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Peter La Farge iTunes Tracks

Peter La Farge

Born Oliver Albee La Farge, April 30, 1931, Fountain, Colorado (son of a Pulitzer Prize winner), Peter was a descendant of the all-but-extinct Narragansett Indians, thus his allegiance to everything Native American. From his early days in the US Navy (served in the Korean War, c.1950s) and as a professional rodeo rider (in which he nearly lost a leg), he took up acting and studied at Chicago’s Goodman Theater School of Drama.
His association with folk and blues legends such as JOSH WHITE, BIG BILL BROONZY and future mentor CISCO HOUSTON led to work as a singer-songwriter/performer. Relocating to New York City, the newfound singer-songwriter befriended many Greenwich Village stalwarts including BOB DYLAN, DAVE VAN RONK, PHIL OCHS, RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT and folk mainstay PETE SEEGER.
Now just turned thirty, LA FARGE was briefly signed to Columbia Records, where he delivered one LP, the JOHN HAMMOND-produced ”IRA HAYES” AND OTHER BALLADS (1962) {*5}. Not a massive seller by any stretch of the imagination, it nevertheless hallmarked one classic gem – the title track (the tale of a Pima Indian WWII hero who through prejudice turns to alcohol), while his heartfelt renditions of trad songs such as `John Brown’s Body’, `Alabama Bound’ and `St. James Infirmary’ were passable if not as legendary.
With more than just a penchant to right the wrong of the Native American Indian, his protest songs were being revamped by the day’s C&W stars; JOHNNY CASH for one subsequently took the aforementioned `Ira Hayes’ and five other selections for his highly-acclaimed concept LP, `Bitter Tears’ (1964).
Meanwhile back at the ranch, LA FARGE inked a deal with Folkways Records, who delivered the first of five albums in ‘62, IRON MOUNTAIN AND OTHER SONGS {*6}.
A self-confessed “limited” singer – as he poignantly realised early on in his career – his narrative, countrified vocals were nevertheless emotional and effective. Saddled side by side with several blues-like cues (check out `Marijuana Blues’! and `Alaska, 49th State’), cowboy songs such as `Pop Reed’, `Pony Called Nell’ and `Iron Mountain’, they managed to conjure up some historical meaning; more so for songs `Abraham Lincoln’ and his brief instrumental-beat homage to `Cisco Houston’.
On his next project, the self-explanatory AS LONG AS THE GRASS SHALL GROW: PETER LA FARGE SINGS OF THE INDIANS (1963) {*7}, he part-sings/part-narrates his way through the touching history of Native Americans; `The Senecas’, `Damn Redskins’, `Tecumseh’, `Custer’ and `Trail Of Tears’ are excellent examples of his faithful devotions, while he even incorporates modern-day apocalyptic worries by way of `Take Back Your Atom Bomb’.
As a way to counterbalance his previous album, LA FARGE set out on the high lonesome trail again courtesy of …SINGS OF THE COWBOYS (1964) {*5}, a record lodged firmly in dust-bowl Americana and a C&W album for folkies. Something akin to listening to, rather than watching, an old John Wayne movie, former rodeo rider Peter – and cattle caller – procures the odd tune from the field (among the best: `I Ride An Old Paint’, `Whoopee Ti Yi Yo!’, `Chisholm Trail’, etc.).
Maybe LA FARGE was watching too many ELVIS movies (possibly Love Me Tender or Flaming Star) when he recorded SINGS WOMEN BLUES (1964) {*4}; the young cowboy goes all romantic on tales of `Sundi’, `Bad Girl’, etc. – he was also no JOHNNY CASH.
Revisiting his seminal `Ira Hayes’ (and the almost identical `Johnny Half-Breed’), ON THE WARPATH (1965) {*7} saw LA FARGE as a forthright champion of his people; pick out `White Girl’ as his romantic anti-apartheid indictment. With that “Running Bear” beat (a JOHNNY PRESTON chart-topper, for the uninitiated), he got all incisive and sardonic via `The Crimson Parson’ and `Radioactive Eskimo’ and `I’m An Indian, I’m An Alien’; other highlights included the thumping, Indian rockabilly dirges, `Stampede’ and `War Whoop’.
Tragically, and with more than a little confusion and mystery, LA FARGE was to die on October 27, 1965, the result of a stroke or overdose, and not from slashing his wrists in his apartment shower. Whether Pete would’ve went on to greater things, who knows? One thing we do know is that his musical legacy and heritage were inspirational to the likes of BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE and REDBONE.
© MC Strong 2010/GFD // rev-up MCS Aug2015

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