He was the first instrumentalist-poet to win a Grammy and use a wooden flute on stage as he performed.More recently, he brought that flute, along with about a dozen other hand-crafted instruments, to the Phillips Autograph Library, sharing a selection of “Wolf Songs” and spoken-word poetry for the West Chester University audience.
Joseph Firecrow, renowned musician and Native American poet, performed as part of the University’s Poetry Center reading series.
Prior to his performance, Professor Michael Piech introduced Firecrow, expressing their chance meeting.
“I heard this music, and I had to check it out, so I found where it was coming from, and I was completely mesmerized for a solid 15 minutes,” Piech said.
“I was captivated by the stories he told.”
Piech continued to list some of Firecrow’s achievements, placing highest his ability to connect to the “centuries-old tradition of poetry,” before introducing the poet himself.
After acknowledging and thanking the audience for their attendance, Firecrow gave a small insight into his personal history, including his Cheyenne name, and its translation: unsuccessful bear.
He also proclaims himself as “a flute man: I make them, and I play them.”
Firecrow consistently performs in full Native American garb, representative of his tribe.
Wearing the elk regalia is very important to Firecrow, who emphasized the priority of the community in his performances.
Firecrow’s idea of community is centered on a specific definition of mutual give-and-take applied to a much larger region than one’s hometown.
“We’ve forgotten to love one another as a family, as a global family.”
Many of the songs that Firecrow performed parallel the stories he tells of his people, with the permission of his Elders.
The Cheyenne Elders and community have given Firecrow the “mission” of spreading their ideals and way of life for others to try to understand the tradition of the Native American culture. He accepts this task, claiming it as an honor.
“Today we are still a very ceremonial people,” Firecrow said.
“This is how we maintain our identity – not just by our names, our appearance, our clothing, or how we wear our hair, even – it is through ceremony. It is who we are.”
Though the idea of “ceremony” has religious connotations, Firecrow described various ceremonies in his works, which break down the popular concept limiting a ceremony to something of worship.
Surely, there are definite religious ceremonies in Native American culture, as in any, but Firecrow expanded upon situations which don’t seem overly religious.
One such occasion is a young man’s courtship to his intended woman. Firecrow describes the separation of the young men and women by the community, and clever ways that young men devise ways to see a young woman, out of the confines of “the protective old woman with a ten-foot branch.”
Once the young man has the attention of his intended, he will play a song for her.
Firecrow borrowed a definition from his grandfather in relation to the songs his people play – songs of love and affection, titled Wolf Songs.
“Those cowboys have their guitars, and their love songs. We have the Wolf songs . . . they are direct, they are simple.”
The translation of the courtship song is as follows:
“I walk with you, and that is enough.
I kiss you, and it is good.
I walk with you, and that is enough.
I am with you, and it is good.”
Other stories Firecrow shared include the story of Mother Wolf, and the legend of how the flute came to the Cheyenne people.
Both stories share a focus on the connectedness of man to nature, and the importance of viewing nature as part of oneself and one’s community.
The musical aspect of Firecrow’s performance is simple yet rich.
Accompanied by his many flutes and percussive instruments, Firecrow sang and spoke to simple rhythms, sharing the Wolf songs and paying respect to his people.
His vocal range is astounding, but mostly resides in a rich baritone roll.
As described by Piech, Firecrow truly is a “bard for his culture.”
Tara Tanzos is a third-year student majoring in English and minoring in creative writing. She can be reached at TT649875@wcupa.edu