The Indian Summer Story

Indian Summer musicians: Rhiannon Giddens, Nico Mirande, Talitha MacKenzie, Chris Birkett, Michael Laffan leaning on a dolmen in St Cibard, France

It began as a short set of songs with a Native-American theme that I added to my live performances of Celtic traditional music in 2001. Overwhelmingly enthusiastic audience response convinced me that not having these songs recorded would be a missed opportunity. Recording vocals for the blockbuster Troy in 2004 provided the financing that I needed to create this long-awaited album.

Indian Summer is the product of many experiences on both sides of the Atlantic. From primary school history lessons about the natives who first populated Long Island, through trips to historic sites in Philadelphia and Jamestown Settlement, pilgrimages to family reunions in West Virginia, all of these planted seeds that only germinated and grew after I was firmly settled in Scotland. During the last few years, while working on this project, I have discovered just how many other people share my Scottish/Native-American heritage. This widespread phenomenon is not well-known but, through the scholarship of people like Dr James Hunter and Dr Michael Newton, it is being brought to the fore and I am delighted to have helped provide a soundtrack for it.

1. Go So Far is a musical montage that came together over the course of many years. I first heard “Winadeyaho” in 1994, under the title “Cherokee Morning Song”, on the Robbie Robertson and the Red Road Ensemble’s recording Music for the Native Americans. As I had attended a family reunion that same year, where I learned of my Cherokee (4 x) great grandmother Elizabeth Quillen Westlake, the song was all the more uplifting to me. I first performed it a cappella with choirs that I was directing, then incorporated it into my song “Go So Far”. Although I didn’t know the exact translation at the time of recording, I now have a reference to its being in the Teehahnahmah language and meaning “My spirit is strong—I have spoken”.

Another idea for this song, which crystallised into its current form in 1998, came to me twenty years before with an anecdote from Dave Kleiman (with whom I worked at South Street Seaport Museum, Manhattan): he said that the longest placename in America was given to a lake in New England, the translation of which was “You fish on your side of the water, we fish on our side of the water, nobody fishes in the middle”. In 1991, I finally tracked down the original name in an old book: before the area was settled by Europeans, Lake Webster had been called: Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg by the Nipmuck People. I filed the information away, thinking that this would make a fantastic rhythmic framework around which to build a song one day.

The spark was relit when I saw a television programme about alternative ways of preparing food. One part featured a Native-American who harvested wild plants and cooked them outside, while sharing his philosophy of replenishing the earth in exchange for what is taken. It was this that inspired the main verses of “Go So Far”, echoing an eco-friendly interpretation of the Nipmuck chant. I then trawled through various field recordings and came across a version of the Cherokee Stomp Dance, on which I based the break-down section, the final piece of the puzzle.

A happy coincidence was the meeting of Rhiannon Giddens in 2004, when I was just at the point of finalising my demo recording. Introduced to me by Dr Michael Newton as a student of Gaelic Song, I was delighted to find that she also had family connections to two Native-American tribes (Lumbee and Occaneechi) and had been singing pow wow songs with the North Carolina Drum Circle Southern Sun. Her voice was perfect for both “Winadeyaho” and the Stomp Dance lead vocal. The result was a rhapsody of musical colours, like a patterned quilt with pieces from many sources.

2. Land of the Setting Sun, (“Tìr Dul Fodha na Gréine”, in Gaelic) began its life as an entry for the Òran Ùr Songwriting Competition. I was looking for a theme with a Scottish/American connection when I picked up a copy of Dr James Hunter’s book Glencoe and the Indians (1997), with the reference to Cherokee Chief John Ross, whose family were predominantly Scottish. This led me to think of the parallel between the Highland Clearances and the Ethnic Cleansing of the Cherokee People so I began my research by reading Trail of Tears, by John Ehle, then drafting lyrics in standard Gaelic to run by Gaelic scholar and poet Anthony Dilworth. He suggested that, as the first verse of the song was set in Sutherland (where Ross’s father was born), I might contact Dr Nancy Dorian, specialist in East Sutherland Gaelic dialect, for her input. In its standard Gaelic form, the song was short-listed for Òran Ùr 2001 but during preparation for recording in 2006, while viewing the BBC television programme Mar a Chunnaic Mise, Nancy Dorian agus a’ Ghàidhlig, I was inspired to contact her about a possible conversion into ESG. She was so open and supportive of the project that it was a joy to work on it with her. What was amazing about the process was that many vowel rhymes appeared in the Sutherland dialect that were not there before; the scanning of the words was also improved and the song became much easier to sing, as if it had finally settled into its own natural skin. I sent the finished version to the USA Songwriting Competition 2007 and it placed fifth in the World Music Category (total number of entries 33,700).

