Ancient Cherokee Angel
A descendant of Nanyehi tells the story of her ancestor’s bravery through music.
In her decades-spanning career as a country music performer, songwriter and recording artist, Bartlesville native Becky Hobbs has made her presence felt with such honky-tonk barnburners as “Hottest ‘Ex’ In Texas” and “Jones on the Jukebox,” while also writing and co-writing a variety of hits for other acts. One of the most notable songs in the latter category is “Angels Among Us,” which the band Alabama took to the upper reaches of the national country-music charts in 1994.
By the time that single came out, Hobbs had begun musically exploring a personal connection with an ancient angel named Nanyehi, whose English name was Nancy Ward. A noted Cherokee woman of the Revolutionary War era, she also happened to be Hobbs’ great-great-great-great-great grandmother.
“I wrote a handful of songs about her in the early ‘90s,” Hobbs recalls. “I’d known about her ever since I was a little girl, because the history was handed down to several generations before my mother, and I think really as soon as I started writing songs and playing music, I felt that one day I would pay tribute to Nancy Ward.
“I always thought it would be in the form of an album, though,” she adds. “I had no idea I would ever embark on writing a musical.”
She did, though, and the results were most recently seen on the stage of Northeastern State University’s Center for the Performing Arts in Tahlequah.
“Our very first workshop for Nanyehi was three years ago at NSU,” says Hobbs. “The heartbeat of the Cherokee Nation is in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and our chief, Bill John Baker, is a fellow Nancy Ward descendant. So I called the Chief, and he put the wheels in motion. It wouldn’t be happening without him putting the Cherokee Nation and NSU together to co-sponsor this venture.”
It also probably wouldn’t happen if not for a meeting between Hobbs and veteran stage director Nick Sweet, who worked with her during Bartlesville’s celebration of the Oklahoma Centennial back in 2007.
“I was asked to close the show and play some of my songs, so of course I did my honky-tonk songs, and ‘Angels Among Us,’” she says. “But I also did a couple of songs that were inspired by Nancy Ward, ‘Let There be Peace’ and ‘Pale Moon,’ and I spoke briefly about her.
“Nick Sweet was the director of the whole show, he’d put it together, and he came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I know who Nancy Ward is. I directed [the outdoor drama] The Trail of Tears one year.’ And at that moment, we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to write a musical about her one day?’”
Hobbs was just embarking on a European tour, and Sweet had a full slate of productions to direct, so it took a year before they finally started on what would become Nanyehi – Beloved Woman of the Cherokee. And it was then that Hobbs began feeling encouragement from forces that could be described as angelic.
“I had that handful of songs I’d written in the early ‘90s, and I wrote the remainder of the songs [for the musical], except for two, in a few months,” she recalls. “I was just plugged in. It was one of those situations where, before I went to sleep, I would think of the song, and I’d wake up having dreamt most of it. It’s really been my favorite time of the whole process; I felt very connected and very guided.
“There are 17 songs in the musical, and I feel that they’re the best writing I’ve ever done,” she adds. “It’s all been inspired by the creator; my job is just to keep my little ego out of the way. I like what I heard Paul Simon say on a TV show: The songs are already there. They’re already written. You just have to tune in to them.”
Certainly, the story behind the songs – Nancy Ward’s remarkable life – was already written, telling of her bravery in the Battle of Taliwa in 1755, when she took up the rifle of her fallen husband and led the Cherokees to victory, as well as her peacemaking efforts among the white colonists and her own tribe in what is now eastern Tennessee.
“Her life story, from the get-go, is totally incredible, and very controversial as well,” notes Hobbs. “Some of the Cherokees today feel she was a traitor. And that makes her story even more interesting, because she wanted the Cherokees to survive, more than anything, but she felt the way to do it was to live in harmony with the whites, because there were more and more of them coming across the mountains every day.”
Nanyehi’s true-life story, in fact, proved to be so rich that it initially overpowered what Sweet and Hobbs were attempting to create.
“At first, Nick and I thought it would be more like a musical revue, and then we got into the history of it – and our first draft was just too weighted down with history,” she explains. “We wanted to make sure we had the historical part correct, but then we realized it was too much like a history lesson. You know: history lesson, song, history lesson, song. So we did several workshops and readings and really concentrated on developing her as a person, a real-life woman who walked this planet – a mother, dealing with all these situations.”
By 2011, she and Sweet were ready to take the musical, still in workshop form, to the Tulsa Performing Art Center Trust’s SummerStage Festival. The resulting newspaper publicity led to Nanyehi’s first non-workshop performance.
“A lady called me from out of the blue,” recalls Hobbs. “She’d recently found out that she was a descendant of Nancy Ward, and she said, ‘My granddaughter has a regional theater company in Hartwell, Georgia, and she’s interested in talking to you.’ So I called, and they wanted to take it on. We were thrilled.
“To give you an idea of how we have been so spiritually guided: I had no idea that the Cherokee called Hartwell, Georgia, ‘The center of the world.’ There’s a monument three miles from Hartwell that has a plaque telling how it was ceremonial ground where all these different roads came together, with a lot of trading activity and dancing.”
While most of the players in the Tahlequah production are local, the role of “Nanyehi” will be filled by New York-based actor Michelle Honaker, reprising her performance at Hartwell.
“About 18 people from Oklahoma came to see our Hartwell production, most of them descendants of Nancy Ward,” says Hobbs. “And they all said, ‘You have to have her play Nancy Ward again.’ She blew everyone away.”
According to Hobbs, Honaker’s appearance is being sponsored by Chelsea’s Gary White, one of the Oklahomans who traveled to Georgia to see the Nanyehi staging.
“He and his wife, Barbara, have been so supportive of this musical,” she says. “Otherwise we could not have afforded to bring her in. She’s a great singer. She’s a great actor. And she embodies the spirit of Nancy Ward.”
The play is directed and co-written by Sweet. Hobbs is music director, and the band includes her husband, guitarist Duane Sciacqua, who’s worked with the likes of Paul McCartney, Glenn Frey and Joe Walsh.