“Up Where We Belong” Previewing the New NMAI Contemporary Native Music Exhibit

Brian Wright-McLeod
News From Indian Country July 2010

The steady growth of the contemporary Native music scene is becoming more visible as waves of new artists in all genres come to the forefront. Yet, much of the general public, and many Native musicians remain completely unaware of the rich history of their predecessors.

Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture is a new exhibit that opens August 7, 2010 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. Featured here are the many important contributions made to contemporary music by thirteen iconic Native musicians from the 1920s to the present. Link Wray (Shawnee), Redbone, Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree), Jesse Ed Davis (Kiowa/Comanche), Jimi Hendrix (African American/Cherokee), Rita Coolidge (Cherokee), Robbie Robertson (Mohawk), Stevie Salas (Apache), Randy Castillo (Isleta Pueblo), Mildred Bailey (Couer d”Alene), “Big Chief” Russell Moore (Pima), Oscar Pettiford (Cherokee/Choctaw/African American), Peter LaFarge (Narragansett).

Exhibit organizers Christopher Turner, NMAI’s Cultural Research Specialist; Stevie Salas, Advisor - Contemporary Music Program; and Tim Johnson, Associate Director for Museum Programs, have created a groundbreaking show. The exhibit traces the long history of contributions generated by many contemporary Native artists who have since become household names.

Turner stated, “The exhibit tells their stories and histories, and provides visitors the opportunity to find out who these people are, to hear their music and learn about Native artists who made an impact on contemporary music.” He also revealed that, “Brian Wright-McLeod really helped grease the wheels for this project, especially with his book The Encyclopedia of Native Music [University of Arizona Press].”

Salas remarked, “We are doing a cool exhibit this summer on natives who had a major role in pop music history such as Link Wray and Jesse Ed Davis. The show also instills a sense of pride and accomplishment among many aboriginal people."

The Friday, July 2 exhibit preview kicked off with a noon concert at the Outdoor Amphitheater with a panel featuring blues/rock guitarist Derek Miller (Mohawk), Salas, Turner and yours truly, who all talked about the music, the featured artists and the importance of the exhibit.

The presentation was topped off with guitar duets with Salas and Miller who played examples of various songs by Link Wray, Jesse Ed Davis and Peter LaFarge. The program was repeated at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival the following day at the Narrative Stage within the Smithsonian Inside Out program area. Included in the second panel was writer Sandra Hale Schulman who recently produced the CD/DVD compilation “Rare Breed: The Songs of Peter LaFarge.”

Family members of some of the exhibited artists who attended the two-day event were elated.  “It’s just simply an honor to have this happen,” said Shari Wray, Link Wray’s niece. Also present was Randy Castillo’s sister Christine, who remarked, “I’m moved to have my brother recognized in this tribute.”
Featured Artists:

Link Wray (Shawnee) credited for inventing the “power chord” - the electric guitar sound that spawned genres and generations of rock music. Wray was immortalized through his controversial 1958 instrumental “Rumble.”

Redbone - the first all Native pop super group that not only included Native iconography in their shows and in their music but also enjoyed top 40 chart-topping singles such as “Come and Get Your Love,” “Witch Queen of New Orleans” and “Suzi Girl.”

Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree) opened the ears of the world to the plight of the Native people in North America by penning and recording some of the most conscious-raising protest songs of the 1960s including “Universal Soldier.” A regular on Sesame Street, and winner of an Academy Award for the song “Up where We Belong” from the 1982 film An Officer and a Gentleman, are but a few of her long list of accomplishments.

Jesse Ed Davis (Kiowa/Comanche) was one of the most sought-after session guitarists from the late 1960s through to the early 1980s. Beginning his career playing stints with school chum Leon Russell, Davis also toured with country singer Conway Twitty. Davis began recording with Taj Mahal and appeared in the 1968 film The Rolling Stones Rock’n’Roll Circus. He later recorded with all members of the Beatles’ on their various solo projects. His slick guitar sound also embellished major hit singles such as “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy, Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes,” Eric Clapton’s “Hello Old Friend,” and many others.

Jimi Hendrix (African American/Cherokee) is responsible for creating the most memorable guitar licks and anthems of the psychedelic blues/rock era of the late 1960s with songs like “Purple Haze” and “Little Wing,” but more notably, his hallucinatory version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Rita Coolidge (Cherokee) is known for recording several hits of the 1970s including “Higher and Higher;” her most noted collaborations were with Bonnie, Delaney & Friends, and Kris Kristofferson. She later turned to her Native roots with the Walela project that featured her sister Priscilla and niece Laura Satterfield.

Robbie Robertson (Mohawk) a superb guitarist and songwriter for the Band, who also worked with film director Martin Scorcese; Robertson’s many film credits include Carny, The King of Comedy, Raging Bull, but most prominently The Last Waltz. Robertson turned to his Native heritage in 1994 with the album Music for the Native Americans.

