Peter La Farge
Peter La Farge
|Birth name||Oliver Albee La Farge|
|Born||April 30, 1931|
|Died||October 27, 1965(aged 34)|
Peter La Farge (born Oliver Albee La Farge, April 30, 1931 – October 27, 1965) was a New York City-based folksinger and songwriter of the 1950s and 1960s. He is known best for his affiliations with Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.
Early life and education
Oliver Albee La Farge was born in 1931 to Oliver La Farge, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and anthropologist, and Wanden (Matthews) La Farge, a Rhode Island heiress. The family moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where his younger sister Povy was born in 1933, but his parents' marriage fell apart. They separated and divorced in 1937. His father married Consuelo Baca, with whom he had one child, Peter's half-brother John Pendaries La Farge, nicknamed "Pen" (b. 1952). Wanden took the children with her and bought a ranch in Fountain, Colorado in 1940, later marrying foreman Alexander F. "Andy" Kane.
La Farge grew up partly in New Mexico and partly on the Kane Ranch in Colorado, although he did not get along well with his stepfather. He shared a love and respect with his father for the histories and cultures of Native Americans, with which his father was deeply involved in study. But he later became estranged from his father, changed his given name to Peter, and at times would even claim, falsely, that he was adopted. He also claimed to be distantly descended from the Narragansett Indian tribe through his New England ancestors, a claim that is suspect and remains unproven.
Peter went to Fountain Valley High School but left before graduating. Around this time, he appeared in local theatrical amateur nights, and in 1946/47 he sang cowboy songs on radio stations KVOR and KRDO. Throughout his childhood, Peter went to rodeos with his stepfather Andy Kane (who took part in roping events). As a teenager, Peter began to compete as a rodeo rider in both bareback and saddle bronc events.
Korean War and early career
La Farge joined the United States Navy in 1950 and served in the aircraft carrier USS Boxer throughout the Korean War. He also joined the Central Intelligence Division (CID) as an undercover agent involved in efforts to suppress narcotics smuggling. While in the Navy, he learned to box and took part in a couple dozen prize fights, in the course of which his nose was broken twice. While on the ship, it was hit by a plane that missed its landing, and he suffered burns in the ensuing fire. He was discharged in 1953 and awarded the China Service Medal and Ribbon, a U.N. Service Medal and Ribbon, and a Korean Service Medal and Ribbon (5 stars).
After the war, La Farge competed again as a rodeo cowboy, getting injured often and almost losing a leg in one accident with a Brahma bull. Following his recuperation, he studied acting at the Goodman Theater School of Drama in Chicago and took supporting roles in local plays, remaining in the city for two years. During this period, he married a fellow actor, Suzanne Becker.
New York years and later career
La Farge relocated to New York City, where he became interested in music. As a young musician, he worked with Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White, and Cisco Houston; Houston became La Farge's mentor, in songwriting and in life. As a singer-songwriter, Peter La Farge became well known as a folk music singer in Greenwich Village, along with Bob Dylan, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Dave Van Ronk, and Pete Seeger. He was contracted briefly with Columbia Records.
At a September, 1962, Carnegie Hall "hootenanny" hosted by Seeger as a means of introducing new talent, Dylan performed a song that he never recorded, La Farge's "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow". Its subject was the flooding of the Allegheny Reservoir along the Pennsylvania and New York border, against the opposition of the Seneca Nation of New York, who insisted it violated the 18th-century Treaty of Canandaigua signed with them by the United States under its president George Washington. Immediately following this song was Dylan's epic work, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall", in his first public performance of that song. LaFarge later wrote, and recorded, his own version of "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow", which was covered by Johnny Cash and others.
His performances in Greenwich Village gained him a recording contract with Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records. La Farge's five Folkways albums (1962–1965) were dedicated to Native American themes, as well as blues, cowboy songs, and love songs. "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," his most famous song, is the story of a Pima Indian who became a hero as one of five United States Marines who raised the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima. He later suffered from prejudice and struggled with the return to civilian life, becoming an alcoholic. This song was covered by Johnny Cash on his 1964 album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, reaching Number 2 on the Billboard country music chart. Cash credited La Farge with inspiring the entire album, which included four other songs besides "The Ballad of Ira Hayes."
By 1965, La Farge was also becoming known as an artist and painter. He lived with the Danish singer Inger Nielsen, and the pair had a daughter, Karen. They did not marry in part because La Farge was still married to Suzanne, who was then in a mental institution in Michigan.
Johnny Cash's success increased demand for folksingers, and La Farge was signed to MGM Records, where he planned a new album. However, in October 1965, Peter La Farge was found dead in his New York City apartment by Inger Nielsen. He was said to have died from a stroke or (more probably) an overdose of Thorazine, an addictive sleep aid that Johnny Cash allegedly had introduced to him. He was buried in Fountain, Colorado, survived by his sister, half-brother, daughter, and granddaughter.
In 2010, a tribute album, Rare Breed, was recorded by musicians including John Densmore, Felipe Rose, Hank Williams III, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Johnny Irion, Keith Secola, John Trudell, and the band Blackfire.
- 1962: Ira Hayes and Other Ballads
- 1962: Iron Mountain and Other Songs
- 1963: As Long as the Grass Shall Grow: Peter La Farge Sings of the Indians
- 1963: Peter La Farge Sings of the Cowboys: Cowboy, Ranch and Rodeo Songs, and Cattle Calls
- 1964: Peter La Farge Sings Women Blues: Peter La Farge Sings Love Songs
- 1965: Peter LaFarge on the Warpath
- 2010: Rare Breed: The Songs of Peter La Farge
Notes and references
- Schulman, Sandra Hale. Don't Tell Me How I Looked Falling: The Ballad of Peter La Farge. Slink Productions, 2012.
- Harris, Craig. Heartbeat, Warble, and the Electric Powwow: American Indian Music. University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.
- D'Ambrosio, Antonino. A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears, pp. xiv, 13-19, 58-59, 81-82
- Keeling, Kara, and Josh Kun, eds. Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies, p. 156.
- Bogdanov, Vladimir, Chris Woodstra, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine, eds. All Music Guide: The Definitive Guide to Popular Music, p. 784.
- Sullivan, James (2019). Which Side Are You On?: 20th Century American History in 100 Protest Songs. Oxford University Press. p. 154. ISBN 9780190660307.
- Some sources state that the singer Liam Clancy, who lived next door to La Farge, claimed La Farge had committed suicide by slitting his wrists in the shower stall of his apartment. Clancy's account conflicts with the police report, contemporary coverage by the New York City newspapers, and subsequent statements by close family members. See Harris 2016 and Sounes 2001.
Further reading and viewing
- Cash, Johnny. Cash: The Autobiography of Johnny Cash. Harper, 2000. ISBN 978-0-00-274080-7
- Schulman, Sandra Hale. The Ballad of Peter LaFarge, a 2010 documentary. UPC 8-85444-39205-4
- Sounes, Howard. Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan. Doubleday, 2001. ISBN 0-552-99929-6