Cherokee Bend (1975)
This song has been haunting my sleep. That probably means I need to write something about it. The story isn’t new, and in this case, fictionalized, but the recent news of unmarked graves at so many Residential Schools has finally brought it to the forefront of peoples’ attention.
Cherokee Bend (listen to clip @ Amazon), by Gordon Lightfoot, is one of his most haunting story songs. But, unlike his most famous one, Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, it is not based on a true story but on fiction. It is loosely based on a Young Adult novel, When The Legends Die, by Hal Borland. (The physical book is now 3rd party only; it’s also available for the Kindle (device or app) here: Kindle version). The lyrics are gripping and compelling. The Borland book is frequently used in schools, in both traditional schools and the homeschooling setting.
Lightfoot has said he wrote the song after reading the adaptation published in Readers’ Digest. Like many of his songs, there is an underlying message or sentiment. This song, perhaps more so than the book, is about the mistreatment of Indians (Native Americans). The music is strongly evocative of the drumbeats you might associate with Indian rituals and music, with a driving beat behind the storytelling. Lightfoot performed the song live as recently as 2002.Cherokee Bend (lyrics)
Cherokee Bend, ©1975 by Gordon Lightfoot
His father was a man who could never understand The shame on a red man's face So they lived in the hills and they never came down But to trade in the white man's place Early in the spring when the snow had disappeared They came down with a bag of skins In the fall of the year of 1910 Daddy died by the rope down in Cherokee Bend. Daddy didn't like what the white man said 'Bout the dirty little kid at his side Daddy didn't like what the white man did Nor the deal or the way that he lied There was blood on the floor of the government store When the men took his daddy away And the boy stayed back till he come to his end And he run like the wind from Cherokee Bend. Now the mother was alone and the winter was at hand And she prayed to her spirit kin It was warm in the lodge in the Kentucky hills On the day when the boy came in Then a blizzard came down and it covered up the door Till they thought that it never would end And he told her the tale of the terrible affair In the government store down in Cherokee Bend Daddy didn't like what the white man said 'Bout the dirty little kid at his side Daddy didn't like what the white man did Nor the deal or the way that he lied For three long days and three long nights They wept and they mourned and then She returned to her work and her weavin' And they tried to forget about Cherokee Bend Now the boy wasn't big but he hunted what he could And they lived for a time that way But the food run low and the meat went bad And she said to the boy one day I'm leaving tonight and I never will return From the land of my Spirit Kin You must take what you need and trade what you can For a Red Man's grave down in Cherokee Bend It wasn't very long till she closed her eyes And he wrapped her in a robe He found her a place on the side of the hill And he buried her in the snow Early in the spring he was seen comin' down With his load looking ragged and thin Not a year had gone by when he stood once again In the government store down in Cherokee Bend He was ten years tall and a Redskin too So he hadn't much face to save And the men sat around and they laughed and they clowned At the talk of a criminal's grave Then a man from the east didn't smile when he said You're the son of that Indian scum If you value your hide then you better abide By the white man's rules here in Cherokee Bend. Daddy didn't like what the white man said 'Bout the dirty little kid at his side Daddy didn't like what the white man did Nor the deal or the way that he lied Then he spit on the floor of the government store And it served him to no good end At the close of the day they had taken him away To the white man's school down at Cherokee Bend It's been 21 years since the boy disappeared Where he run to, nobody knows But they say he fell in with a man named Jim And he rides in the rodeos And they say he returned all alone to a place Hidden deep in the Kentucky glen And it's pretty well known who hauled up the stone To the grave on the hill above Cherokee Bend Daddy didn't like what the white man said 'Bout the dirty little kid at his side Daddy didn't like what the white man did Nor the deal or the way that he lied There was blood on the floor of the government store When the men took his daddy away It was 1910 and they never had a friend When he died by the rope down at Cherokee Bend It was 1910 and they never had a friend When he died by the rope down at Cherokee Bend