This is the second in a series of three posts. The first one dealt with songs that ridicule Indians; this one concerns noble savages; and the third will deal with authentic Indians.
The trope of the noble savage can be traced back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau or perhaps even earlier. The noble savage was the embodiment of Western virtues, uncorrupted by civilization; the concept was applied equally to Polynesians (see Melville’s Typee), American Indians, and Africans, both enslaved and free. Because of the genocide perpetrated across the Americas, the representation of these noble savages took on an inevitably tragic air, and in popular song, the Indians almost always die at the end--they are America's number-one martyr.
Early in the twentieth century the myth of the noble savage was partially supplanted, under the influence of Darwin and Freud, by primitivism--the idea of the savage as brute, untamable, pure id. But this idea was applied far more to blacks than to Indians, perhaps because primitivism doesn’t go so well with martyrdom. In “Red Wing: An Indian Intermezzo” (1907), Red Wing’s lover dies in battle at the end of the second verse, but we never see him fight--we’re simply told he was brave, and we focus instead on his grieving squaw. Throughout the rest of this post, the Indians are Christ-like.
Our first MP3 file is Johnny Preston’s “Running Bear” (1959). While the background vocals sound pretty ridiculous, the singing is earnest; the Indians are fearless, constant, and die in the end.
Why Johnny Horton felt compelled to write “The Vanishing Race” (1960) I can’t tell. It’s certainly a far cry from his lame “Cherokee Boogie,” which he had recorded a year before. Horton was known for his story songs like “The Battle of New Orleans” and “North to Alaska,” though his best work was hardcore honky-tonk/rockabilly stuff like “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor.” Which makes this song all the more atypical. Once more, we don’t actually see the Indians fight for their land--they simply die. But they do appear again in outer space, making this an eerie prefiguration of the Caetano Veloso, Kansas, and OutKast visions detailed below.
Johnny Cash devoted an entire album, Bitter Tears (1964), to the plight of the Indian, and here’s “Apache Tears,” which he wrote himself--another funeral dirge that says nothing about self-defense. (The album also includes a terrific cover of “The Vanishing Race.”) I’ll have more to say about this album in my next post; right now I’ll just mention that it stirred up a lot of animosity: it was banned from most country radio stations and the Ku Klux Klan burnt a cross on Cash’s lawn. That didn’t stop Bitter Tears from getting to number two on the Billboard country charts, though.
Even though it’s probably time to post something by someone not named Johnny, I’m sticking to chronological order here, and my next song was written by John D. Loudermilk, most famous for “Tobacco Road.” It’s Don Fardon’s “Indian Reservation” (1970), a hit both for him and for the Raiders. Here, at last, the Indians remain alive, reflecting the new consciousness of the 1970s. This may be the most straightforward, direct, and stirring political American Indian protest song not written by an Indian. Yet even without knowing the writer, his race is obvious. It’s simply too mythic, too hokey, for an Indian to have written it. It never feels real, lived in. You’ll have to wait until the next post for songs like that.
The next John to record a noble savage song, as far as I can tell, was Elton John, whose 1971 overblown seven-minute epic “Indian Sunset,” complete with piano, orchestra, and choir, adopts the point of view of a young renegade Indian who refuses to surrender to the white man and kills himself instead. I haven’t posted the MP3 because it’s simply too awful to listen to. “Oh, great father of the Iroquois, ever since I was young, I’ve read the writing of the smoke and breastfed on the sound of the drum,” Elton yells at the top of his lungs; a few seconds later the strings break into the kind of music that characterized the Indian attacks in ’50s Western movies. Heavy indeed.
Also too awful to listen to is Cher’s tragic tale of the “Half Breed,” which was a number-one hit in 1973, and which everybody probably knows. Cher wasn’t the first to sing about this subject--Ricky Nelson also had a hit called “Half Breed” in 1959, a lousy song whose chorus runs, “Half breed, they’re hot on your trail, boy, half breed, but you better not run. Half breed, you better get a gun, boy, better get a gun and stand, boy, better get a gun and stand.” Both songs depict the uncomfortable situation of the half-Indian half-white teenager, but nothing really happens in either one. As usual, we don’t see the protagonist actually practicing self-defense.
At some point between 1968 and 1972 Joe Ely wrote “The Indian Cowboy,” which he didn’t actually record until 2007. Guy Clark’s version (1989), which I’ve posted here, is probably the best; Tom Russell, Townes Van Zandt, and the Flatlanders also recorded it before Ely got around to doing his solo version. In it, an Indian rescues the circus from a fire by lassoing a horse. Now why wasn’t that good enough for Ely? Why does the Indian then have to pay for his courage with his life? See the rest of the songs in this post for the answer.
Neil Young spent practically his entire career singing songs about Indians, from “Broken Arrow” with Buffalo Springfield in 1967 to “Inca Queen” in 1987. “Cortez the Killer” is his most famous, but the best is definitely “Pocahontas,” whose basic track was recorded sometime between 1975 and 1977, though it wasn’t released until 1979. This completely insane song seems to cover all the bases. We’ve now come to expect the massacred martyrs, and considering Pocahontas as an exile in modern-day Hollywood is a nice twist. But to throw in “I wish I was a trapper: I would give a thousand pelts to sleep with Pocahontas” is taking things a bit far, don’t you think? Was it too much to hope that by the mid-1970s having sex with squaws would be out-of-date?
I mean, by this point both North and South Americans were starting to expect Indians to come down from outer space and save them in the not-too-distant future. This was Caetano Veloso’s vision in “Um indio” (1977), Kansas’s vision in their 1979 album Monolith, and OutKast’s vision in their 2004 Grammy Awards performance of “Hey Ya” (see previous post). In case your Portuguese is rusty, here are the lyrics to Caetano’s number, kindly translated by Julian Dibbell.
For some reason, most of the American Indian-themed songs of the 1980s came from Britain. Adam and the Ants’ stirring 1980 anthem “Kings of the Wild Frontier” begins, “I feel beneath the white there is a redskin suffering from centuries of taming.” Then come the chanted “heys,” surf guitars playing Western-movie melodies, and Adam complaining that he’s “just a shade too white.” This is hero-worship at its most primeval. But Iron Maiden went one step further in 1982 with their delirious “Run to the Hills,” probably the angriest Indian massacre song ever and one of my all-time favorite heavy metal numbers. And to top it all, the Cult, a British hard rock act formed in 1984, devoted practically their entire careers to the idea of the martyred noble savage. Yikes!
Tragic Indian songs seemed to have more or less dried up since then, with a few exceptions here and there (e.g. The Magnetic Fields’ 1994 “Fear of Trains,” not one of their better songs). If you know of any other recent numbers, please comment below.
Stay tuned: authentic Indian songs are coming up next.
P.S. Thanks to David Scott, Jake Austen, Jody Rosen, Josh Goldfein, and Julian Dibbell for alerting me to some of these numbers.