14 December 2009

A Christmas Case Study

As far as I know, this is the first song to deal with the combined themes of Christmas, backcountry skiing, and the often uncomfortable subject of grotesque deformities in elven children. All that in one heartwarming tune by everybody's favorite sausage salesman, Jimmy Dean.

"Little Sandy Sleighfoot" was released on a Columbia records 7" single in 1957 backed with "Whey They Ring the Golden Bells." The song was written by Philip Crane (who served as the State Senator of Illinois from 1969-2005) and composed by Joseph Savarino. Also published in 1957 was the book Little Sandy Sleighfoot written by June Unwin and illustrated by James Unwin. The book contains the Crane-Savarino sheet music. You can buy first edition copies for $850 at The Bookshop in Chapel Hill. Or, you can listen to Jimmy Dean's version to your heart's content without spending a dime. A true country music oddity.

Little Sandy Sleighfoot

His name is Sandy Sleighfoot,
And oh so sad was he,
For though he stood just 4 feet tall
His feet were 3 feet 3.
He tried to help make Santa's toys
But with his feet so long,
He'd trip and fall and break them all
Just every thing went wrong.

Now little Sandy Sleighfoot
Don't you feel so blue:
Even with your feet so long
God has a place for you.
The other kids made fun of him,
They laughed at him with glee,

But Sandy Sleighfoot learned one day
Without skis he could ski;
So when the night 'fore Christmas Eve
The reindeer stable burned,
He skied down hill and saved the deer
By remembering what he'd learned.

Now everybody loves him,
And Santa Loves him, too,
And ever since on Christmas eve
He's helped bring gifts to you.

Happy Holidays, you all!

02 December 2009

The Real Bird

On behalf of the U.S. Mission to the U.N. and to help celebrate Native American Heritage Month I was asked to speak at the International School of Geneva, Campus des Nations, on an aspect of Native Americana. My audience was a room full of eleven and twelve year-olds and my subjects for them were the words and wisdom of Henry Real Bird from the Crow Nation in southeastern Montana.

Henry is a bit difficult to pin down. He is an ex-Bronc rider in the rodeo circuit, a professor, a cowboy, the newly appointed Poet Laureate of Montana, a rancher, and, above all, a member of the Crow Nation. Because of this I thought Henry would be the perfect person to introduce to a bunch of preteens who might be in search of their own sense of self.

The Crow are peaceful people who, under the leadership of Chief Plenty Coups, aligned themselves with the whites in order to protect and preserve their native land. On 26 June 1876, one-hundred years after the Declaration of Independence, the native land of the Crow was forever mythologized when General George Custer and the 7th Calvary regiment were decimated by a Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne war party. Other than a few scouts hired by the 7th Calvary the Crow played no part in the battle. Yet today the Crow live within eyesight of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. A heavy burden to bear and, in my opinion, a reason Henry's poetry is laced with themes of drifting, restlessness, dreaming, and searching.

The image of the driftwood is a significant metaphor for the Crow. A single piece of driftwood is likely to be crushed or drowned in a river's torrent while a bundle of driftwood protects itself with its buoyancy and combined strength. More than the strength in numbers idea, the driftwood metaphor also includes themes of interconnectedness between nature, humanity, and the spirit world. The Crow word for clan is ashammaleaxia, which translates as "driftwood lodges" and implies that the members of the eight Crow clans must stick together to withstand dangers and hazards from straying too far out alone. Integrity, then, is maintained through a tightly bound driftwood bundle, a commitment to the community rather than the self.

The life of Henry Real Bird also demonstrates strength through diversity. In every sense, Henry is a giant of a man and his wide-ranging interests and experiences - separate and unique pieces of a unified driftwood bundle - only contribute to his competence. Henry has been down several of life's roads and he has returned each time with a reawakened sense of purpose and belonging. Each trip has reconnected him in someway with something else: memories, myths, rhythms and songs, words, silence, the darkness, and the light. Interconnectedness with family, community, history, and memory, along with the ability to express oneself is the path to what Henry calls "unlimitlessness." This was the message I wanted to convey to these young people and Henry's image, words, and life-story made the task easier. To quote Henry, "a spark of thought knows no end."

Thanks to Meg and Hal from the Western Folklife Center for allowing me to use their materials. The CDs Stories From Native America and Henry's Rivers of Horse provided audio segments while Why the Cowboy Sings introduced the students to Henry's home. All the photos were taken by Peter de Lory. Thanks, most importantly, to Henry, who after having met and worked with only one time five years ago continues to welcome me into his words.