When most people hear the legend of the Donner Party, they learn that a group of early American pioneers got trapped while crossing the mountains and resorted to cannibalism to survive, but according to Mssrs. Storm and Tender (Saar Hendelman and Terrance Zdunich), of American Murder Song, the legend represents a whole lot more. Last year, Santa Ana native Zdunich spoke with the Weekly in regards to his theatrical, horror-themed, musical projects; yesterday, he and his musical partner, Hendelman, released their latest album of delicious murder ballads, The Donner Party. After giving the album a listen, we were able to catch up with Zdunich and Hendelman to discuss the legend of the Donner Party and why the subject of their album is such a powerful American tale.
First, the tragic tale occurred at a formative period in American, and specifically Californian, history. Zdunich points out that at that time “California was still Mexico, and one of the things that makes [the story] infamous is this was one of the first true American journeys all the way west off the Oregon Trail…shortly after the incident, California became American territory.” Thus, the title of one of the final songs on the album, a sad number called “The Last Americans,” tells the tale of the last members of the stranded party to die, while others had crossed the nearby frontier to reach California.
The story also involves the murder of two Indians, named Luis and Salvador. The two had actually joined Charles Stanton, one of the members of the Donner Party, as part of a relief effort to save the stranded members of the group. Stanton and the Indians became part of what came to be known as the journey of “Forlorn Hope,” which consisted of 19 people (17 of the Donner Party plus Luis and Salvador) who set out from camp to find help. Along the way, starvation caught up with the group and guess which folks wound up on the menu? Hendelman points out that this “was insane because they basically killed them because they weren’t white, [and] at the same time, those were the only two guides that would have had a much easier time getting them out. So, the people who could help them, because of their skin color or because of their nationality, were killed.” The fate of Luis and Salvador is included on the American Murder Song track “The Five Sisters.”
That song, while relating history, also represents Zdunich and Hendelman’s unique spin on the lore. The five sisters referenced in the song’s title indicate the women who were included in the Forlorn Hope expedition. The song posits that the women were, in fact, witches on the basis that while all but two of the 14 men on the journey died, all five of the women survived. Other songs on the album, like the haunting “The Wind Weeps Eleanor,” evoke the melancholic reality experienced by one of the Donner Party survivors; in this case, William Eddy, who had been a surviving member of Forlorn Hope, had returned to the camp to save his wife and children. Zdunich relates the tragic conclusion of his rescue mission: “He was one of the leaders of the rescue expeditions, who made it to California, barely, and then came back to save people, hoping to find his wife and kids, but he was one of the few people that actually lost everyone. Some of the other people that were part of that journey came back to somebody still alive, but he came back to nobody. After risking everything, saving [the survivors from other families], he found his wife on the spit!”
Some of the other material on the record is a bit more zany. “The Devil In Camp” perpetuates the idea of supernatural evil influences on the ill-fated party and is presented in the form of 50’s surfer music. The supernatural imagery, as well as the Storm and Tender personas adopted by Hendelman and Zdunich, continue the trend of world-building that began with their earlier AMS releases. The writer / performers are a bit reticent to reveal too much about the parameters of Storm and Tender’s universe, but they do concede that the role of the fictitious duo — who introduce and conclude The Donner Party with the highly theatrical tunes “The Black Wagon” and “The Black Wagon Returns” — will be further revealed via the accompanying film shows, which their devoted followers will experience as part of their US Donner Party Tour, starting in October. Fans of well-executed macabre entertainment are recommended to dig in!
The Donner Party is now available through online retailers. For more information about the upcoming tour, visit the American Murder Song website.