Peter La Farge (born Oliver Albee La Farge, April 30, 1931 - October 27, 1965) was a New York-based folksinger and songwriter of the 1950s and 1960s. He is known best for his affiliations with Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.
Early life and education:
Oliver Albee La Farge was born in 1931 as the son of Oliver Hazard Perry La Farge, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and anthropologist, and Wanden (Mathews) La Farge. His mother, a linguist (French, Italian, Farsie, Arabic) who translated Dante in the original when she was 15, married Oliver in 1929 in New York, where they made their home. Shortly after Oliver Albee was born in April 1931, as Oliver need to continue his research in Guatemala, Wanden and he spent several months in that country. This was the time of the Lindbergh baby's kidnapping, so when a kidnapping threat was received on Oliver Albee, it brought the couple hurrying home in consternation.
Oliver's sister, Povy, was born in August 1933. For several years, Wanden and Oliver lived in New York City, with frequent summer trips to Santa Fe. Sometime after Povy's birth, the couple were legally separated. Oliver Albee was subject to mastoid infections, several of which resulted in his hospitalization. When, in 1938, the doctors advised Wanden that her son would be deaf for life should there be another infection, she sent him to a special school in Tucson, where he and a number of other children boarded with special care.
Wanden found a way to rebuild her life when in 1940 she bought a 5,000 acre ranch east of Fountain, Colorado. She rented a two story rambling house in town, invested in chickens and hogs, and hired a local rancher, Andy Kane, to run the ranch and care for the cattle and horses.
Sometime in 1943 or 1944, while Wanden was Mayor of Fountain, Josh White, the Black Blues singer, came to entertain the troops at nearby Fort Carson, and was a guest in Wanden's home. Oliver Albee had by then changed his given name "Oliver" to "Pete", which he said sounded more like a bronc rider's name, and he started playing guitar. Both Josh and his brother Bill spent hours with him listening to him sing and showing him chords on his guitar. It is possible to hear Josh White's influences in Peter La Farge's guitar technique on his records.
Pete went to Fountain Valley School just north of Fountain, from about 1945 through spring 1948. By then, his mother had married Andy Kane, and they began to build the ranch HQs on the east end of the ranch, where Pete lived when not in school. He had become a skilled horseman, often leading his team in Gymkhana events, but he decided not to graduate. Instead he hitched his way to San Diego where he signed up with the Navy.
His father re-married to Consuelo Pendrais Baca, with whom he had one child, Peter's half-brother John Pendaries la Farge, nicknamed "Pen".
La Farge grew up partly in New Mexico and partly on the Kane Ranch in Colorado. He shared a love and respect with his father for the traditions and history of Native Americans, with which his father was deeply involved in study. But later he became estranged from his father, changed his given name to Peter and, at times would even claim, falsely, that he was adopted. He also claimed to be distantly descended from the Narragansett Indian tribe through his New England ancestors, a claim that remains unproven.
Peter went to Fountain Valley High School but left before graduating. Around this time he appeared in local theatrical amateur nights, and in 1946/47 he sang cowboy songs on radio stations KVOR and KRDO. Throughout his childhood, Peter went to rodeos with his stepfather Andy Kane (who took part in roping events). As a teenager, Peter began to compete as a rodeo rider in both bareback and saddle bronc events.
Korean War and early career:
La Farge joined the United States Navy in 1950 and served on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Boxer throughout the Korean War. He also joined the Central Intelligence Division (CID) as an undercover agent involved in efforts to suppress narcotics smuggling. While in the Navy, he learned to box and took part in a couple dozen prize fights, in the course of which his nose was broken twice. He was discharged in 1953 and awarded the China Service Medal and Ribbon, a U.N. Service Medal and Ribbon, and a Korean Service Medal and Ribbon (5 stars).
After the war, La Farge competed again as a rodeo cowboy, almost losing a leg in one accident. Following his recuperation, he studied acting at the Goodman Theater School of Drama in Chicago.
Move to New York:
La Farge relocated to New York City, where he became increasingly interested in music. As a young musician he worked with Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White, and Cisco Houston; Houston became La Farge's mentor, in songwriting and in life. As a singer-songwriter, Peter La Farge became well known as a folk music singer in Greenwich Village, along with Bob Dylan, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Dave Van Ronk, and veteran Pete Seeger. He was contracted briefly with Columbia Records.
At a September, 1962, Carnegie Hall "hootenanny" hosted by Seeger as a means of introducing new talent, Dylan performed a song-- which he never recorded -- "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow", with lyrics written by La Farge and music by Dylan. Its subject was the flooding of the Allegheny Reservoir along the Pennsylvania and New York border, against the opposition of the Seneca Nation of New York, who insisted it violated the 18th-century Treaty of Canandaigua signed with them by the United States under its president George Washington. Immediately following this song was Dylan's epic work, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall", in his first public performance of that song. La Farge later wrote, and recorded, his own version of "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow", which was covered by Johnny Cash and others.
His performances in Greenwich Village gained him a recording contract with Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records. La Farge's five Folkways albums (1962-1965) were dedicated to Native American themes, as well as blues, cowboy and love songs. His most famous song, "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," is the story of a Pima Indian who became a hero as one of five United States Marines who raised the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima. He later suffered from prejudice and struggled with the return to civilian life, becoming an alcoholic. This song was covered by Johnny Cash in his 1964 album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, reaching Number 3 on the Billboard country music chart.
During 1965, La Farge was also becoming known as an artist and painter. He lived with the Danish singer Inger Nielsen, and the pair had a daughter. Johnny Cash's success increased demand for folksingers, and La Farge was signed to MGM Records, where he planned a new album. However, he also had serious (and largely undisclosed) medical problems, possibly including mood disorder and substance abuse. On October 27, 1965, Peter La Farge was found dead in his New York City apartment. At the time, he was said to have died from a probable overdose of Thorazine, a sleep aid and addictive tranquilizer which Johnny Cash introduced to him at The Bitter End, a club they visited with Ed McCurdy, after meeting in May 1962 at the Carnegie Hall.
Howard Sounes revealed in 2001 that Liam Clancy, who lived next door to La Farge, told him that the singer had committed suicide by slitting his wrists in the shower stall of his apartment.| Clancy's account conflicts with the police report and contemporary coverage by the New York City newspapers. They reported that Inger Nielsen found La Farge in their apartment dead from a stroke or overdose. He was buried in Fountain, Colorado and was survived by his sister, half brother, daughter and a granddaughter.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license