"Wow. I read it all Sandra. Strong stuff indeed. Some of it I knew, but you tied up all the loose ends. Hair raising. The folkies certainly don’t want to hear that stuff, at times, then or now the truth of people’s lives. Thanks for this. Important." - Tom Russell
"Many thanks for sending me your book. Believe it or not, I just read it straight through, on an Amtrak train between Boston and New York. I was overcome with emotion several times as I read it. You have done a remarkable job recovering a family story--a musical story too, and so much else." Albert L., Literary Agent
"What a crucial, heartbreaking, beautiful piece of work, your Ballad of Peter La Farge is." ZH, a reader
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I remember when protest songwriting was really big. Phil Ochs came to town, Tim Hardin was around, Patrick Sky, Buffy Sainte-Marie, but there was never any such thing as a protest movement. It was like the term beatnik or hippie. These were terms made up by magazine people who were invisible, who liked to put a label on something to cheapen it. Then it could be controlled better by other people who were also invisible. Nobody ever said ‘Well here’s another protest song.’ The guy who was best at that was Peter La Farge. He was a champion rodeo cowboy and sometime back he’d been a boxer. He had a lot of his bones broken. I think he’d also been shot up in Korea. Anyway he wrote “Ira Hayes,” “Iron Mountain”, “Johnny Half-Breed”, “White Girl” and about a hundred other things. There was one about Custer “the general he don’t ride well anymore.” We were pretty tight for a while. We had the same girlfriend. Actually, Peter is one of the unsung heroes of the day. His style was just a little bit too erratic. But it wasn’t his fault, he was always hurting and having to overcome it. Johnny Cash recorded a bunch of his songs. When I think of a guitar poet or protest singer, I always think of Peter, but he was a love song writer too.
--Bob Dylan, CBS Biograph 1983
Peter was a genuine intellectual, but he was also very earthy, very proud of his Hopi heritage, and very aware of the wrongs done to his people and other Native Americans. The history he knew so well wasn’t known at all by most white Americans in the early 1960s – though that would certainly change in the coming years – so to some extent, his was a voice crying in the wilderness. I felt lucky to be hearing it. Peter was great. He wasn’t careful with the Thorazine though.
-Johnny Cash, Cash
It is such a sad, sad, story. Peter was always in pain...physically and mentally. To be honest sometimes it was very hard to be around him.
- Patrick Sky
Of the new songwriters I’m the oldest and most evil with my past. I have no lies to tell about my past and sometimes it strangles me like a black dog putting his foot down on my throat. Someone once said to me ‘I envy your heart, but I couldn’t stand your hangover.’ I'm alone now and filled with lonely pain. Pain always sends me home to write. -Peter La Farge, 1964
My brother? His doomed wife? Let’s just say the story drifts and turns into fog and vanishes.” –Povy La Farge Bigbee, February 2005
The last clear, definite, stamped everlasting picture of Peter La Farge that I hold in my brain has him in cowboy drag slouching down the steps of a small with-it (Times Book Review people, actors) restaurant in the west 40s, tears oozing down his cheeks from the contact lenses he thought would make him look like Randolph Scott forever stalking Laredo. Peter and I hadn’t spoken for about two years on this January noontime in 1965 and I just noted him out of the corner of my own pragmatic, Kissinger lensed specs and said to myself a little self-righteously but with a pang in my heart that I’d never admit: You poor fucking star-shooter. You think this masquerade can go on forever. Well, baby, it can’t. Nay.
You see, I was putting him down for being a masquerade and telling myself like some kind of tough Jewish Calvinist that he was going to pay, thou must pay the wages of Freudian sin, for his defiant narcissism and street-stardom, and my Christ he did pay because less than six months later he was dead and the sense of psychiatric realism that the bad years had drilled into me checked off self-satisfaction when I heard the news. I wasn’t glad Peter was dead, I was glad I had been right, because both of us had been in pursuit of American reality, the final purpose of our competition, and now it was clear with one of us morgue-meat and the other not that I had won the right to trust my judgment about art in America, about trying to pound out some values in a time absolutely without them for those of us trying to carve our personalities on the media landscape.
- Seymour Krim, Son of Laughing Boy
Don’t tell me how I looked falling
Buddy tell me how I looked on
Don’t tell me how I looked fading
Cuz yesterday is gone
Don’t Tell Me How I Looked Falling, Peter La Farge, 1963
Prologue: NYC, October 27, 1965
Inger Neilsen, a 24 year-old blond Danish singer and former Playboy Bunny, was having those bad feelings again. Something was wrong, she felt ugly and unwanted and shaky. Where was Peter? He usually came to Bellevue every day after the nurse and doctor left, with flowers and songs and stories of how they would go back to Santa Fe soon to start over.
