I’ve been listening to songs about American Indians lately. You can divide them into three basic types, and I’m going to devote the next three posts to this taxonomy. Today I’ll be posting songs ridiculing Indians; the next post will be about noble savages and martyred heroes; and the third will be devoted to authentic American Indians. In all three, I’ll be featuring MP3s for you to download, but only of the good stuff.
Be forewarned: the songs in this first post are grossly offensive. There’s some great music here, but it doesn’t excuse the lyrics or the sentiment behind them. Here the Indians are laughingstocks, mocked for their customs and language or simply stereotyped for maximum chuckles. This tradition began in the nineteenth century or perhaps even earlier, but it continues undiminished until today. If you’re at all racially sensitive, these songs are guaranteed to make you see red (no pun intended).
We’ll start at the dawn of the twentieth with “Navajo” (1903), pictured at left. This song is about the love of a “coon” for an Indian--the verses set up the situation, and the chorus has the “coon” sing, “Nava, Nava, my Navajo, I have a love for you that will grow. If you’ll have a coon for a beau, I’ll have a Navajo.” Now I don’t really know if “ho” carried the same meaning in 1903 that it carries today, or if “I have a love for you that will grow” carried the same sexual implications. But if so, this is a genuine forerunner to Slick Rick’s “Indian Girl” (see below).
There were plenty of others in this vein. Here are a few: “Mineola (or the Wedding of the Indian and the Coon)” (1904), “Big Indian Chief” (also 1904, with lyrics by the great black New York songwriter Rosamond Johnson, James Weldon’s brother), “Pawnee” (whose chorus runs, “Pawnee, oh my little love so tawny . . . Sleepy, leave your teepee,” etc.; 1906), “Arrah Wanna (An Indian Irish Matrimonial Venture)” (1906), and “Clysmic Water, Daughter of White Rock” (1920).
The prospect of Indian intermarriage with other ethnic groups was clearly considered hilarious. The one where the Indian marries the Jew is Blanche Merrill’s “I'm an Indian” (1921), here sung by the fabulous Fanny Brice. Irving Berlin was Jewish too, but “I’m an Indian, Too,” from his 1946 musical Annie Get Your Gun, wasn’t an answer song to Merrill’s number--it had little of its zip and sparkle.
It was left to Hank Williams and Fred Rose to write the next great Indian-clown song, “Kaw-Liga,” in 1952, though it wasn’t released until after Williams’s death. Everyone knows the original version, so I’ve decided to post Roy Orbison’s 1965 cover version, which brings to it an intensity that’s hard to conceive of if you’ve only heard Williams’s or Charley Pride’s hit versions. (If you want to hear more, the Residents recorded nine different versions on Poor Kaw-Liga’s Pain).
“Ten Little Indians” is an old nursery rhyme, originally called “Ten Little Niggers.” In 1967, Harry Nilsson set it to music and changed the words to make them more Biblical. Now it’s more like “Ten Little Indians Flout the Ten Commandments” or something. As usual, I have no idea what was going through Nilsson’s head.
Loretta Lynn’s “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath” (1969) uses practically every cliché in the book and gives each one a fresh twist--all in two minutes flat.
Most of the Indian-themed songs of the 1970s fell either into the noble savage/martyr camp or were written by actual Indians--very few fit into the tradition I’m limning here. It was an era of greatly increased sensitivity about Indian affairs and troubles, and deriding Indians was, for a short time at least, unconscionable. One band from that decade, Siouxsee and the Banshees, gave themselves a silly Indian name, but they never performed any songs about Indians as far as I know. Even B.T. Express’s “Peace Pipe” refrained from the all-out scorn of the songs featured here; and despite Felipe Rose’s outrageous Indian costume, the Village People ignored Indians in their peace-and-love anthem “Go West.” The only exception I’ve found is Cory Daye’s glorious 1979 hit, the sadly out-of-print “Pow Wow.”
In the 1980s, though, making fun of Indians was cool again, God knows why. Maybe it was the ascension of Ronald Reagan, who killed plenty of fake Indians in The Last Outpost and actually played Custer in Santa Fe Trail. Anyway, the next few songs are as insulting as they get.
The Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache” (1981) took an old instrumental number (see Michaelangelo Matos’s “All Roads Lead to Apache,” a brilliant history of the song in all its permutations), rerecorded it with their own house band, and added some raps. Following the now ancient tradition of songs of this ilk, the Gang tries to have sex with the squaws.
The Gun Club’s “Bad Indian” (1983) portrays Indians as zombies. The lyrics are hard to make out, so here are a few lines: “Bad Indians--they love the land they hate; eat your flesh and then forget the taste. Someone describe that primal drive to consume what’s theirs and seek what’s mine. . . . You are like a ghost with crazy hands and mouth, a necklace made of eyeballs--you are like a bad Indian.” I suppose this song doesn’t really fit in with the rest of those in this post, but it doesn’t fit anywhere else either--it’s absolutely unique. It’s hateful, too, but it’s meant to be--it’s meant to make your skin crawl.
I’m not sure why Slick Rick decided to record X-rated songs about horny Indians not just on his first but on his second album too. “Indian Girl (An Adult Story)” (1988) is absolutely jawdropping in its gall--the punch line is unlike anything ever recorded in American music. “Tonto” (1991) is an altogether different matter. It’s from The Ruler’s Back, recorded in its entirety while Rick was out on bail for three weeks before his trial for attempted murder. Like the rest of the album, the lyrics are telegraphed incomprehensibly--even if you can figure them all out you can’t make head or tail of the story. Maybe that’s why The Ruler’s Back is my favorite hip-hop record--I can listen to it again and again and every time get something new from it. It’s manic, absurd, damn funky, and never fails to surprise me. Besides, what other rap album has songs about Moses, Tonto, Venus, James Bond, baby boys, and the many mistakes of Slick Rick?
Tim McGraw’s 1994 “Indian Outlaw” is probably the biggest-selling Indian song of all time, and one of the most reprehensible too. I’m not going to post it here because I hate it. The only interesting thing about it is that it features a quote from Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Indian Reservation” at the end for no good reason.
Just so that you’re absolutely convinced that the tradition hasn’t died, we’ll conclude with a little minstrel number from the 2004 Grammy awards. Our next post will feature two additional examples of Indians coming in from outer space to save the world. So stay tuned.
P.S. Thanks to David Scott, Eric Weisbard, Jody Rosen, Jonathan Taylor, Josh Goldfein, and JP Chill for their suggestions.