He died from an overdose of cobra venom. That was one story. Or he killed himself with seconal or speed or alcohol or a savage overdose of the ragged-edge doldrums that subverted and sunk his erratic, artistic struggle. He walked across the 60’s Greenwich Village scene like a proud and displaced Indian; slant-six Stetson and beat up Justin boots click-clacking past the dives and basket houses. Around his gut was a hand-tooled belt hitched with a trophy buckle from the bronc riding in a small town Indian rodeo. He carried fragments of a deep invisible scar at the bottom of his spine, a psychological wound from spying on drug-smuggling soldier mules during the Korean War. He was a man who rode a saddle bronc one afternoon at Madison Square Garden and then played King Lear in an off Broadway production that same evening. He was a pro boxer, poet, and playwright. One of the first of our “topical” song-writers to be signed to Columbia records; and the first to die.
On an overcast, bleak New York afternoon his Danish wife walked into their second-rate hotel room up in the east 50’s of New York City and found the body and the empty vile of cobra venom which was supposed to fight off his depression. He was the son of Oliver La Farge, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Laughing Boy,” and this boy inherited that passionate, driving ache to write about Native people, though he was not a full-blooded native person. He had a little Narragansett blood in him. His name was Peter La Farge, or “Peter Bucking Horse” as the Indians called him, and he wrote one of our finest American songs: “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” His sister lives right up the road from me here in these Chihuahuan badlands. One afternoon I took her the original 8 by 10” signed photo I found of Peter riding the great bronc “War Paint” and winning Denver in ’58. It was signed “To Woody.” I would imagine Peter had planned to deliver it to Woody Guthrie in the hospital, but Woody out-lived Peter by two years. La Farge died in 1965.
Naw, he wasn’t really a full blooded Indian. Nor was he a truly great bronc rider.
But these predilections and passions, along with the ravages of too much pain jammed into too few years, carved him up and into a Rimbaud-tinged, Cow kid-Indian poet and writer of grand power. From this western knowledge and a dose of truth-serum Peter composed “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” If God has made a better “protest” song, the Great Father has kept it to himself. The Pima Indian Ira Hayes served in WW II and helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima. He returned home to die drunk in an Arizona water ditch on barren Pima land; tribal land raped and gutted by the white man’s greed. Ira’s final departure is painted in tough, ironic lyrics:
“Then Ira started drinkin’ hard,
Jail was often his home
They let him raise the flag and lower it,
Like you’d throw a dog a bone.”
American poetry. Pure. Truth-filled. Here lies your cowboy song, amigos. This ain’t nothin' off of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Johnny Cash recorded a group of La Farge songs, but radio refused to play the single “Ira Hayes” Cash payed for a full page ad in Billboard: “radio programmers where are you guts?” Can you imagine this happening now? These were serious characters, friend. These were the times when our folk-writers: La Farge, Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Johnny Cash and others - had done time in the Army, Navy, Marines, jail, and divorce court…had been exposed to all forms of powerful hard drugs and violence; the quicksand of catastrophic romantic relationships. Who were they? Where did they go? Married; divorced; addicted; disappeared; forgotten; dead; found Jesus, Buddha; day jobs; lost…. gone to Florida or Potter’s field, or crazy in hotel rooms, back streets, and bars. Many sank to the bottom - terminally depressed when Bob Dylan weaved and danced through it all like a blacksnake with wizened biblical poet knowledge; then went on to prosper with his Picasso-esque confidence. The rest of the generation (to mimic William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsburg) went all crazy and died, some of ‘em, as the purest minds of our culture are want to do.
Peter La Farge was a “seldom man,” to steal a concept from his father. A man whose character and mettle we’ll seldom see again. His poetry still crackles and sizzles high up in the eternal folk musical air; in my gut, and in the grooves of those collections, like Cash’s “Bitter Tears.” Let us now praise little known men and half-cocked bronc riders. His ghost is lying thirsty, in that hotel room near 50th street, where the cowboy-poet died, and where, years later, Tennessee Williams would choke to death in the middle of trying to write one final dramatic line; one last American truth. Come gather round me, people, a story I will tell….
“I always love like a high jack rabbit going through a bramble.
Or a hawk up there twining the world around him just before he
falls to get the jack. Like and eight wheeler going through a Kansas
town at midnight, with only a little boy watching from his bedroom
window and riding every non-stop car out. I love like an act of nature…
but I am alone now and filled with lonely pain…pain always send me home to write.”
Peter La Farge