Red wing - THE song

The image of Native Americans in 19th-century popular culture straddled the duality of “Noble Red Man” and “Bloodthirsty Savage” with culture markers extending from James Fenimore Cooper’s  “Last of the Mohicans” (1826) A.F. Knight’s  1843 song-cycle folio “The Indians” (which is credited with starting the trend of Indian popular songs) all-white fraternal organizations “The Improved Order of Red Men” (1834) and  Longfellow’s 1855 epic “Song of Hiawatha."

inspired the poem set to music in 1857 by D. Wood and itself, inspiring a slew of "Hiawatha" knock-offs. By 1907, Red Wing, like the contemporaneous Wild West shows,  rekindled the popular culture obsession with a distorted view Native Americans leading to the introduction of Indian sports mascots in baseball (Boston, 1912, Cleveland, 1914), hockey (Chicago Blackhawks, 1925) and football (Washington Redskins, 1932; Kansas City Chiefs, 1959) a cultural trend only now being slowly redressed. 

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“Red Wing An Indian Intermezzo” was Mills’ expansion upon Robert Schumann’s 1848 “Happy Farmer” with the addition of its irresistible chorus.  With the runaway success of “Red Wing” in 1907 — some having to do with the song's eye-popping cover – Mills followed up with another Indian themed song ("Sun Bird." 1908)  which did not fare as well. 

The song has a "ghost" trio or third section. Though it does not appear in the sheet music, a third section which acts like most trios of the period which modulates to the key of the 5th (Dominant) chord or to the relative minor can be heard on a number of period recorded performances while -- as in this case -- not on others. 

On its face, Thurland Chattaway’s quotidian and downbeat lyrics seem at odds with Kerry’s strident and robust melody. A  more successful union is Woody Guthrie’s 1940 robust anthem “Union Maid.” And, while original vocal versions continued to be recorded — such as the throw-back Doc Williams — the melody has enjoyed a  far richer afterlife thanks to its omnipresence in square and contra dance repertoires. Dance callers like New Hampshire's legendary Duke Miller, replaced the original words with “singing calls” thus becoming a solid part of the vernacular dance tradition for much of the 20th century.

© 2020 by Henry Sapoznik

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