Monday, February 25, 2013

The strange story behind "Short Life"

Frances Densmore recording Mountain Chief at the Smithsonian.

So like I was saying, the Poetry Scores house band Three Fried Men has a gig this Wednesday, February 27 at Nico, opening for a Fred Friction cover band as part of a benefit for Fred's new record (with Jason Hutto producing), Murder Balladeer. A new guy I've never played with before, guitarist Mark Buckheit, expressed interest at rehearsal in the sources of our songs, since Poetry Scores sets other people's words to music. I thought it would be fun to explain this to Mark and anyone else who wants to listen.

We will open our set at 9:30 p.m. with "Short Life," a song first recorded by the Poetry Scores precursor band Eleanor Roosevelt in 1995 for the record Crumbling in the Rain, still digitally in print. It's one of the first songs I wrote on guitar by myself, though the words didn't start with me.

I got the basic kernel of the lyrics from a 741-page tome called Teton Sioux Music by Frances Desmore. It was published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1918 as Bulletin 61 from the Bureau of American Ethnology. It's preposterous to remember this in these sequestered days of a Congress dominated by people who seem bent on destroying our federal government, but the feds used to pay salaried ethnographers to prepare 741-page reports on things like songs the Teton Sioux sing to themselves.

I learned of the former existence of the Bureau of American Ethnology and its reports by reading the liner notes to Jerome Rothenberg's anthologies of ethnopoetries, Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin. Rothenberg and other pioneering poets combed these dusty volumes looking for the kernels of poetry, often plucking a few lines of song from many dense pages of exposition and setting it forth as a poem. I found it exciting to turn these fragments of poetry back into song, though a new song, in a new idiom.

With our song "Short Life," I clearly went back to the source. The notes I unearthed just now from my 1990s road journals reference page numbers in Densmore's bulletin, not any anthology. On page 297, Densmore documents the melody and lyrics of a song sung by a Teton man named One Feather

          an elk
          am I
          (a) short life
          I am living

It is a song from the Elk Society, composed of men who had dreamed of an elk -- the song of an elk dreamer. I see only now, in researching this post, that Densmore credits her translator, Robert P. Higheagle, who therefore shares a credit for this song with One Feather.

In our setting of these lyrics, I flipped the bottom and top halves of the stanza, and also turned it into a question.

          short life
          I'm living
          am I an elk?

I found a second verse in another Teton song that Densmore transcribed, again with the help of Robert P. Higheagle, from the singing of a man named Old Buffalo.

          the fox
          I am
          I seek

As you might guess, it's a song of the Fox Society, men who dream of foxes. Again, I flipped the stanza over and turned it into a question.

          something difficult I'm seeking
          am I a fox?

I have sung this song at taverns, guitar circles and campfires, but I see now, taking a closer look at Densmore's report, that Old Buffalo sang his song in totally more harrowing circumstances. Some Crow Indians stole some horses from Old Buffalo's band, including a horse owned by a beloved sister of his. So he took a group of 13 men on the warpath. This was in the coldest part of winter, what the Sioux call the Wood-cracking Moon.

Traveling on a lame leg through a blizzard, Old Buffalo led his war party along the Missouri River and drove the horses away from the unsuspecting Crows, who were dancing in the night. The Teton drove their recovered horses (53 of them) all night and the next day, before sleeping. They woke to another blizzard. "My eyelashes were frozen so that I could barely see," Old Buffalo said.

The Crows followed the horse tracks, overtook Old Buffalo's party, and took back their stolen horses after a vicious fight. "Every time we fired a gun it turned white with frost," Old Buffalo said. It was in the frozen heat of this battle, while trying to protect a 15-year-old boy from his party who had been shot in the back with an arrow, that Old Buffalo sang his fox song.

          the fox
          I am
          I seek

The remnants of his war party made it back to their band with four horses, and the boy. The boy soon died, and Old Buffalo gave all the horses away.

When I started writing songs out of poetry and folklore, I would flesh out the fragments I found by writing new lines and verses that were modeled on my source lines and verses. For "Short Life," I took One Feather's song for the first verse and Old Buffalo's song for the second verse, then went from there, making stuff up along the same lines.

          short life in trouble
          am I man?

That's borrowing from a different American tradition, "Short Life of Trouble," a folk song from the Southern Mountains, now a standard.

          something sweet and difficult
          I seek you now
          am I a grizzle bear?

          short life in struggle
          am I fly?

          something so sweet and difficult
          I am making
          am I honeybee?


"Short Life"
(Old Buffalo, One Feather, Chris King)
Eleanor Roosevelt

"Short Life" and the rest of the Eleanor Roosevelt record Crumbling in the Rain is available on iTunes and the other major download sites via Hollywood Recording Studio.

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