They would get their baby girl back, get off the hard stuff, get it right this time, live in a house with a music and writing and painting studio, dusty brown horses in the back, dry warm desert breezes, the smell of sage blowing through lace curtains.
Maybe Peter would stop being so manic, staying up for days on end hurting and raving and writing and clubbing and taking every drink and powder and pill that he was offered. Maybe his limp from his mangled knee would get better. Maybe she would stop having bad dreams and could be a good wife and mother.
Well maybe not a wife, Peter already had one of those, but she was locked away in Chicago and the treatments weren’t working. Suzan. He never talked about Suzan. But his mother Wanden did, it was clear who she cared for.
And those too many pills Inger took when was pregnant? Well who can blame her. She and Pete could never marry, his mother was so cold and unfriendly, and those bad thoughts – I could hurt you, I could kill you - just wouldn’t stop.
They tell me you’re a bad girl
Well baby I’m an evil man
They tell me
You’re a rascal
Well baby I’m a rascal fan
Don’t you mind
What they say of you
Cause they got me down there too
They tell me you’re a rascal
Well baby I’m a rascal fan
Bad Girl, Peter La Farge 1964
New York City that October was cold and hard and gray, there were too many drugs and not enough friends who cared. Really cared. Most were either jealous or critical of Peter’s success as a songwriter. Maybe he couldn’t sing his own songs as well as Johnny and rise above it, prophet-like like that damn Dylan kid Bob, but he was unique – he was tall and dark and drop-dead handsome, he had been a Shakespeare actor Off Broadway, a rodeo cowboy who bronco bucked everywhere from New Mexico to Madison Square Garden, and a painter who had just begun to show and sell his work.
But they were cruel, sitting in the dark and making their three-minute judgments, so cutting it made him bleed inside.
Then of course there was the money. Lots of it, millions of dollars, plus a huge ranch in Colorado just waiting for him, sitting under mother Wanden La Farge Kane’s controlling thumb. But no one in New York knew about that, or that Wanden had been paying for everything for them – the rent, the doctor bills, the pills, the fancy clothes.
Through the haze of the medication they put Inger on, and the ache in her womb from the birth three months ago of their daughter Karen, Inger felt empty and confused.
The baby had been taken away when she was just two weeks old, she didn’t really want her, did she? Her mind zigged and zagged.
I could hurt her, I might kill her.
No I’m ill and unfit, I can’t handle a baby, isn’t that what Wanden had said? Here let me take her back to Colorado for a while until you are better. I raised two children and have a big ranch and servants and money, your sordid life in NYC isn’t for a child.
Maybe the witch was right, of course, but it still had her reeling, and now Peter is not here, and she had to go to her part time job at the dress shop. The doctors felt it was important for her to do but she hated it nonetheless. Was it better than doing the bunny dip for leering businessmen, or singing Danish folk songs that made her heart hurt for home?
Sometimes she wanted to die. Sometimes she tried. Was that why she was still here?
I don’t have much to give you in winters cold and snow
But listen to my offer once more before you go
The time of the snowdrops is coming
I can hear the bluebells ring
And I will bring you flowers
If you will stay til spring
Flowers, Peter La Farge 1963
After her shift, Inger pulled her scratchy woolen coat up around her thin neck, pulled her fine blond hair over with a clip and walked the few blocks back to their mid-town garden apartment. Dazed and frail, she shook as she fumbled with the key, opened the door, walked in, and stood shock still. Papers and whiskey bottles and records and clothes and pills and syringes were strewn about.
She started cooking dinner when Peter came in. Lurching on his bad leg, his snap front shirt wrinkled, his rodeo buckle flashed dully in the fading afternoon NY light. Strands of slick black hair hung over his sharp cheekbones. He seemed out of it, set down his cane, and came into the kitchen to down a three finger shot of whiskey. He told Inger he needed to lie down as he stumbled into the bedroom, a half empty bottle of Four Roses in his hand. She finished dinner and went in to tell him it was ready.
Where can one pick roses where no roses grow
Where can one find love where no love exists
I loved you so deeply
I shall never love again
Saturday Evening, Old Danish folk melody recorded by Inger 1963
I can’t help
My bad heart
Loves too well
Deal me God
One last card
In My Chains, Peter La Farge 1963
“Peter, wake up. O my love, get up, what have you done. Can you hear me? Peter? Peter?”