PBS ‘Country Music’ - Native stories of Hank Williams Sr., Loretta Lynn and Peter La Farge

The new series, Country Music on PBS by Ken Burns runs 16 hours and covers almost the entire 20th Century history of the music genre

The new series, Country Music on PBS by Ken Burns runs 16 hours and covers almost the entire 20th Century history of the genre from the early 1900s to 1996, delving into its roots of the Appalachian Mountains to the Southwest.

Included in the series are the stories of three notable performers with Native American roots are Hank Williams Sr., Loretta Lynn, and Peter La Farge.

Hank Williams, Jr.

Hank_Williams_Promotional_Photo
Williams is regarded as one of the most influential singers and songwriters of the 20th century despite his early death at age 29. Promotional photo

Hiram King "Hank" Williams (September 17, 1923 – January 1, 1953) was a singer-songwriter and guitar playing musician. In country music circles and beyond, Williams is regarded as one of the most influential singers and songwriters of the 20th century despite his early death at age 29. Born in Alabama to parents of Muskogee Creek and Tsalagi heritage, he learned to play guitar from an African American musician named Tee Tot. Pushed by his mother to play and sing in public, the tall lanky sickly boy – born with scoliosis of the spine – Williams pushed through the pain to record 35 singles (five released posthumously) that reached the Top 10 of the Billboard Country & Western Best Sellers chart, including 11 number ones.

His only song that dealt with anything Native was Kaw-liga a novelty song about a drug store wooden Indian that falls in love with a female wooden Indian at an antique store. But it fell in line with most of his music that was lovelorn heartbreak songs that he lived like he wrote. Songs Never Again and Honky Tonkin', Move It On Over, a cover of Lovesick Blues, Your Cheatin' Heart Hey, Good Lookin', and I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry became instant classics.

Hank Williams Kawliga 1953

Williams died in the backseat of his Cadillac on the way to a show in 1953. He was inducted into the Native American Music Hall of Fame in 1999. His grandson, Hank Williams III, inducted his grandfather with a tribute performance of a medley of hits. An entire episode of Country Music, Episode 3, called The Hillbilly Shakespeare, is devoted to Williams and his enormous influence and legacy.

Loretta Lynn

Loretta Lynn, born to Melvin "Ted" Webb and Clara Marie Ramey Webb and named in honor of Loretta Young, Loretta was the second of 8 children who married at age 13 and had four children by the time she was 18. Lynn grew up in Butcher Hollow, a mining community near Paintsville, Kentucky. Her mother Clara was of Scots-Irish and Cherokee ancestry. Her father was a coal miner.

Loretta Lynn Squaw

Pulling herself out of poverty and an early marriage led to songs that told the gritty truth of life with too little money, too many children too soon, and a drinking, unfaithful husband. The songs struck a chord with listeners and as the 1970s progressed she got feisty with lyrics, singing about The Pill and taking her husband’s girlfriends to Fist City. Her one Native song, the controversial Your Squaw is on the Warpath, became a hit and she also covered Williams Kawliga on the same album that featured Lynn in Native dress on the front and back cover.

She has been inducted into more music Halls of Fame than any other female recording artist, including The Country Music Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and was the first woman to be the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year in 1972. Lynn received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2003, a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. Winner of four Grammy Awards (including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010) she has sold more than 45 million records worldwide. Loretta appears in episode six.

Peter La Farge

For someone who was friends with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash  and who recorded an entire album of his Native protest songs — Peter La Farge remained relatively unknown after his early death in 1965 until the last decade.

Peter La Farge
Peter La Farge - courtesy photo

Two notable artists, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash wrote about LaFarge

“I remember when protest songwriting was really big. The guy who was best at that was Peter La Farge. He was a champion rodeo cowboy and sometime back he’d been a boxer. He had a lot of his bones broken. I think he’d also been shot up in Korea. Anyway, he wrote Ira Hayes, Iron Mountain, Johnny Half- Breed, White Girl, and about a hundred other things. There was one about Custer The general he don’t ride well anymore. 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 songwriter too.” Bob Dylan, Biograph 1983

“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.” Johnny Cash

La Farge was born in New York City and grew up on a ranch in Colorado, carrying his family's intellectual traits – his father Oliver had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1930 – and his Native rodeo background with him. When he hit Greenwich Village in the late 1950s, he sang at coffeehouses and befriended fellow Native singers Buffy Sainte Marie and Patrick Sky. 

BuffySte. Marie, Peter La Farge, photo Fred McDarrah
BuffySte. Marie, Peter La Farge, photo Fred McDarrah

He got a record contract with Columbia, then Folkways and released 6 albums before dying of an overdose. 

The harsh, stark, poetic nature of his songs caught Cash’s attention and he recorded Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian in 1964. But La Farge’s glory was short-lived, and after his death, his family shut down his legacy, not understanding his importance and ashamed of his mental issues and drug use. Now Ken Burns puts the spotlight in La Farge again as Cash’s partner in protest in episode five.

Author’s thoughts

As a Native journalist, I was jolted when I learned of La Farge after Johnny Cash’s death in 2003. How could this strikingly handsome influential singer have been so forgotten? 

Years of research yielded the answers, and in 2010 I co-curated a show at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian called Up Where We Belong in Washington D.C. and New York City on Native musicians that included La Farge. 

Soon after a feature film Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World based on the blockbuster exhibit was produced, filmmaker Martin Scorcese has put LaFarge in two of his documentary films on Dylan, most notably, the film of a 1970s concert tour Rolling Thunder Review where Dylan croons The Ballad of Ira Hayes to a room full of Iroquois in Dakota. It’s a stunning resurgence, and long overdue.

The series, Country Music can be streamed at www.pbs.org or purchased as a DVD set.

The PBS site is https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/country-music/

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Sandra Hale Schulman, Cherokee, has been writing about Native issues since 1994. She is an author of four books, has contributed to shows at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and has produced three films on Native musicians.

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