One of the most famous pictures from the American West portrays the Apache warrior Geronimo behind the wheel of an early Cadillac. Most of us have seen this picture countless times in magazine articles, schoolbooks, newspapers and documentaries. There’s something about this image that both shakes you up and moves you at the same time. It’s a picture where the old meets the new: the jewel of western technological achievements, the automobile, driven by a character you’d expect to see riding a horse. There’s great irony in this shot. The people of the New World had fallen behind the times completely and much to their misfortune, they had done so during an era when the world was progressing extremely rapidly.
I remember being a very small child and seeing this photo for the first time. It was in one of the newspapers my dad was reading. I was excited. My friends and I were playing cowboys and Indians back then almost every day. My dad, amused that I was so jazzed up about the picture, cut it out of the paper for me. I treasured it. The funny thing is that it took me years to realize that Geronimo wasn’t the chief in the picture but rather the man behind the wheel, dressed in the white man’s clothes. And once I realized that, the picture started taking on a different meaning to me. I checked out a few history books from the local library and learned that Geronimo never owned an automobile. This picture was staged. Its sole purpose was to show how even the most ruthless of Native American warriors could be tamed and civilized. Now, the savage who according to The New York Times had “a reputation for cruelty and cunning never surpassed by that of any other American Indian chief” was wearing a top hat. He was housebroken.
Our song of the week, “Geronimo’s Cadillac” by Michael Martin Murphey depicts both the famous photograph and Geronimo’s fate rather well. And by doing so, it does a nice job criticizing the poor treatment of Native Americans, their imprisonment and their forced assimilation or rather, immersion, into the white culture. The white man hadn’t just stolen the Indians’ land; he had also destroyed their culture – he had ripped off feathers from Geronimo’s “uniform.”
They put Geronimo in jail down south
Where he couldn't look the gift horse in the mouth
Sergeant, sergeant, don't you feel
There's something wrong with your automobile
Warden, warden, listen to me
Be brave and set Geronimo free
Governor, governor, isn’t it strange
You never see a car on the Indian range
Whoa, boys, take me back
I wanna ride in Geronimo’s Cadillac
Warden, warden, don't you know
The prisoners ain’t got no place to go
They took old Geronimo by storm
They took out feathers from his uniform
Jesus told me and I believe it's true
The red men are in the sunset too
They stole their land and they won’t give it back
And they sent Geronimo a Cadillac
In an interview published in the American Songwriter Magazine in 1987, Murphey elaborates on the song’s genesis:
The two images together - Geronimo and a Cadillac – just struck me as a song title. It was every irony I could ever think of about our culture in two words. Their attempt to make of him what we would define as a civilized person. That was the reason they put him in a Cadillac in the first place. He was actually in jail at the time.
Musically “Geronimo’s Cadillac” is rather interesting. While it fits neatly in the singer-songwriter genre that dominated the main stream in the early seventies, it features other musical styles as well. There is a fair amount of gospel in the song’s chorus, blues in the guitar interludes and more than a touch or rock’n’roll in the delivery. Even though I always felt that Murphey could have polished his vocals slightly more on this track (they’re pretty raw), what we have here is a very spirited performance from him, filled with such gusto that the listener finds himself singing along whether he intends to or not. I also love the guitar solos on this one. True to the spirit of the times, they are played very much off the cuff, which makes them sound exciting and fresh. In fact, there’s nothing about this track that sounds over-rehearsed or pretentious. It’s organic music with a lot of soul.
Going back to the photograph, while it is slightly humorous, there was nothing funny about Geronimo’s life around the time the picture was taken. The photo shoot that produced the picture took place at a Wild West show in Ponca City, Oklahoma in 1905. It was one of the many shows that featured Geronimo. In fact, this is what the old chief was forced to do during the autumn of his life: He was put on display at exhibitions and shows around the country. And when he was not performing at Wild West shows, he was a prisoner of the US Army at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. So even though he was quite a star in his day, his was by no means glamourous existence.
Geronimo died of pneumonia at Fort Sill in 1909, only four years after the legendary picture was taken. In his final hour, he regretted having surrendered, muttering that he should've died fighting his enemies.
You can learn more about Michael Martin Murphey here:
About the curator - Tommi Tikka
Tom Tikka is a linguist, poet, professional songwriter, recording artist and a music aficionado. He started playing guitar when he was four and writing songs when he was six. Consequently, he doesn't remember a time when he wasn't playing or writing. It's fair to say, music and lyrics are not just something he loves to engage himself in; to him, they are a way of life.