Car Trunk Confessions
“Little girl walk with me,
Down to the river
Where you first kissed me
For you are my honey be…” – “Honey Be” by Red Earth
There are many stories about the origins of 49er songs. The most common one I've heard begins with a tale of 49 Native American servicemen not returning home from World War II. Songs were written and sung at Pow-Wows to honor these men who gave their lives for their country. Today, the term “49er” has evolved into something new and exciting.
When I was younger man, going to Pow-Wow’s was something I did frequently. I loved being surrounded by my people, watching the dancers in their colorful regalia but more importantly I loved to feel the deep rhythm of the drum, the heartbeat of mother earth, shake my bones to the core and the strong connection to traditions. I often tried to decipher the words that were and still are composed in many different indigenous dialects.
After the Pow-Wow has finished, many of us, as young bucks do, would find ourselves at the after-party, more affectionately known as a “49.” Here young people mingle and, , for lack of a better term, “check each other out.” I know it may sound a little funny but after the seriousness of a Pow-Wow, “the 49” is a place where the youth can let their hair down and have some fun. Here is where traditional song crafting really takes a creative turn. Those early 49er songs that honored Native American serviceman have now evolved into a celebration of all things, especially love, humor and the human spirit.
I remember going to my first “49.” This was one of the first times I’d heard songs sung in English and they used modern slang and urban terms. Walking through the sea of braids, beaded moccasins, boots and dust and hearing this for the first time was an amazing experience for me! Having a musician’s heart and so much respect for the drum and sacred songs, it seemed radical to take something so precious and give it a modern twist, like songs professing affection for a woman or special someone. The singers were also using a battered, rusty, old Chevy Camero’s trunk as a drum. It felt like I was walking in a dream.
Though they may be humorous in origin, there is always a seriousness about a good 49er love song that makes it good enough to be appreciated by the women in the crowd. The beat has to be just right and the delivery must be confident and full of swagger. The words must reflect the singer’s affection in a tongue-in-cheek way. Maybe saying “Your frybread is better than mom’s…” or, “I like how your jingle dress sways” to say “I love you.” Most importantly, you HAVE to be able to dance to it! As time has told over and over, a good love song goes a long way! In many native dialects there is no specific word for “love;” it is simply expressed by actions. What better way to express that emotion than to compose a song about it. For the guys, it becomes a way of retaining a cool exterior while falling hopelessly undetected.
I find it especially appealing that modern natives have taken the traditional and created a new twist to songs and rhythms of old. In addition to honoring the worthy they are also able to profess love, poke fun at serious life events, sing lullabies for babies or make songs for children. In a sense, they’re extending a bridge from old school traditional to modern natives everywhere. The bottom line being that the celebration of life is a beautiful thing. It spins forever untethered to any one thing or time and always recreates and adapts itself in beautiful and unexpected ways.