

Also problematical is the nature of the tragic, doomed romance. It's a miniature version of the standard "vanishing" myth: that the "noble savages" were destined to die out.

The radio hosts should think twice about playing Running Bear--even if an Indian requested it. I'd say its time has come and gone. If people want to hear it, they can buy the CD.

Meanwhile, it's not clear what the hosts said, if anything. Whooping and making fun of Indians obviously would be wrong. But if they were simply hooting and laughing at the song's silliness, that wouldn't be wrong. We can't draw any conclusions without more information.

For more on the subject, see Dean Martin's Not Enough Indians and Indians in Pop Music.

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