Stevie Salas (Apache) is a world-renowned guitarist and session player who collaborated with legions of superstars including Bootsy Collins, Buddy Miles, Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger and others. Salas also provided the guitar chops in the 1989 film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and more recently has recorded with Justin Timberlake and I.T.

Randy Castillo (Isleta Pueblo) who was Ozzy Osbourne’s drummer for ten years, sessioned with Lita Ford and appeared on Motley Crue’s 2000 album New Tattoo.

Mildred Bailey (Couer d”Alene), an early jazz vocalist of the 1930s and ‘40s, was best known for her hit “Rockin’ Chair” written by Hoagy Carmichael. She helped childhood friend Bing Crosby get his start in showbiz, she was the first woman to host a national radio show in the United States, she discovered Billie Holiday, and was known as “the first lady of jazz.”

“Big Chief” Russell Moore (Pima, Gila River Indian Community) best known as the first trombonist for Louis Armstrong, was active in the Big Band and Dixie Land jazz scene beginning in the 1930s and went on to session with numerous artists including Lionel Hampton and Quincy Jones. Moore was featured prominently on the 1964 Armstrong recording Hello Dolly.

Oscar Pettiford (Cherokee/-Choctaw/African American) who first introduced the cello as a jazz instrument was prominent in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Pettiford also wrote some of the most distinguished jazz compositions of his era including “Bohemia After Dark.”

Peter LaFarge (Narragansett) LaFarge released six albums between 1961 until his death in 1965.  He wrote and recorded some of the most vitriolic protest songs that described the Native American historical and contemporary experiences. His songs “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow,” “Drums” and “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” became classics and were covered by many artists including Bob Dylan, Jim Pepper (Kaw/Creek), Townes Van Zandt, Keith Secola (Anishnabe), Michael Bucher (Cherokee), and Joanne Shenandoah (Iroquois).

Included in this tribute, is country music legend Johnny Cash. Although, not a Native himself, Cash was so impressed by the power and simplicity of the songs of Peter LaFarge, that he recorded two albums that featured LaFarge’s compositions: Bitter Tears [Columbia 1964] and Ballads of the American Indian: Their Thoughts and Feelings [CBS 1972]. Cash’s albums planted LaFarge’s music smack dab in the centre of international recognition. “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” was such a huge success that Cash included the track on at least ten of his ensuing solo albums.                     

After his time working with LaFarge, Cash was emotionally moved by the experience and falsely admitted to having Native heritage. Cash later revoked the bogus claim, saying he was “caught up in the moment.” The incident was later verified by his daughter Rosanne Cash who said, “No, there’s no Native American heritage in our family tree.”

All of the material on display in the exhibit was gathered from personal collections of surviving family members, living artists and private archives including album jackets, photos, and other historical ephemera. Objects include Jimi Hendrix's patchwork leather coat; Link Wray’s 1958 Danelectro Longhorn guitar, a double-platinum album from heavy metal drummer Randy Castillo and the green metal-fleck battle axe guitar from funkster Stevie Salas. Visitors can access descriptive audio narratives and music samples on each performer with hand-held MP3 players.

The video section includes an approximate hour of vintage film including a clip from 1965 with Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash and Pete Seeger performing LaFarge’s “As Long As the Grass Shall Grow,” Redbone’s appearance on Burt Sugarman’s 1970s music show The Midnight Special, Jesse Ed Davis performing with Eric Clapton, and George Harrison in the 1971 film The Concert for Bangladesh, Stevie Salas’s appearance with Mick Jagger from the video “God Gave Me Everything I Want,” from the 2001 DVD project Being Mick, and Led Zeppelin’s guitarist Jimmy Page discussing Link Wray’s 1958 guitar hit “Rumble” from the 2008 doc It Might Get Loud.

“Encore” is the second segment of the exhibition and features artists who represent the span of Native achievement in mainstream music over the past half century. Some worked for years in the industry without wide acknowledgment of their Native roots. Other artists received recognition for integrating their Native identity into their music and for bringing Native themes to a wider audience. Artists in this honorable mention category include, among others, the drummer for Frank Zappa’s Mother of Invention Jimmy Carl Black (Comanche); jazz saxophonist Jim Pepper, heavy metal group Testament’s lead singer Chuck Billy (Pomo).

“Keeping the Beat,” the final section, highlights current Native artists working in various musical genres. The wall of CD covers, located beside an encased volume of The Encyclopedia of Native Music, features country singers Rebecca Miller (Mohawk) and Crystal Shawanda (Anishnabekwe), Debora Lyall (Cowlitz) of the group Romeo Void; jazz singer Julia Keefe (Nez Perce); blues-rock artist Mato Nanji (Lakota), Samantha Crain (Choctaw) and many others.

The official ribbon-cutting ceremony takes place on Saturday, Aug. 7, at 4 p.m. in the Sealaska Gallery. The exhibit will run until January 2011.

For further information: call; 202-633-1000; TTY: 202 633-5285 Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), 4th St. and Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC.

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