Other people’s songs: “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”

Other people’s songs looks at performances by Bob Dylan both of traditional songs, and those written by others, with explorations of their origins.  The song and subsequent recordings are selected by Aaron Galbraith in the USA and then comments are added by Tony Attwood in the UK.  There is an index to the previous 64 articles in this series, at the end.

Aaron: Ira Hayes, a Pima Native American from Arizona, was one of the six US Marines photographed by Joe Rosenthal on February 23, 1945 in the iconic World War 2 photograph “Raising The Flag On Iwo Jim”. The ballad tells his story.

“The Ballad of Ira Hayes” is a song originally written by Peter La Farge and popularised by Johnny Cash.   So first, here is the Peter LaFarge version.

Tony: Well, that was a surprise – it took me a few minutes to get used to the accompaniment.  In fact, I wondered if there was a problem with the recording at first, but it is just the constant use of the bass strings of the guitar.  Very interesting how light the voice gets at the end.  I want to hear this again to appreciate what the arranger was thinking, but not really because I like what I am hearing – except at the end.

Aaron: Johnny Cash

Tony: It seems a song very much suited to Johnny Cash’s voice, and having heard the earlier recording, I am now used to where this is going.  I also think it is hard for someone like me born and brought up in England, to have a true feeling about the Indigenous Americans and what happened to the native Americans and their tribal nations, and how they were integrated.

The problem I have here though is that it seems a very jaunty piece of music for a tragic story.  That is what the previous version above doesn’t have do; there the music seems to me to be closer to the meaning of the lyrics.  But Cash makes it a much easier listen.

Aaron: Bob’s version appeared on his 1973 studio album

Tony:  I am never completely sure if Bob is celebrating American folk music, or the meaning behind the song or perhaps both.  If I had to guess I suppose I would say the latter.   But here I also feel Bob is very much centred on the tragedy that is the heart of every element of the story within the song.   It is just that I think there is far too much accompaniment; making the chorus the only part of the song that is sung works perfectly, but beyond that I am distracted by the backing, rather than appreciative of the overall piece.

I wonder if with recordings like this Bob just tells the band to play and sing along as they see fit, and then join in with the chorus (in which everything is much more integrated.)    I’m not sure I want to play it over and over, but it is emotionally, certainly much more moving than the versions above.

Aaron: Subsequent versions include the Norwegian band Bøygard from 2009

Tony:  And to my surprise and indeed delight here is a version I can immediately appreciate and enjoy (remembering of course that for me this is a song about a foreign land with its own history of which I have only partial knowledge).  It is still a tragic tale, but I think here at last the band and singers get a balance that feels right and from a musical point of view, works well.

I know the regular drum beats in the background is a bit obvious but it combines with the gentle accompaniment and sensitive voice exactly.

Aaron, I am so glad you included this at the end, as I was getting a bit desperate not to say lost.  But here at last is a performance in which music and lyrics are at one with each other and which I can appreciate even without having learned the relevant history.   The harmonies in the chorus seem to fit perfectly, and the instrumental break which changes the chord sequence is still at one with the whole song.   What a relief, I thought I was going to end up with a totally negative piece – in total contrast to the last review in which I confessed to being close to tears.  But no, I appreciate the sensitivity, but don’t get overwhelmed by the emotion.

There is an index to other series we are currently running and those recently completed on the home page of Untold Dylan.

Other people’s songs…

  1. Other people’s songs. How Dylan covers the work of other composers
  2. Other People’s songs: Bob and others perform “Froggie went a courtin”
  3. Other people’s songs: They killed him
  4. Other people’s songs: Frankie & Albert
  5. Other people’s songs: Tomorrow Night where the music is always everything
  6. Other people’s songs: from Stack a Lee to Stagger Lee and Hugh Laurie
  7. Other people’s songs: Love Henry
  8. Other people’s songs: Rank Stranger To Me
  9. Other people’s songs: Man of Constant Sorrow
  10. Other people’s songs: Satisfied Mind
  11. Other people’s songs: See that my grave is kept clean
  12. Other people’s songs: Precious moments and some extras
  13. Other people’s songs: You go to my head
  14. Other people’s songs: What’ll I do?
  15. Other people’s songs: Copper Kettle
  16. Other people’s songs: Belle Isle
  17. Other people’s songs: Fixing to Die
  18. Other people’s songs: When did you leave heaven?
  19. Other people’s songs: Sally Sue Brown
  20. Other people’s songs: Ninety miles an hour down a dead end street
  21. Other people’s songs: Step it up and Go
  22. Other people’s songs: Canadee-I-O
  23. Other people’s songs: Arthur McBride
  24. Other people’s songs: Little Sadie
  25. Other people’s songs: Blue Moon, and North London Forever
  26. Other people’s songs: Hard times come again no more
  27. Other people’s songs: You’re no good
  28. Other people’s songs: Lone Pilgrim (and more Crooked Still)
  29. Other people’s songs: Blood in my eyes
  30. Other people’s songs: I forgot more than you’ll ever know
  31.  Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  32. Other people’s songs: Highway 51
  33. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  34. Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  35. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  36. Other people’s songs: Highway 51 Blues
  37. Other people’s songs: Freight Train Blues
  38. Other People’s Songs: The Little Drummer Boy
  39. Other People’s Songs: Must be Santa
  40. Other People’s songs: The Christmas Song
  41. Other People’s songs: Corina Corina
  42. Other People’s Songs: Mr Bojangles
  43. Other People’s Songs: It hurts me too
  44. Other people’s songs: Take a message to Mary
  45. Other people’s songs: House of the Rising Sun
  46. Other people’s songs: “Days of 49”
  47. Other people’s songs: In my time of dying
  48. Other people’s songs: Pretty Peggy O
  49. Other people’s songs: Baby Let me Follow You Down
  50. Other people’s songs: Gospel Plow
  51. Other People’s Songs: Melancholy Mood
  52. Other people’s songs: The Boxer and Big Yellow Taxi
  53. Other people’s songs: Early morning rain
  54. Other people’s Songs: Gotta Travel On
  55. Other people’s songs: “Can’t help falling in love”
  56. Other people’s songs: Lily of the West
  57. Other people’s songs: Alberta
  58. Other people’s songs: Little Maggie
  59. Other people’s songs: Sitting on top of the world
  60. Dylan’s take on “Let it be me”
  61. Other people’s songs: From “Take me as I am” all the way to “Baker Street”
  62. Other people’s songs: A fool such as I
  63. Other people’s songs: Sarah Jane and the rhythmic changes
  64. Other people’s songs: Spanish is the loving tongue. Author drawn to tears

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