My original plan had been to write the song in three parts: beginning in Gaelic, moving to English and finishing in Cherokee; however, when I read that “Amazing Grace” had been translated into Cherokee by Rev Samuel Worcester & Elias Boudinot, I decided to keep it bi-lingual and then segue into:

3. Unelanvhi Uwetsi (the Cherokee version of “Amazing Grace”), which had been sung on the Trail of Tears in 1838. But where could I find the words and pronunciation for it and what tune did they use? These were the questions in my mind when the copy of Ruth Bradley’s Teach Yourself Cherokee, (University of Oklahoma Press) that I had ordered previously, landed at my door. Opening to Lesson 3, I found the words and music that I was wishing for. I felt that the Great Spirit was smiling down on me that day.

I wanted to present the song a cappella, as it had been sung on the long journey to Oklahoma, and it was crucial that the chords were entirely different from the standard hymnal arrangement. The poignancy of the hardship and loss would need to be conveyed but I also wanted the arrangement to be uplifting. After hearing chords in my head for weeks but not quite finding them on the piano, I enlisted the help of church organist Catherine Reding, who went through the piece with me and everything fell into place. Afterward, I worked out all the voicings and we debuted it at the Amnesty International 40th Anniversary Concert in November 2001.

Although I dreamed of recording an EP on my own record label, this idea was moot until a job offer to sing on the soundtrack of Troy provided income enough to fund it. Soon after that whirlwind trip, first to Abbey Road, then to Hollywood, I had an enthusiastic message from producer Chris Birkett (Buffy Sainte-Marie, Sinéad O’Connor) saying that he was keen to work with me on the new project. So I booked some studio time with him for March/April 2006. I thought that, to be on the safe side, it would be a good idea to have a fourth song ready to record. That song was:

  1. Anicuani, which was introduced to my a cappella group Sedenka in the mid-90s by one of our singers, Mel Rowe; years later another Sedenka member, Satya Dunning, brought a version in French from Africa and a third member, Issi Baxter, came to the group having learned it from her mentors RainbowHawk & WindEagle (of the Ehama Institute in New Mexico). As it was described as a welcoming song, we often used it as warm-up at the beginning of our singing sessions. For this reason, I decided that it would make a perfect starting point for the recording, to welcome the listeners into my own cross-cultural musical world.

5. Indian Summer I wanted a title for the EP that made reference to the Native-American themes; once I settled on Indian Summer, it made sense to write a title track. Having treasured memories of long car journeys from New York to visit relatives in West Virginia and Ohio, I had had the idea of making a chant out of the names of the mountains that we always drove through en route, building up a song based on that. The chorus came to me during a Highland walk in Glenelg in July 2003; back home in Edinburgh, I worked out the verses and began to draft a tongue and cheek Country-style accompaniment.

In my mind, the piece was a fusion of Ragtime honky-tonk piano (a reference to music that was popular when my grandparents were young) and Old Timey clawhammer banjo. After deluging Michael Laffan, my keyboard player, with recordings of Randy Newman and Maria Muldaur, and Scott Joplin piano books, we recorded a demo but, as he took a laid-back approach to the song, the tempo was a little on the leisurely side. When we sent it to Rhiannon Giddens to work out the banjo part, she needed it to be faster for the clawhammer rhythm to work. So I decided to bring them both to the studio in France for them to battle it out. They met on 1st April and a musical compromise was reached; the following year, they were married.

6. Willow was a gift to me from Issi Baxter (aka Singing Blackbird), who taught it during the winter Kiva Ceremony in February 2006. Although I had already decided on the tracks for my EP, the idea of emulating the attributes of the willow tree (gentleness, strength of heart and groundedness) so engaged me that I kept this one in mind for a possible bonus track. We recorded a live version of it on my birthday, in the long garden behind the studio in France, with a huge bonfire crackling away. Later, I returned to record a studio version.

7. Wind Chases the Sun I had performed a set of Native-American songs for more than one Amnesty International Concert, raising awareness of the plight of political prisoner Leonard Peltier, but always wished that I had a song written specifically for him. Reading through a press release on the 30th anniversary of his incarceration (February 2006), I learned that his Lakota name, Tate Wikuwa, means Wind Chases the Sun. This phrase became the catalyst for a song that came flowing out in less than an hour. I had never written lyrics from a man’s point of view but, as the words seemed to write themselves, I didn’t try to alter their course in any way.

