Susanna Little is the name of a song written by Grant-Lee Phillips for his current (2004) album, Virginia Creeper. According to Phillips, it is also the name of his grandmother, a member of the Creek (Muskogee) tribe who grew up in Oklahoma. She died before he was born, but in spite or perhaps because of that, her story seems to fascinate, even haunt him. "There are spores from the must of old book pages lodged in my lungs," Phillips says in the press material for the 2004 release. "I guess for me it comes down to music being a kind of link to our ancestry."
In the chorus of his song, Phillips mentions "questions that stream through my own Creek blood," acknowledging directly in a song for the first time his own Native American heritage. His music has always dealt with historical events and the influence of history on individual lives, but here he addresses personal history in plain language.
The Federal Dawes Commission Index was created by Congress in 1893 to allot land to members of what were called the Five Civilized Tribes, 60,000 of whom the U.S. government had deported from their native lands. The Five Tribes deemed "civilized" by the government that had stolen their land and killed their people were the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek (also known as Muskogee) and Seminole.
The 1898-1914 Dawes Commission Index lists one Susanna Little as a citizen, by birth, of the Creek Nation. It further identifies the "degree" of native blood she carried as "full." She was enrolled as a Creek at the age of three while living in current-day Oklahoma (then called Indian Territory).
Phillips' lyrics tell the story of his grandmother's life, but in doing so, he also sketches in for us the history of the settling of Indian Territory (Oklahoma), and the fight for land and oil; of the tragic conflict between the Native Americans and the European settlers; the hardships women and children faced during the era; and the story of his family's past.
But the surprise here is that the song ends up revealing as much about the singer and writer as it does about its seemingly myriad, linked subjects. Phillips uses the last verses of "Susanna Little" to salvage some happiness from a lifetime of struggle for the grandmother he never knew, gingerly employing his talent for metaphor and imagery. The song's lyrics up to that point read like the purplish-yellow contours of a bruise, a map of past pain stretched taut on a delicate canvas of skin.
In his compassion and his desire to understand a life most of us can barely imagine, Phillips sings,
"The hand that had written
this part but for you
and made it all plenty hard,
gave you a gusher, a well-spring of oil
there in your own backyard."