Peter LaFarge, The Singing Protest Cowboy
Another cowboy who later transitioned into the music arena was Peter LaFarge, a Narragansett Indian born in Colorado in 1931. LaFarge was actually born Oliver Albee LaFarge, but allegedly he and another rancher decided that Oliver was “a sissy name” and decided on Pete, later Peter as the name he would go by for the rest of his life. LaFarge began singing during his teenage years, appearing on a few local radio stations, and around the same time, as one writer notes, he went through a Theodore Roosevelt-esque experience in Colorado when his time with horses “helped him grow physically from the weak youngster he was early on."1 LaFarge ultimately quit school to join the rodeo circuit, where he rode bareback and saddle bronc. However, he ran into far less success than he did broken bones and trips to the emergency room. However, LaFarge did ride in at least one rodeo at Madison Square Garden and became a successful “mugger”–the team member who holds the wild horse while its saddled–on the Indian horse race circuit. After serving in World War II he tried to resume his rodeo career, along with a stint as an amateur boxer, but he hung up the reins when an accident almost resulted in an amputated leg.
At this point LaFarge decided to take up theater and ultimately moved to Greenwich Village in New York City where he started to run with the folk scene that at the time was populated by the likes of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. LaFarge found some more success during his music career, but he largely remained a songwriter’s songwriter, enjoying support from Bob Dylan and others, but getting dropped by Columbia Records. While his ballad on Pima Indian Ira Hayes became a top five country hit on Johnny Cash’s 1964 concept album Bitter Tears (LaFarge also wrote a majority of the songs on the album as well), his sparse musical style that consisted of a single guitar and a monotone voice, and his Native American subject manner, left him outside of the folkways currents by the mid-1960s. LaFarge died in 1965, apparently of a suicide. While he saw something of a resurgence with the rise of Red Power in the late 1960s and early 1970s, something Cash’s record pre-dated by a half decade, and the Smithsonian has re-released his recordings, LaFarge remains little more than a footnote in most histories documenting the protest and folk music of the 1960s.
Even though LaFarge mostly made his name in protest songs that highlighted Indian identity and sovereignty, he wrote a number of songs and poems dealing with the rodeo and cowboy life. Most of them have been collected on “ Songs of the Cowboys / Iron Mountain and Other Songs” To just highlight one, “Iron Mountain” deals with a ride on a horse that “emerged from hell” and who the rider wishes he had “never asked to be unchained.” While the cowboy ultimately ends up on his head instead of his rump, the spirit of Iron Mountain is an embodiment of Native resilience over the course of American history. To quote the final verse of the song,
Let him go on bucking, let him fight them all He’s a great bucking pony and he might make you fall He fights the human people Cause he’s an outlaw and a king Let him go on fighting He’s a rebel, that’s the thing.
I found all of this as I was digging around OSU’s online catalog of News From Indian Country and stumbled across a short article chronicling LaFarge’s life. You can listen to some of LaFarge’s songs here (including Ira Hayes) and there are countless videos on Youtube that you can browse.
“The Ballad of Peter LaFarge, Native America’s Protest Pioneer” in News From Indian Country, March 8, 2004. ↩︎