Samantha Crain is a singer-songwriter from Oklahoma of Native American Choctaw heritage who released her sixth album, A Small Death, in July 2020. It is an extraordinary record – rich, candid and poetic. She writes with an eye for personal and emotional detail and adds texture with saxophone, clarinet, pedal steel, and the grain of her voice. I’m a little daunted at the prospect of going back to her first five albums. There’s so much in this one!
The penultimate song on A Small Death is one I’ve been playing repeatedly, called ‘When We Remain’. Crain sings this in Choctaw. On her Bandcamp page , she posts the English lyrics alongside the Choctaw, but she doesn’t sing the English words. Alongside the lyrics she writes: “Writing in the Choctaw language (the language of my ancestors) has become over the past few years, something very important to me. I believe the survival of indigenous languages is the most important foothold in the survival of indigenous cultures and tribes.”
I heard the song before I read the words and of course didn’t understand what she was singing but I understood something about how she was singing.
‘When We Remain’ opens with a simple guitar chord sequence. When I say “simple”, I mean that even I can play it: it goes D, F♯ minor, G, D, A. Crain is not trying to distract the listener with elaborate musicianship. The song moves at a medium pace, with a stately dignity befitting the lyrical content. ‘When We Remain’ is explicitly about the perseverance of a people for centuries subject to persecution. The lyrics are translated into English on Crain’s Bandcamp: “When we remain, we will not be like the beautiful bones of a forgotten city / When we remain, we will be the flowers and the trees and the vines that overcome the forgotten city / We have woven ourselves into the cloth of the earth / We have mixed our breath into the expanding sky”. In Choctaw, the lyrics are “Okla e maya momakma, tamaha chito okla imihaksi tuko i foni aiyokli ahoba hapiachi kiyo / Okla e maya momakma, napakanli, micha iti, micha nan vpi ahoba osh ohmi tamaha chito okla imihaksi tukon okla il vbachike / Yakni i natanna ibachvffa hosh okla il ilai achonli tuk / Hapi fiopa ya, shotik chinto okla il itibani tuk”.
The melody develops as Crain arrives into the latter half of the lyric; as she sings the lines beginning “Yakni i natanna”, her lead vocal is double-tracked for additional ardour and her voice appears a third time, singing the same words an octave above the lead vocal. These harmonics give Crain’s singing a heightened choral quality and the guitar and piano playing augment in intensity as the song progresses. When I first heard the song I remembered Anthony Lane’s description of Bach’s St Matthew Passion: grave and devastating, stern with lamentation.
Then I read Crain say that in writing ‘When We Remain’ she “wanted to write a Choctaw version of something like the old protest song ‘We Shall Overcome’, something we could sing through our hardships and into our victories and survival as a lasting tribe of people”. So “lamentation” was wrong, and her sternness sounded like grandeur, like resilience. And ‘When We Remain’ is explicitly anthemic, a song to be sung collectively with gusto and purposeful intent, but there’s this beautiful poignant delicacy too. The final line in the song is a return to the opening line: “Okla e maya momakma, tamaha chito okla imihaksi tuko i foni aiyokli ahoba hapiachi kiyo”. On the final phrase, hapiachi kiyo, Crain’s voice falls away, softens, cracks on the “k” of “kiyo”.
We expect anthems to end on a soaring high, on a fortissimo declaration of indomitability like ‘La Marseillaise’ in Casablanca, but ‘When We Remain’ ends on a decrescendo, piano not forte. Crain’s tender conclusion is a reminder that even in the midst of righteous collective action there is individual uncertainty; the most militant activist is also a vulnerable person with fears for themselves, their family, their people and their future; and in a better world with fewer horrors to confront, songs of hope and solace like ‘When We Remain’ would not be so utterly essential.