July 23, 2008

Indians in pop music

As in every other field of entertainment, Indians have been a staple in popular songs. Naturally, most references to them have been stereotypical.

Native American reservations

There's no brave music for native peoples, says Yuval TaylorThere were plenty of songs about Native Americans in the 19th century, but the earliest 20th-century example I've found is Navajo, from 1903, whose chorus runs, "Nava, Nava, my Navajo/I have a love for you that will grow." Making love to Indians was a popular fantasy: it's the subject of old folk songs such as Little Mohee and Shenandoah; Tin Pan Alley numbers including Mineola (or the Wedding of the Indian and the Coon) and Arrah Wanna (An Indian Irish Matrimonial Venture), and Yiddish comedienne Fanny Brice's 1921 I'm an Indian, a fantasy about marrying one. But it didn't stop when most other racial attitudes from that era became unacceptable. Even that most bleeding-heart of songwriters, Neil Young, sang: "I would give a thousand pelts to sleep with Pocahontas"; and Slick Rick devoted not one, but two jaw-droppingly explicit songs to sex with squaws.

There's an opposing tradition: the Indian as martyr. Again, you find this in old cowboy, Tin Pan Alley and country songs, but it became much more common in the 1960s and 70s, when we were treated to Johnny Horton's The Vanishing Race, the Raiders' No 1 Indian Reservation, Elton John's overblown Indian Sunset, Cher's No 1 Half Breed, and, of course, at least four Neil Young songs. The protagonists of these songs aren't fierce warriors: they're all Christ-like. A typical example is Joe Ely's much-covered Indian Cowboy, who saves the circus from burning down but dies in the process. The death doesn't seem necessary--why couldn't he have been a living hero? I guess things don't work out that way for Indians.
Comment:  For a more detailed version of this essay, see Here Come the Indians, Part One. For more on the subject, see Natives Sing It Their Way.


Anonymous said...

so this is what you think of ndns....nice.

There's a lot of positive and uplifting examples that you can choose...bleh.

Sometimes I wonder how you got these articles posted on a real native website.

Rob said...

No, this is what Yuval Taylor, writing in the Guardian, a British newspaper, thinks. I merely quoted him.

Moreover, this article isn't what Taylor thinks about Indians. It's what he thinks about white people's attempts to depict Indians in songs.

I don't know which "real Native website" you're talking about. The original article was in the UK's Guardian and the blog posting is on my non-Native-owned website.

There are lots of positive and uplifting examples of white people depicting Indians in songs? Great. E-mail them to me and I may post them.