November 26, 2007

"Damn important" music about Natives

Who Was He?  “The Ballad of Peter LaFarge” Shows Why We Should CareThrough copious research, and a tight, lyrical narrative, we are introduced to LaFarge—strikingly good-looking, emotionally and artistically dangerous, and, we learn, plagued by a tragic family legacy that continues more than 40 years after his death. Originally a 13-minute short, Schulman’s film has been expanded to nearly a half-hour to include a vintage Johnny Cash interview and other footage. His best known song, popularized by Cash, was the “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” about the Pima Indian immortalized in the Iwo Jima flag-raising photo.

He wrote cowboy songs, he wrote love songs. But it was his ballads about Indians that define his best work—his albums As Long as the Grass Shall Grow and On the Warpath focus on Native themes with titles including “Johnny Half-breed,” “Damn Redskins,” “Vision of a Past Warrior,” “Custer,” and more.
But LaFarge wasn't Native:The fact he wasn’t Native is alluded to but never clarified in the documentary which includes archival photos, interviews with his contemporaries and current folk artists, and grainy video clips. This is the film’s major weakness. Tap dancing around his true ethnicity is confusing at best; at worst, it perpetuates the deceit LaFarge foisted on his fans and friends alike. The reason, Schulman explains, is to focus more on the man and his music and not that he was, for lack of a better word, a "wannabe."

Poser or not, crazy as a March Hare, Peter LaFarge wrote some damn important and good music. Damn important and good music about the state of Native Americans in 20th century America.


Alasdair MacColla said...

Why is it that non Indian who show an interst in Natve American history or like to go to dances or stay up with Indain affaires are labled "Wannabes"?

Rob said...

I'm a white man who shows an interest in Indian history and stays up on Indian affairs. People rarely if ever call me a wannabe because I don't pretend to be something I'm not.

The issue with Peter LaFarge wasn't that he sang about Indians. It was that he didn't clearly identify himself as a non-Indian.

As the article put it, LaFarge was guilty of "the deceit [he] foisted on his fans and friends alike." That's the action of someone trying to pass as an Indian--i.e., a wannabe.