This is the fourth and last post about American Indians in pop music. See below for the first three.
The only hit song about Indian life that avoids romanticization or hyperbole--the only one that feels truly real to me--is “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” performed by Johnny Cash in 1964, which reached number three on the Billboard country charts. (Bob Dylan also covered it in 1970, and Clint Eastwood prominently featured Ira Hayes in his film Letters from Iwo Jima.)
But trying to figure out anything about Peter LaFarge, who wrote the song, from information available on the Internet is a frustrating task. Everywhere you turn, you find contradictions about his birth, parentage, heritage, and manner of death. Nothing seems certain except that Peter LaFarge was the greatest Indian songwriter of all.
And then even that seems uncertain.
Here’s what everyone seems to agree on, more or less, though some details are probably untrue. Peter LaFarge left his Southwestern home at the age of sixteen and became a rodeo rider and folk singer. He sang and hung out with Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, and Cisco Houston in the 1950s. He served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War and studied acting at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. An intensely charismatic figure, he moved to New York City, where he recorded an album for Columbia, “Ira Hayes” and Other Ballads, and five for Folkways: Iron Mountain and Other Songs, As Long as the Grass Shall Grow, Sings of the Cowboys, Sings Women Blues, and his best and last record, On the Warpath. I’m posting two songs from this record, a terrific protest song called “War Whoop” and the comic “If I Could Not Be an Indian,” which brings to mind “Arrah Wanna” (see my first post on this subject).
But his greatest achievement was Johnny Cash’s 1964 album Bitter Tears, for which he wrote five of its eight songs. Here’s “Drums,” about the U.S. government’s re-education of Indian children. Cash, who at the time thought he had some Cherokee blood in him, got flack for this album. A lot of radio stations wouldn’t play it, but it went to number two on Billboard’s country charts anyway.
While in Greenwich Village, Peter acted as an unofficial babysitter for Bob Dylan, at Sid Gleason’s urging, keeping an eye on him so that he wouldn’t do drugs. Dylan said of LaFarge, “We were pretty tight for a while. We had the same girlfriend. Actually, Peter is one of the unsung heroes of the day. His style was just a little bit too erratic. But it wasn’t his fault, he was always hurting and having to overcome it. . . . When I think of a guitar poet or protest singer, I always think of Peter, but he was a love song writer too.”
Near the end of his life he lived with Danish singer Inger Nielsen and their daughter, and was signed to MGM in the wake of the success of Bitter Tears. But he died on October 27, 1965, officially of a stroke, and unofficially either of a drug overdose or as a suicide. He was 34 years old.
According to Gordon Friesen, the FBI was hounding Peter before his death--he had just organized the Federation for American Indian Rights. They raided his apartment, tore up his papers, put handcuffs on him, and dragged him to Bellevue in his pyjamas, where they pressured the hospital to declare him insane. Bellevue refused, much to their credit.
Journalist Seymour Krim summed up the man best. “Pete was a man drowning day by day in contradictions. He wanted to be a hundred marvelous shimmering things in the air, but in the end he was forced back to his bones like all of us. There was something fantastically, challengingly beautiful as well as doomed about Peter’s bid to become his own impossible hero. Pete was beautiful to the eye and ear in many ways--shoulders, torso, teeth, straight arrow bearing, his voice strong, modulated, like the scent of flowers on the wind. Pete’s words were those of a gifted amateur, but one you never stopped rooting for because of the dark, sweet, authentic presence of the man himself. In a much more disturbing sense he was a life-actor, glowing star of his own sidewalk drama, and he anticipated by at least 10 years the combined street theaters of cruelty and absurdity. Pete was important because he was so wrapped up in his bandana myth that he became it totally, frighteningly, something that is easier to accept now than when he was alive and you were nervously waiting for what would unfurl next. He lives in my mind like a wronged prince.”
And Johnny Cash wrote in his autobiography, “Peter was a genuine intellectual, but he was also very earthy, very proud of his Hopi heritage, and very aware of the wrongs done to his people and other Native Americans. The history he knew so well wasn’t known at all by most white Americans in the early 1960s--though that would certainly change in the coming years--so to some extent, his was a voice crying in the wilderness. I felt lucky to be hearing it. Peter was great. He wasn’t careful with the Thorazine though.”
Lastly, there’s a nice two-minute video at Sandra Schulman's website devoted to him.
Throughout his career, Peter represented himself as an American Indian. He said he was Hopi, raised by the Tewa people, or Pima, like Ira Hayes. He said that he had been adopted by the writer Oliver LaFarge at the age of nine (Oliver was a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, and his book, Laughing Boy, is a sympathetic account of the Navajos). Accounts on the Internet, ranging from allmusic.com to Wikipedia to the Smithsonian Institution to the website that bears his name, all call him a Native American or American Indian.
