Thursday, June 04, 2015

"Witchi Tai To" / Brewer & Shipley

Cleaning out my brother's LP collection a year ago, the folk-rock duo Brewer & Shipley's Weeds was one of the few scarred 1960s LPs I made sure to squirrel away. (That and his autographed copy of Biff Rose's The Thorn in Mrs. Rose's Side, a record that I never expect to make a fortune with on eBay.)  I can't say that anybody fought me for it, but that's cool.

Brewer & Shipley's biggest hit, "One Toke Over the Line" (heh heh, heh heh) wouldn't come along until their next album, 1970's Tarkio.  But Holt Hughes was ahead on the curve most of the time on this sort of stuff. I have vivid memories of listening to this album with him (another important cut: their cover of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower") in our home in the Indianapolis suburbs and feeling totally plugged into the counterculture zeitgeist. Which, when you think about it, is quite a feat.

Brewer & Shipley didn't write this song; it was written by Jim Pepper, a Native American jazz saxophonist, who incorporated elements of his Creek and Kaw ancestors' peyote songs. So at one stroke, B & S were able to proclaim their solidarity with the oppressed Native American peoples AND with hallucinogenic drugs.  Talk about a win-win.

According to Michael Brewer, the duo kept hearing Pepper's recording of this song on Midwest radio stations (remember when radio was local?) while they were touring. Two sons of the heartland -- Brewer from Oklahoma and Tom Shipley from Ohio -- these guys simply fell in love this song,
beamed at them out of the Midwestern airwaves. 

Jim Pepper being a jazz guy and all, it's no surprise that the percussion track of this song is addictive. Water drums, bongos, congas, whatever they used, this is a track that from start to finish is all about the rhythm. No wonder it's bored itself into my brain lately.

 Equally seductive are the half-chanted lyrics, most of them what I've been assuming for a half-century or more are legit Native American poetry:  "Witchi tai tai, kimarah / Womanika, womanika / Hey-ney, hey-ney, no-wah."  Okay, so there's a few English words at the beginning: "What a spirit spring is bringing round my head / Makes me feel glad that I'm not dead." But let's be honest: That's not a whole lot more comprehensible than the Native American lyrics. Let's just submit ourselves to the incantatory flow and go with it.

Remember that 1971 TV ad about pollution with the crying Indian? (Turns out the actor was Italian-American, but that's 20th-century hucksterism in a nutshell). That was all part of the counterculture mythology, the solidarity with Native Americans. Granted, that was before a handful of tribes struck gold with casino wealth, but as a child of the 60s, hey, I'm not gonna begrudge them that. We befouled their continent, who are we to judge?

Give yourself into this song, and it could just as easily be a sitar-laden raga from the other kind of Indian music. Kind of a cool thing in 1969 to realize that we didn't need no maharishis -- we could groove on our own home-grown transcendent culture.


NickS said...

Thanks for the song, and the story. I understand why you'd want to keep the record.

It's really interesting to hear the song now, it feels very odd to me. Part of why they called it the "folk scare" in the 50's, as I understand, is that there's something scary about the process of turning folk music into pop music and having it performed by people who don't have any connection to the original culture.

I have not particular claim to judge what is or isn't authentic, and it's a complicated topic. I think one of the greatest lines that I've seen about any musician was Bill Clinton's saying, "There may not be a serious, committed Baby Boomer alive who didn’t at some point in his or her youth try to spend a few minutes at least trying to pick a guitar like Doc Watson." One of the great things about folk music is the way in which it does carry. When somebody does it well, it does communicate to a wide audience.

The story of how Brewer & Shipley got turned onto the song hearing it on the radio is great.

That said, I don't know that I'd feel comfortable listening to their version. But I did look up Jim Pepper's version on youtube, and I think I'll buy a copy of his album -- it's a great song.

Which isn't, in any way, to try to talk you out of enjoying it, it's just my reaction coming to the song without having heard either version before.

On the other part of the post, about the significance of Native American's to the counter-culture and the general culture of the sixties -- I happened to be thinking about "The Ballad Of Ira Hayes" recently, and it must be one of the greatest protest songs ever written. That's a song which always grabs me emotionally when I listen to it.

Tim Gentry said...

Was only familiar with One Toke. B & S were much more than that. I'd like to hear more of their music. Thanks