Posts Tagged ‘Topo D. Bil’

‘Witchi Tai To’

February 4, 2014

As I wandered through various mp3s of one of my favorite songs the other day and then took a look in this blog’s Word files to see what I’d said about it, I discovered, to my utter bafflement, that not only have I never written about the song “Witchi Tai To,” but over the course of seven years and an estimated 1,400 posts, I have never even mentioned it. That neglect ends now.

In 1969, as the folk-rock duo of Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley were travelling to gigs all over the American Midwest, they’d tune in late at night to the legendary underground radio program “Beaker Street” on KAAY from Little Rock, Arkansas. And it was on “Beaker Street,” according to the official Brewer & Shipley website, that the duo first heard the song “Witchi Tai To.”

Among the members of the band Everything Is Everything was Jim Pepper, a saxophonist of Kaw and Creek heritage. As the Brewer & Shipley website puts it: “Pepper adapted the song ‘Witchi Tai To’ from an ancient peyote chant that he learned from his Native American grandfather. . . . The group’s producers encouraged Pepper to express his Native American heritage in his music, and helped him work out the arrangement and English translation.”

The single, notes the Brewer & Shipley website on its page about the song, is “the only hit in the history of the Billboard pop charts (reaching No. 69 in 1969) to feature an authentic Native American chant.” (I don’t know when that statement went up on the website, which seems to be regularly updated, but it would not be surprising if the statement remains true.)

Brewer & Shipley decided to cover the song, of course, and recorded it for their 1969 album, Weeds. And they got some of the words wrong. “The irony,” notes their website, “is that they got all the Native American lyrics right but misheard the adapted English lyrics.” They heard and sang:

What a spirit spring
Is bringing round my head
Makes me feel glad
That I’m not dead

But Pepper had written:

Water spirit feelings
Springin’ round my head
Makes me feel glad
That I’m not dead

No matter. Brewer & Shipley’s version got what the website calls “heavy FM airplay” and was perhaps the best-known version of the song, even getting mention in Jim Pepper’s obituary in the New York Times when the musician passed away in 1992.

There were other covers of “Witchi Tai To,” of course. (Some of the offered the title as “Witchitai To,” others a “Witchi Tia To,” and there are likely more variants.) Jim Pepper did his own version of the tune on his 1971 album, Pepper’s Pow Wow. Other early covers came from a group calling itself Topo D Bil, which was actually Larry Smith of the Bonzo Dog Band along with some of his bandmates and other friends (1969); from the American group Harpers Bizarre on its 1969 album Harpers Bizarre 4; from the John Schroeder Orchestra, a British ensemble that – according to the notes at YouTube – got David Byron of Uriah Heep to handle the vocals (1971); from a New Zealand group named Tom Thumb (1969); from a group called Today’s Tomorrow (1970); and from Québécois singer Robert Charlebois (1973).

Additionally a jazz group named Oregon took on the song twice, recording a short version on its 1974 album, Winter Light, and then taking the song for an eight-minute ride on Out Of The Woods in 1978. From then on, there’s a gap in my collection of covers of “Witchi Tai To” that goes to 1993, but I have no doubt that if I dug further, I’d find versions to fill those fifteen years. (The list of covers at my usual starting point, Second Hand Songs, is a little slender, but the list of mp3s available at amazon is lengthy; it includes the eighteen versions of the song I already have and offers many more.)

There are a few versions of the tune on the other side of that fifteen-year gap in my files: Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek did a nice version on his 1993 album Twelve Moons. And French-born Pete Wyoming Bender, a musician of Native American descent who evidently lives in Berlin, Germany, covered the song well on his 2005 album, Rainmaker.

Sometimes, though, the later versions are disappointments. I searched out the 2004 CD Red Dragonfly by saxophonist/flautist Jane Bunnett for her cover of “Witchi Tia To,” and found it devolved into what sounds to me aimless wandering. (As Chuck Berry wrote about modern jazz nearly sixty years ago, “they lose the beauty of the melody.”) And the 2007 version by X-Press 2, the title track of their Witchi Tai To album, sounded a little mechanical with the beats and the electronica.

My favorite? Well, I can’t say today. I still love Brewer & Shipley’s version, which was no doubt the first version I heard (likely on freeform FM radio in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as it was familiar to me when I picked up their album Weeds in the late 1990s). And I like the original by Everything Is Everything, which is relatively new to me. But one of the more arresting versions I’ve come across lately is one that showed up after the first cluster of covers from the years 1969-71. Singer/songwriter, producer and composer Rachel Faro included a reflective version of the song on her 1975 album, Rachel Faro II, and if it’s not my favorite, it’s definitely in the running.

(Mathematical error and origin of Robert Charlebois – thanks, David Young – corrected since first posting.)