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DVD review: The Ballad of Peter LaFarge

[Film]

The Ballad of Peter Lafarge/Rare Breed

The Ballad of Peter LaFarge (DVD)

review by Jim Cherry

Peter LaFarge was a proto-type for a rock star, he led a life that would be the envy of any writer. He was a rodeo cowboy, actor, playwright, folksinger, painter, manic depressive, drug user, all the things that burn in talent and leave legend in it’s wake.

Lafarge was born in New York, his mother, Wanden LaFarge, an heiress, who was of American Indian heritage, and his father, Oliver LaFarge, a scholar of American Indian culture and Pulitzer Prize winning author who wrote “Laughing Boy,” a novel about an American Indian boy. After Peter’s parents divorced he moved with his mother to Colorado and she married a rancher. Peter came of age in the west of real cowboys and Indians and he grew to know their lives and stories, he showed his first signs of artistic interest, painting murals on the walls of the house. He joined the Navy and was nearly killed in an explosion and he started to display the first signs of erratic behavior that would lead to mental illness. After the Navy, he moved to Chicago where studied at the Goodman theater to be an actor, later moving to New York to be in an off-Broadway show; he tried his hand at writing plays, and at the time Greenwich Village was rife with folksingers, he played his songs, befriended Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and influenced a young Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. He was the first Greenwich folksinger to be signed by Columbia records, and put a remarkable six albums in four years. He had a hit with “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” a song about the American Indian that helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima in World War II (and one of the main characters in Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Father’s”). And he died mysteriously at the age of 34.

In a brief forty minutes, director, Sandra Hale Schulman gives you a lot of information on LaFarge’s life, filled with quotes, clips, and interviews from contemporaries and friends such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash. Cash’s efforts to promote his friends work throughout the years are included, a clip from Pete Seeger’s television show Rainbow Quest with Johnny Cash and June Carter, to his recording an album of LaFarge’s songs, to carrying out some of LaFarge’s legacy in working with American Indian causes throughout his life. There are also interviews with friends, and a rare film of the only known footage of LaFarge performing.

LaFarge’s legacy reminds me a bit of beat writer, Jack Kerouac, an innovator in his medium whose legacy wasn’t immediately apparent and his personal shortcomings echoed down to his offspring. But the redemption of the failings is to notice the work of Peter LaFarge and acknowledge it’s influence in the world.

“The Ballad of Peter LaFarge” and “Rare Breed” is a 2 disc package. The DVD also includes the video of LaFarge’s song “Drums” with John Densmore, the drummer of The Doors not only playing the drums but assisting on vocals with Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman, the song itself is included on the accompanying CD “Rare Breed” which can be viewed on Youtube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axTlblX92BI

Rare Breed (CD)

The first thing that strikes you about “Rare Breed” is it’s crisp sound grabs you from the beginning and doesn’t let go. Despite the fact that Peter LaFarge’s died 45 years ago, LaFarge’s lyrics sound as fresh and vital as any CD by a new artist.

Sandra Schulman also produced the CD (she wrote, directed and produced “The Ballad of Peter LaFarge”). Each of the artists on “Rare Breed” produced their own songs and the artists offer their own and varied interpretations of LaFarge’s songs but none violate the spirit or intent of LaFarge’s songs. Listening to “Rare Breed” it’s clear that Lafarge was ahead of his time not only in lifestyle but in the content of his songs. There’s a Robert Johnson quality to LaFarge’s songs but without the pop and hiss of sounding like antediluvian recordings.

Johnny Cash opens the CD with perhaps what is LaFarge’s signature song “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” and Cash’s clear and strong voice gives the song a powerful immediacy.

“Drums” features John Densmore, of The Doors on what else, the drums and for the first time (as the credits say) on vocals. Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman is also featured on the track. There is also a video of the song that is included on the accompanying DVD.

“Bad Girl” by John Trudell has a real Rock ‘n’ Roll feel to it, just in the lyrics, it wouldn’t sound out of place on any rock album either from the 60’s or now.

Sarah Lee Guthrie’s (grand daughter of Woody) and Johhny Irion’s cover of “I Will Bring You Flowers” sounds like it could’ve come out of San Francisco in 1968.

Hank (Williams) III adds a punk twist to “Marijuana Blues.”

And Peter LaFarge is allowed to close out the CD in his own voice with the funny tale of “The Touriste.”

I know it sounds cliché but hopefully “The Ballad of Peter LaFarge” and “Rare Breed” will trigger a resurgence of interest in Peter LaFarge and his work, and this DVD/CD is great for anybody interested in discovering some great music from an artist who won‘t continue to linger in the shadows. Sandra Schulman will also be publishing a biography of LaFarge coming in Spring of 2011. If the “The Ballad of Peter LaFarge” and “Rare Breed” are any indication, I’m looking forward to reading the book.

The Ballad of Peter Lafarge/Rare Breed is available at Amazon http://www.amazon.com/BalladPeterFargeRareBreed/dp/B003TFERBQ/ref=pd_rhf_p_t1Information on Peter Lafarge is available at www.peterlafarge.com

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