Mixed race? Me? Scotch-Irish, Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, Norman French: that’s not a very diverse ethnic cocktail. Oh, wait – I left out one. I am part Cherokee Indian. 1/64th, in fact, though possibly more. It may not sound like much, but it’s precisely the same amount of Cherokee blood that Senator Elizabeth Warrencan claim, and she hasn’t hesitated to check off the “Native American” box when asked her ethnicity! But I can and do claim my Cherokee ancestry proudly as a small part of my heritage, however – – and can bemoan the likely interactions with Native Americans likely perpetrated by the other 63/64 of my ancestors. For my make-up is roughly 6.4% Trail of Tears and 93.6% Andrew Jackson.
America prides itself on its diversity; it’s boring to be all vanilla. It’s so damn common for people with a little bit of native blood to brag on it that it’s become sort of a well-known joke. Still, it’s a fact in my case, it’s been traced in my family tree, and you could certainly see Native American features in the face of my paternal grandmother (photo, right). This fired my imagination when I was a kid. In the third grade, my best friend was Don-Don Hopkins, of the local Narragansett Tribe, a descendant of Chief Ninigret. Somehow we decided that my “Indian name” was “Running Buffalo”. I was simultaneously proud and mortified when our teacher Miss Barber announced the fact of my re-designation in front of the whole class. In retrospect I am impressed that she did so with a straight face.
At any rate, all this is just an elaborate lead-in to talk about why my 45 single of “Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)” by Paul Revere and the Raiderswas one of my most cherished records when I was a kid.
By the time the Raiders had their #1 hit single with this tune in 1971, it was already over a decade old. Written by John D. Loudermilkand first recorded by rockabilly singer Marvin Rainwaterin 1959, the tune was originally called “The Pale Faced Indian”. Interestingly, neither Loudermilk nor Rainwater were Native American. The disk features some cool chanting, although it’s just as hokey, inauthentic and, well, vaudevillian as the later versions.
In 1968, a gentleman named Don Fardonreleased the first version of the tune to hit the chart. It went up to #20, and the psychedelic rock arrangement is much closer to the version we later came to know.
Finally, Paul Revere and the Raiders. I found this song really moving when I was a kid. There’s a melancholy tone (it’s in a minor key) that makes you feel sad, and the injustice stirs you to anger. Yet listening to it now, I’m delighted at the transparency of its gimmicks. That piano part reminds me of the music the elementary school teacher plays during the school play about Indians. And the relentless tom-toms, and the hallucinatory string section. And then that ending….what are we supposed to conclude? Are we supposed to be scared? It sure sounds ominous. And then, just to pull the props out, this hilariously cheesy and frivolous organ lick, as if it to remind us, “Hey, lighten up, it’s just a groovy record, man.”
Another of my favorite records, for many of the same reasons, was Cher’s 1973 #1 hit song “Half Breed.” Cher, too has a small amount of Cherokee blood. Cherokees are the largest tribe of all in the lower 48. The number of mixed-race people with some Cherokee ancestry is way larger. And the number of people who brag about being part Cherokee, even larger than that!
The cruel irony of that would not be lost on 1/64 of my ancestors.
BIO: Writer and performer Trav S.D. has written for the NY Times, the Village Voice, American Theatre, Time Out NY, Reason, the Villager and numerous other publications. He has been in the vanguard of New York’s vaudeville and burlesque scenes since 1995 when he launched his company Mountebanks, which has presented hundreds of top variety acts ranging from Todd Robbins to Dirty Martini to Lady Rizo to the Flying Karamazov Brothers. He has directed his own plays, revues and solo pieces in NYC since 1989 at such venues as Joe’s Pub, La Mama, Dixon Place, Theatre for the New City, the Ohio Theatre and the Brick. In 2014 he produced and directed the smash-hit, “I’ll Say She Is”, the first ever revival of the Marx Brothers hit 1924 Broadway show in the NY International Fringe Festival. He is perhaps best known for his 2005 book, “No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous”, recently cited by Bette Midler in people magazine as one of her favorite books. His upcoming show “Horseplay. or the Fickle Mistress” opens Feb. 15 at LaMama and will star Everett Quinton, Molly Pope, Jan Leslie Harding, and Tim Cusack.