Connected \\ May 30, 2018

Songwriter builds on T.C. Cannon’s legacy

During the run of T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America, music lovers will be hard pressed not to fall in love with Samantha Crain’s dreamy voice as it wafts across the galleries. T.C. Cannon died nearly 10 years before Crain was born. Still, she shares with the artist a similar perspective having also grown up as a Native American in Oklahoma. In fact, when she got the call from exhibition curator Karen Kramer about the commission, her laptop screensaver featured one of Cannon’s paintings.

In 2009, Crain won Native American Music Awards for Folk Album of the Year and Songwriter of the Year. Her music has been featured on TV shows, independent documentaries and Rolling Stone declared her an artist to watch. After performing 150 shows every year for the last 12 years, she is on hiatus from touring and is staying home in Oklahoma to focus on songwriting.

PEM commissioned Crain to create two pieces for the exhibition. One song accompanies the poem and painting Grandmother Gestating Father and the Washita River Runs Ribbon-Like, showing Cannon’s grandmother pregnant with his father, walking beneath an azure sky. The other one accompanies Cannon’s 22-foot mural, Epochs in Plains History: Mother Earth, Father Sun, the Children Themselves, which was among his last works painted.

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T. C. Cannon (1946–1978, Caddo/Kiowa), Epochs in Plains History: Mother Earth, Father Sun, the Children Themselves, 1976–77. Oil on canvas, Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, Seattle, Washington. © 2017 Estate of T. C. Cannon. Photo by Gary Hawkey/iocolor.


With this mural a wide range of emotions comes through — sadness, joy and despair,” said Crain. “He has his handprints on the painting, always injecting himself into the larger story. I can relate to that as a songwriter. I try to write universally and about things other than myself, but it’s kind of impossible not to inject my thoughts and feelings into every song.

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© 2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola


At 31, Crain is the age Cannon was when his life was cut short in a car accident. This is not the only interesting coincidence. As she struggled to fit the right guitar solo into her song Angelus, she picked up a sound recording from the Cannon archive. And there was the voice of Cannon’s guidance counselor Bob Harcourt as he fiddled with a tape recorder.

“Oh, there we go,” he says, adding that it’s October 11, 1967, at 3 am and “Tommy Cannon and his harmonica are in the mood.”

It fit perfectly. We just dropped it right in,” said Crain. “I’m not a religious person by any means, but there has been some crazy stuff that gives me goosebumps sometimes.


Another serendipitous moment occurred when Crain traveled to Seattle’s Daybreak Star Cultural Center to see Cannon’s mural, which is on loan from the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture. She had been given Cannon’s vintage 1940 Martin guitar to play and sat at the mural and waited for inspiration. The end result: a song called One Who Stands in the Sun, which is Cannon’s indigenous name.

“Looking at that painting and playing his guitar, I did truly feel like there was some weird channeling going on,” said Crain. At one point, a golden eagle even flew over, causing people to gasp. “I really did feel like Cannon was sending us something.”

There is still time to catch TC Cannon: At the Edge of America with music by Samantha Crain. It closes June 10 at PEM before opening at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma on July 14 and at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in New York, NY in March 2019.

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