The storyline was based on Peltier’s book Prison Writings: My Life is my Sundance, which I had read years before so I was a little uneasy that I might have misremembered some of the details. I sent a recorded copy to Leonard in prison, which was returned undelivered just before we were due to leave for the studio in France. So, I quickly contacted the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, sending them an mp3 and copy of the lyrics. I received an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from Toni Zeidan who makes regular visits to Peltier in prison; she promised to play the song to him over the phone and get a copy of the words to him.

His response was that it was fine but, like all other songs written about him, it would need to be checked over by his lawyer, Barry Bachrach. After long correspondence and several phone calls, I not only got the go-ahead to record but Barry was very generous with his feedback on various particulars within the lyrics. This boosted my confidence as I now knew that the final result had received their seal of approval.

8. McCullough’s Leap came into the frame unexpectedly when I asked Rhiannon Giddens if she knew an Old Timey tune that might work as an instrumental break for “Indian Summer”. She played a number of things and one of them just set me on fire. As brilliant as it was, it didn’t quite work within the song, so we settled for it coming straight after, with the sound of crickets as a segue between tracks. When I asked what it was called, she didn’t know so I used the name of a place in West Virginia that I had visited as a child. There was a commemorative plaque on a bridge celebrating Major Samuel McCullough’s jump off a cliff in 1777 when, pursued by Mingo warriors he fell, with his horse, 140 feet into Wheeling Creek. I had always wondered at this story and thought that the raucous tune suited it well. I didn’t contribute to the instrumentals but, after Rhiannon recorded a track of flat-footin’, I added the voice over “Shake yer feet there, honey!” which is what my Pop-pop, Albert T Lewis, used to say when he was encouraging other people to join him on the floor for some Appalachian-style dancing.

By the end of the booked recording time, instead of three to four finished tracks, we had six and a half tracks recorded plus a bonus track—too many for an EP but not enough for an album. With the addition of the song “Indian Summer”, the concept of the album was now expanded from Native-American music to a more personal journey into my roots, as a Scottish-American with Cherokee blood. This gave me the possibility of co-opting a song that had been written for a different recording project. The song was:

  1. Eilean Fada, about growing up on Long Island, NY, and my longing to visit the land of my ancestors. The music was based on a jazz riff that bassist Niall Muir composed and used as a warm-up exercise during rehearsals with my band. The lyrics play on the fact that An t-Eilean Fada (literally ‘the Long Island’) is an expression given to describe the Outer Hebrides, islands off the West Coast of Scotland (including Lewis, where my mother’s family is from). I wrote the song in 1997, after being accused of not understanding the words of the songs that I had recorded. In order to quash the misconception, I decided to write my own song in Gaelic to set the record straight and to explain why, as a New Yorker, I had such a love for Gaelic Song.

I now needed to write two more tracks before going back to France to record in July. Working with the idea of family connections, as expressed in “Indian Summer”, I started working on:

  1. Family Tree The original plan was for it to incorporate the song “Willow” as its chorus but, try as I might, something was blocking me from making that work. The plan was to begin with a verse about my father’s obsession with Colonial American family history, then move on to my Cherokee great-great-great-great grandmother on my mother’s side. However, I woke up one morning with the opening chords in my head and by the time I got out of the shower, the whole song was composed—I just had to get it written down before it evaporated. It came to me almost fully-formed as a song about my father and me, complete with its own chorus, so there was no room for expansion and no place for “Willow”. Before I knew it, the demo was recorded and ready to be sent to him for Father’s Day.

11. Wheeling Island Girls Once I had a song for my father, there was no going back—I had to write one for my mother, who was born and raised on Wheeling Island, WV in the middle of the Ohio River. The seeds for the song had been planted in 1987 during a visit to her cousin’s home in Cincinnati. Nancy Klingensmith pulled out some newspaper articles from 1936, when the flood waters had risen to 57 feet and caused mayhem in the town. Although the journalists had portrayed the situation in dire terms, those who had lived through it described it with great hilarity as an exhilarating time filled with positive memories.

For a long time, a favourite fiddle tune of mine has been “West Virginia Girls”, as played by Jon ‘Shortbow’ Bekoff (recorded at a session in Charlottesville, VA in 1979). For years I had had the idea to marry this tune with a song about my mother, Norma, her sister Betty Jane and cousin Nancy growing up on the island. To ensure that the integrity of the Old Timey dance tune structure was not impaired, I kept it simple, no odd numbered bars inserted or extra bits and pieces added—just the fiddle tune five times through with the storyline to give it momentum. At first, I was afraid that it would be too monotonous but instead it seems to have a mesmeric effect. Of all the tracks on Indian Summer, this one has had the most airplay. I call it my ‘happy track’ and I’m overjoyed that it has now enthralled listeners from all over the world.