poem index

Joy Harjo: A Mountain of Sorrows, of Songs


February 21, 2014
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A consistent focus on politics, social justice, and issues relevant to Native Americans has marked the career of poet Joy Harjo. A member of the Muskogee nation, Harjo began writing poems as her political understanding deepened and she realized there was a need for singers and speakers in her community.

Harjo is the author of several books of poetry, but she hasn't limited herself solely to literary success. Music, she has said, is a natural extension of her creative interests and social concerns. In 1992, she worked with Susan Williams on the song "For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash," a tribute to the Canadian native rights activist murdered in 1975. Harjo and Williams recorded the song for a nationally syndicated radio program, and soon after decided to form a band. The aptly named Poetic Justice was the result.

Combining, as Harjo has said, "a poet, an Indian water rights attorney, a tribal judge, two educators, and a stock clerk," the group shares a lifelong commitment to justice and music. The band’s influences include tribal music from the Muskogee, Northern Plains, Hopi, and Navajo, as well as reggae, jazz, rock, and blues. Influences, Harjo says, "that speak of community, love for people, for all creatures, for this crazy beautiful history and the need to sing with and of the sacred."

The band released its first album, Letters from the End of the Twentieth Century, in 1997, featuring Harjo on saxophone and vocals, Williams on drums, John Williams on bass, William Bluehouse Johnson on guitar, Frank Poocha on percussion and tribal singing, and Richard Carbajal on guitar. The band was a featured act in the Cultural Olympiad in Atlanta and opened for the Indigo Girls as part of the 1996 "Honor the Earth" tour. Harjo has also been featured on Standing Ground, an album of poetry set to music, and Native American Currents, a compilation of songs by Native American musicians.

In 2004, Harjo released Native Joy for Real, her first solo recording. Available from Mekko Records, her own label, the album continues Harjo’s emphasis on the political and the sublime. The ten-track CD also signals a new sound for Harjo. The spoken-word style of her earlier album has morphed into a chant-like delivery somewhere between speaking and singing, further integrating the words with the music.

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