Robbie Robertson, “It Is a Good Day to Die” from Music for ‘The Native Americans’ (1994): Across the Great Divide

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Part of one of Robbie Robertson’s most complex, compelling albums, “It Is a Good Day to Die” represents another in the Band leader’s long line of character-driven story songs — only this time, it’s personal. Music for The Native Americans, a soundtrack for a television special, found Robertson exploring his own heritage as a First Nations descendent in the most complete way yet.

“It Is a Good Day to Die” — featuring a rhythmic assist from Robbie Robertson’s son Sebastian — takes us into the mind of a Native American, having done all he could do to appease the advancing settlers, yet still finding them amassed for battle. (There was, after all, gold in those hills.) The song turns on its title line, often attributed to the mystic warrior Crazy Horse — whose retort, in a more complete translation, is said to have been: “Today is a good day to die, for all the things of my life are present.”

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If you’ve heard the abbreviated version, it’s often framed in the context of a pitched engagement with the Seventh Cavalry in June of 1876, known to generations of Americans as Custer’s Last Stand. The Lakotas and Cheyennes triumphed that day at Little Bighorn (a shallow area in southeastern Montana reportedly called Greasy Grass by the Lakotas), and that seemed to cement Crazy Horse’s shorter, often misinterpreted quote into history. Robertson deftly rewrites this trope, even without including the rest of the tribal leader’s comment.

Settling that essential misunderstanding of what Crazy Horse meant, in particular with our broader knowledge of the awful things that happened next, is important work.

As “It Is a Good Day to Die” makes clear again, Crazy Horse wasn’t being boastful. His wasn’t a warrior’s cry. Instead, and you hear this so vividly in the narrative laid out on Robbie Robertson’s coiled, deeply moving 1994 song, it was a moment of acceptance — despite the injustices visited upon his people. In touch with their spirituality and with the natural world around them in a way that still mystifies many, Native Americans were unafraid of what came after this world.

Good thing. History tells us that Crazy Horse eventually became subsumed into the white culture, even working (of all things) as an Army scout. He learned to eat with utensils. He played the game. And despite that, Crazy Horse died with a bayonet in his back just over a year after the battle at Little Bighorn, as he was being guided into a jail cell.

His famous words, nevertheless, still ring true — then, as now. What will be, if you have lived well, will be. That message, as conveyed anew in “It Is a Good Day to Die,” remains one worth exploring.

Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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