Joanne Shenandoah, the seminal Native American musician, died Wednesday. She was 64.
Shenandoah, known for writing songs about the struggles faced by women, and the miseries of adolescence, began her career in 1969 in a Christian punk band, Squirrel Nut Zippers. Two decades later, she began playing the oidbic with a larger band, Children of the Moon, but she was known for playing at all times for several hours with distinct styles.
On Facebook, the band stated that she died peacefully in her sleep, surrounded by family members.
Shenandoah was a native of Michigan. She grew up in the so-called “holler,” a small town of just about 100 homes located in northern Lower Michigan. She made music on her grandparents’ pipes, and she said her love of instruments and developing talent eventually helped get her off the street.
Her mother, Ramona Miller Shenandoah, passed away when she was 18. With little money, she and her younger sister, Deborah Miller-Elliott, could not afford to go back to school, and she faced a series of homeless and delinquent arrests. She served five years in prison.
Shenandoah, who had dropped out of high school when she was 16, said she began sleeping on benches, but she was not ignored and others said her voice was heard.
“There was an earnestness about her, not just singing with any of the instruments,” said Dr. Jena Pohlmann, a professor at Georgetown University, where Shenandoah studied music for five years. “She had all sorts of colors and shapes in her voice. There was no one within the spiritual realm who sounded like her.”
Dr. Stephen Werneck, the director of the School of Art and Research at Purdue University, also worked with Shenandoah when he was at Fairfield University. He said the talented musician suffered from heart disease, alcoholism and a host of other diseases.
Dr. Werneck wrote in a statement that she was a brilliant performer, but sometimes she would get into fights with her bandmates, and not be willing to work.
“She had a lot of problems with her family and she did fight a lot, but if she didn’t care about somebody else, she wasn’t willing to let them cause a problem for her,” he said.
Shenandoah’s song about domestic violence, “Guernica,” inspired James Franco to make a film about it. The band saw him as a candidate for royalties, and they took an equity stake in his film. He portrayed her in the film, which was released in 2015.
Shenandoah’s bandmate, Coyote Gold, posted a tribute about her.
“Even though she felt no man could love her, the only love she needed was Jesus Christ,” he wrote. “No matter what anyone might say, Jo was loved by all. She loved those around her, she loved the joy she found in life, and she loved the sacredness of life itself.”
“We still have a lot to learn from her. She gave us the courage to be the best we could be,” he added.
Shenandoah was honored at the Academy Awards last year for her contribution to the soundtrack of the film “Loving.” She had been the subject of an essay in The Washington Post in November about a movie being made about her life.
She was nominated for an Emmy for Lifetime Achievement and was a candidate for the National Endowment for the Arts’ grant in the amount of $20,000.
The Library of Congress announced that it would reissue “Gnaw Dance Party” by Shenandoah, along with an accompanying video of the song. A book was being written by Raymond Bernhardt.