Jim Morrison said that a new generation is always seeking to overthrow the last. But music’s influence may be more tribal in nature, especially rock music. Rock music has been passed from older brothers and sisters, then from parents to children, and now grandparents and grandchildren share the same musical influences. In popular culture the influences may get lost but rock musicians have always been generous in acknowledging their influences. The Doors always acknowledged the influence of the blues, playing covers and performing with legends such as Albert King and Bo Diddley. More recently Robby Krieger has performed with “The Perfect Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll Blues Band” for the documentary “Once & Again.” John Densmore will also appear on the Peter LaFarge tribute CD “Rare Breed: The Songs of Peter LaFarge.”
Peter LaFarge was a romantic figure in the early New York folk scene and possibly the first singer-songwriter that sang about the American Indians and their culture. LaFarge led a life that most of the other folk singers only sang about. He was either descended from the nearly extinct Narragansett Indian tribe or his father, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, got LaFarge interested in Native American culture at an early age. LaFarge was a rodeo rider in his teens, and he was in the Navy during the Korean War and because of an explosion on board ship he started exhibiting signs of mental illness. After the war he studied acting at the Goodman School of Theatre in Chicago, and spent a couple years touring in summer stock. He married but his wife was later institutionalized. In the late ’50s he got a part in a play and moved to New York where he also started writing plays.
After his acting career sputtered out he grew disenchanted with the theatre and started playing guitar in Greenwich Village clubs to earn a living. He hung out with Woody Guthrie, was a mentor to Bob Dylan, and was the first folksinger to get a recording contract with Columbia Records. Johnny Cash made LaFarge famous when he covered Lafarge’s “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” LaFarge died under mysterious circumstances in October of 1965 either of a drug related stroke or suicide. His death certificate reads: Pending Further Investigation.
The film “The Ballad of Peter LaFarge” by Sandra Hale Schulman will be released in conjunction with it appearing at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s (NMAI) exhibit “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture” which runs from July 1, 2010 through January 2, 2011. The companion CD “Rare Breed: The Songs of Peter LaFarge” features music from John Densmore, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams III, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman, and John Trudell among others. “Rare Breed” is available from Amazon or Peter LaFarge’s website, and the Smithsonian’s NMAI store. The release date for the film and CD is June 15th, but due to a technical holdup may not be available until July 1st and the NMAI opening. Ms. Schulman will also be publishing a biography “Peter LaFarge: Native America’s Protest Poet” (ed. Note: which was published as “Don’t Tell Me How I Looked Falling: The Ballad of Peter LaFrage” available as an ebook on Kindle) which will be coming out in the spring of 2011, you can read the prologue at the Peter LaFarge website.
Sandra Hale Schulman first became aware of Peter LaFarge after the death of Johnny Cash and she started researching the album “Bitter Tears.” She learned all the songs were written by LaFarge, became interested in him and started researching his life. The result of seven years of research is the film, CD, and forthcoming biography of Peter LaFarge. John Densmore’s participation in the tribute CD came about because Ms. Schulman is part Cherokee and met Densmore at the 1999 Native American Music Awards and they became friends.
Ms. Schulman has another Doors connection; she dated Jim Morrison’s friend Tom Baker in the early ’80s. Sandra Schulman also wrote The Palm Springs Arts Examiner.
Originally published June 11, 2010.