Jim Pepper ‘Witchi Tai To’ (1971)

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Freshman year of college two of my friends disappeared one day to some record store, and returned later with a few offbeat choices: “German Drinking Songs”, “Gregorian Chants” and “Music Of The American Indian.” I think the three of them cost a dollar combined, and they probably overpaid, but we sat in their dorm room for hours afterwards listening to those albums, especially ‘Chief Honoring Song’ off the latter, whose lyrics, as best I could ascertain, were confined to about 7 minutes of the repeated line, “Ya Na Hennay, Ya Na.” At some point our friend, Brian – easily one of the funniest people I’ve ever known – walked into the room, studied the situation, and started listening to the song for a while, before finally asking it’s title. He heard the answer – ‘Chief Honoring Song’ – and continued listening intently, for minutes more, until finally offering up this dry surmisal: “Man, they sure are honoring the shit out of that Chief.”

Thereafter ‘Chief Honoring Song’ would always have been my answer for favorite American Indian song – out of an admittedly small pool – until very recently, when I heard this one: ‘Witchi Tai To’ by Jim Pepper, off of Pepper’s 1971 album Pepper’s Pow Wow, which I caught on Sirius radio’s Deep Tracks channel. That’s a seriously deep track, indeed. Pepper, a Kaw-Muscogee Native American, was a jazz saxophonist, composer and singer in the early jazz-rock/fusion scene,¹ and this tune, which was derived from a peyote song of the Native American Church, also had a couple of seriously major contributors: Larry Coryell on guitar, and Billy Cobham on drums – two of the heaviest hitters in jazz fusion history. It became a genuine popular hit, receiving abundant airplay and reaching #69 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and has gone on to be covered by numerous artists including Brewer & Shipley, Yes, and Keith Moon – under the pseudonym of Topo D. Bill (I’m not making this up), as well as an unreleased version by The Supremes.

So, here’s the one that topped ‘Chief Honoring Song’, crushed it really – this is a legitimately excellent song (give it a little bit of time past the initial chanting until the main song kicks in at :35 seconds). Please, sing it with me:

“Witchi Tai To, Gimmie Rah, Whoa Rah Neeko, Whoa Rah Neeko, Hey Ney, Hey Ney, No Wah….
Witchi Tai To, Gimmie Rah, Whoa Rah Neeko, Whoa Rah Neeko, Hey Ney, Hey Ney, No Wah….
Water Spirit Feelin’ Springin’ Round My Head, Makes Me Feel Glad That I’m Not Dead….”

Well said, and well done, Jim Pepper, that’s certainly worth honoring the shit out of too.

¹Jim Pepper also played the memorable saxophone solo on the Classic Four’s 1967 hit “Spooky” (it starts at 1:22)


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