Like childhood crushes, I would fall in love with particular albums, listen to them over and over for days, weeks, or months, then abandon them and move on. The love affair with Peter LaFarge lasted at least a few months, and maybe even a couple of years. I learned a bunch of his songs — “Stampede,” “Move Over, Grab a Holt,” and of course “Ira Hayes” — but this is the only one I remember all the way through.
There was a moment in the early 1960s when some people in the New York Broadside magazine clique were mentioning him right up with Bob Dylan, who concurs, saying: “The guy who was best at protest-song writing was Peter LaFarge. We were pretty tight for a while…. Actually Peter is one of the great unsung heroes of the day. His style was just a little bit too erratic. But it wasn’t his fault, he was always hurting.”
LaFarge was admired by the other young Village musicians not only as a songwriter but as someone who had really lived the life: he’d grown up in the West, served in the Korean War, been a rodeo rider , and presented himself as Native American. That story got complicated, because he had no Native ancestry, though he had grown up with a lot of Indian friends — his father was a noted scholar of Native traditions — and had been adopted into the Tewa tribe. But until Buffy Sante-Marie appeared on the scene, he was the folk scene’s most outspoken advocate for Native issues.
LaFarge had come to New York on Josh White’s suggestion, then became close to Cisco Houston, and his style drew on both of theirs, with his own dramatic additions. It’s not a style I can listen to for very long anymore, but for a while I was completely smitten.
“Johnny Half-Breed” is fairly typical of LaFarge’s songwriting, which was workmanlike and tended to tell stories with straightforward messages. It only recently occurred to me that he probably wrote this one for Johnny Cash, who had recently recorded an album, Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, with five of LaFarge’s songs on it, including the hit version of “Ira Hayes.” The timing is right, and the name, and Cash was presenting himself as part-Native, so it all makes sense.
Unfortunately, shortly after On the Warpath came out in 1965, LaFarge died of an overdose of thorazine. I’d always heard it was suicide, but there seems to be some doubt about that. On balance, he may have been more interesting as a person than as a musician, and I wish someone would get his story down. (In fact, maybe that’s another project I should consider…)