For Samantha Crain, 'Making New Traditions' Is A Mode Of Survival

Apr 2, 2017

Samantha Crain's connection to her home state of Oklahoma runs deep and forms the foundation of her new album, You Had Me At Goodbye. Though the record as a whole is more pop-oriented than her previous releases, her folk roots show in her take on a song linked to fellow Oklahoman Woody Guthrie, "When The Roses Bloom Again."

"Here in Oklahoma — Woody Guthrie being kind of a hero of sorts — there's always these Woody Guthrie tribute nights," Crain says. "And me being a sort of younger artist, everyone else has already taken the quintessential Woody Guthrie songs to perform at those nights. ... So I had to do some digging."

Guthrie didn't actually write "When The Roses Bloom Again," but he did write the lyrics down in his journal, Crain says.

"So even though it's not technically a Woody Guthrie song, I feel like it captures the spirit," she says. "And he had those lyrics in his journal for a reason. I've just always loved the song. I thought it was kind of timeless."

But Guthrie's influence is only one element that grounds Crain's music. She's also a member of the Choctaw Nation and sings in the Choctaw language throughout You Had Me At Goodbye, such as in the song "Red Sky, Blue Mountain."

"I've been having a lot of conversations over the past few years about going into survival mode when it comes to keeping our Native traditions alive," she says. "I think that the conclusion that I've come to is how important it is to be making new traditions within our tribes."

That's especially important, she says, because many traditional Choctaw songs have been lost over time.

"Now, I think what we have the majority of are just Christian hymns sung in Choctaw," she says. "So I really feel like in order to keep the language alive we need to be, as Choctaws, making more music that speaks to what's important to us, and making our new traditional songs."

Hear Crain's conversation with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro and more of her music at the audio link.

Web producer Jake Witz and web editor Rachel Horn contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE ROSES BLOOM AGAIN")

SAMANTHA CRAIN: (Singing) They were strolling in the gloaming where the roses were in bloom. A soldier and his sweetheart brave and true.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Samantha Crain's connection to her home state of Oklahoma runs deep, and it forms the foundation of her new album, "You Had Me At Goodbye." Though the record as a whole is more pop than her previous releases, her folk roots peek through, like here with her take on a song linked to the famous Oklahoman Woody Guthrie, "When The Roses Bloom Again."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE ROSES BLOOM AGAIN")

CRAIN: (Singing) Do not ask me, love, to linger when you know not what to say for duty calls your sweetheart's name again.

Here in Oklahoma - Woody Guthrie being kind of a hero of sorts - there's always these Woody Guthrie tribute nights. And me being sort of the younger artist, everyone else has already taken the quintessential Woody Guthrie songs to perform at those nights. So, you know, they've already taken "This Land Is Your Land" and "Baltimore to Washington."

And so I had to kind of do some digging. And this song actually wasn't written by Woody Guthrie. It was written by a guy named Will D. Cobb, but the lyrics were found in his journal. So even though it's not technically a Woody Guthrie song, I feel like it captures the spirit. And he had those lyrics in his journal for a reason. And I've just always loved the song. I thought it was kind of timeless. You could really conjure whatever time period that you wanted to with that. And I think I've always interpreted this song as being sort of a civil war ballad almost.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE ROSES BLOOM AGAIN")

CRAIN: (Singing) When the roses bloom again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're from Shawnee, Okla., right?

CRAIN: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you live nearby there now. You've come back. Why not live in New York or L.A., Nashville, Atlanta - all these other big music centers? What keeps bringing you back to Oklahoma?

CRAIN: A lot of it has to do with family. And a lot of it has to do with the cheap cost of living here. And then I think the other thing is just I probably have this weird desire to really belong here in some way.

I've always felt like I've kind of stuck out like a sore thumb by my beliefs or my appearance or my values maybe not fitting in with a lot of what the common Oklahoma values are. But I have so much love for this place and for the people. And I think I'm just on this constant journey to belong or to make my own community in some way around here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's talk about another song that speaks to your roots. This is "Red Sky, Blue Mountain."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED SKY, BLUE MOUNTAIN")

CRAIN: (Singing in Choctaw).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're singing here in Choctaw. This is the first time you've done that for an album. Why take this on now?

CRAIN: I've been having a lot of conversations over the past few years about going into survival mode when it comes to keeping our native traditions alive. And I think the conclusion that I've come to is how important it is to be making new traditions within our tribes.

And I think that a lot of traditionalist will probably give me a hard time about calling these new songs that I am going to start writing Choctaw traditionals. But I really feel like it's kind of me going into guerilla mode and just needing to do this in order to inspire other native artists to be creating their own new traditions in order to keep the culture and the heritage alive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does "Red Sky, Blue Mountain" mean?

CRAIN: It's supposed to conjure this image of sort of a post-apocalyptic thing. So you have a red sky. You know, skies aren't necessarily supposed to be red, I guess, unless you're talking about an Oklahoma sunset, but - and then blue mountains. And then the words in themselves are quite simple. It basically just breaks down to saying a red sky, a blue mountain born to change the world. And we have. But what have we done?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED SKY, BLUE MOUNTAIN")

CRAIN: (Singing in Choctaw).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was it like to write in Choctaw?

CRAIN: It was very, very emotional for me. You know, I grew up learning certain vocabulary words and things like that. But I'd kind of been learning it more fluently through the past few years and being able to tap into that as well as working with Dora who is an elder in our tribe.

She kind of was helping me make sure that I had the right translations and the right pronunciations. It was really emotional for me. I felt like I was really connecting with the people in my family line.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are you hoping to achieve by putting Choctaw songs in your albums?

CRAIN: So many of the original traditional Choctaw songs have been lost through the years. And now I think what we have the majority of are just Christian hymns sung in Choctaw. So I really feel like in order to keep the language alive, we need to be, as Choctaws, making more music that speaks to what's important to us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINDMILL CRUSADER")

CRAIN: (Singing) So when you woke up, it wasn't safe. I wasn't here - born yesterday.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Samantha Crain joined us from member station KGOU in Norman, Okla. Her new album is "You Had Me At Goodbye." It's out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINDMILL CRUSADER")

CRAIN: (Singing) Precious life. I'm fine. You have to. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.