But in reality, he was born to and raised by Oliver LaFarge and his wife, the heiress Wanden Mathews LaFarge, in their Santa Fe home. His parents divorced in 1935, when he was four years old, and his mother married a rancher in Fountain, Colorado, where he spent his formative years, and where he changed his name from Oliver Albee to Pete. His mother tells the whole story here.
In other words, Peter LaFarge was not an American Indian. Most accounts claim that his father was of mixed French and Indian descent, but that’s not true--Oliver LaFarge was from an aristocratic New York family, descended from Commodore Perry of the War of 1812 fame, and went to Harvard; he became interested in Indians as a student of anthropology. Oliver spent a lot of time with American Indians; Peter, on the other hand, spent practically none.
In 1964, Peter LaFarge said, “Of the new songwriters I’m the oldest and most evil with my past. I have no lies to tell about my past and sometimes it strangles me like a black dog putting his foot down on my throat.” I guess liars always issue the strongest claims about their truth-telling.
What does all this say about authenticity? Does the fact that Peter LaFarge was a fake Indian mean that his songs are fake too? In fact, his songs are extremely well-researched. LaFarge was the first songwriter to not only lament the fate of the Indians but record their bitterness and their willingness to fight. Compared to all the other pop songs about Indians I’ve featured, these stand out as the least fake, to my ears. Especially since--until today, when I received final confirmation that Peter LaFarge had no Indian blood--they had always seemed to come from an American Indian himself.
Pretending that he was an Indian was absolutely essential to LaFarge’s ability to get across his message. In other words, in this case, faking it was the key to making it all seem real.
P.S. Thanks to Sandra Schulman for clearing up my last doubts about Peter LaFarge's Indian heritage.
P.P.S. I just spoke with Peter's brother, John Pen LaFarge, who told me several things of interest. First, there was a LaFarge family tradition that they had a small amount of Narragansett blood, which would, in Peter's case, have amounted to 1/128th of his genetic make-up; despite considerable genealogical research, nothing has come up proving this either way. Second, John very much doubts the truth of Gordon Friesen's account of Pete's harassment by the FBI. Third, he believes that Pete's death was probably caused by a combination of alcohol and pills, and was not a suicide--he seemed very happy at that point in his life.
P.P.P.S. Povy LaFarge Bigbee, Pete's sister, has written me, clearing up some of the mysteries about Pete's life. Here are some excerpts from her e-mail.
"Pete was born in Manhattan and, like me, lived with our parents in their apartment until they separated about 1934, after which we lived in the apartment with mother. By 1940 Pete had had so many serious ear infections that his hearing was threatened so on her doctor's advice mother sent him to a school outside Tucson. The place had kindly people and nice horses, but in order to have him with us and us all under one roof, mother moved us to Fountain, Colorado where she rented a large house with a barn and pens and a corral and a roping arena and a big yard. She also bought a ranch.
"This leads me to introduce my mother as a serious influence in Pete's life, partly because I am tired of having her dismissed as 'an heiress.' A lot of people I know have inherited money, thus becoming heirs, but this particular 'heiress' spoke Italian, French, Russian and Spanish; had translated Dante in the original vulgate when she was 15; could read Farsee; was a long distance swimmer (and swam a mile a day well into her 80's) and had rescued six people in the '38 Hurricane; was the first woman ever elected mayor of a Colorado town; established clinics especially for children with ear, eye and throat problems on the Jicarilla Reservation and in Fountain. She oversaw her investments with talent and preciseness at a time when women did no such thing. I forgot to mention that she was a talented ballerina, good enough to have been invited by Pavlova to join her troupe in Paris '25. . . .
"A lasting friendship was created between my parents and the Dozier family of Santa Clara Pueblo, a friendship that survived the divorce. Several Doziers rode with my parents when they rode horseback across the Navajo Reservation in '29. A particular friend in Santa Clara was Vidal Gutierrez, Chief of the Winter People. It was Uncle Vidal who gave us our Indian names; although Pete's was ceremonial, mine is my real name. I find statements about Pete being adopted at 9 or being a Hopi to be ridiculous. Santa Clara is our pueblo and of the 19 pueblos in New Mexico it is one of the Eight Northern Pueblos. The Hopis are not.
"You who were born after WWII can have little understanding of how difficult travel was until about 1956. Daddy was not demobilized until about '47 and then he and Consuelo lived in Santa Fe. It was a long way to Santa Fe from Fountain. Of course we read Daddy's books and wrote letters to him, but it was mother who spoke about her memories of the Navajos and the Jicarilla Apaches from the time we were little children. By the time Pete was 16 and 17 he could travel to Santa Fe and he stayed with Daddy and Consuelo.
"He met and made friends with various Native Americans who were in New York City when he was. Sorry, no FBI. Mother visited him in Belleview once, but it was fortunately a brief stay."