Native Americans & American Popular Music

The influence of Native American Music on popular songs.

In this month's issue you saw that the music of Tin Pan Alley during the early 20th century produced a number of songs that were represented as "Indian" songs or implied that the music was "an Indian lament, rhapsody" or some other Indian song. Of course, we have seen from the examples that the music was not at all Native American music or even based on the same. In fact, it is very likely that none of the composers or publishers had ever even heard a true Native American song or even seen a real "Indian".
      One question that this brings to mind is, exactly how was Native American music assimilated into American popular music and what influence did it have on the music of those times and on the music of today. The answer to that question can only be found in an understanding of the music and the historic events that shaped the Native American culture's assimilation into our society.
      According to the New Grove, American popular music was influenced by three primary continental traditions. To quote them; "Although...the USA is a distinct political unit, it is not a distinct cultural unit.". Our nation is one that has been created out of homogeny, the bringing together of many cultures to create a new and unique one. In many cases, much of what we have is unoriginal; borrowed from others. In terms of the continental traditions that have formed our culture and music, The New Grove goes on to state; "The distinctions are based on ..three main continental traditions, Amerindian, Euro-American and Afro-American."
      If that is the case, then we should see these three traditions clearly reflected in our music. In the case of the European influence, I think we can readily see the influence. The same goes for the African influence. In both cases, the links are firmly established. (Perhaps to be pursued in a later edition?). But what of the Amerindian traditions? Aside from some creative rock music (Remember "Running Bear" and it's great "Ooga chugga, Ooga chugga" accompaniment), can anyone identify the Amerindian influences on our music? Exactly what influence has it had?

Below: Is the song, Golden Arrow a true reflection of Indian culture and music? Listen to it and see.

Much of the music published by Tin Pan Alley that carried Indian themes was similar to "Golden Arrow", a song by Egbert Van Alstyne with Lyrics by Harry Williams, (cover by Starmer) both very successful and popular writers of the early 20th century. This song, published in 1909 is typical of the popular songs that were supposed Indian songs. They were characterized by idealized art that always depicted the Indians in a "noble savage" manner. If you review the images we have presented this month, you cannot miss the beauty and stateliness of the cover art images. Compare these depictions to those of the Afro-Amerians of the period. Nearly all of the "blackface" music was extremely racist in both lyric and art. On the other hand, the Amerindians were treated with more respect and nearly lionized in their depictions. Though in many cases the lyrics were less kind and more stereotypical, we still find a case of more sensitivity and care in what is presented.
      Musically, as we have said, the music from all of the Tin Pan Alley songs were deeply rooted in the Euro-American tradition. Aside from the cover and lyrics, there is absolutely no true link to Amerindian culture or musical tradition. Well, what exactly does Amerindian music sound like? To quote Bob Maine who has spent time in direct contact with Amerindian culture in the Northwest;

"Drums, every body had a drum or pounded on something. In a Pacific Northwest Big House (often incorrectly called a longhouse) you could have more than a hundred people banging on drums or the wooden seating/living platforms. The sound is deafining, frightening, impressive and hypnotic."
(One thing that I must interject here is that the "songs", the drumming and singing, are a means of story telling and a way of passing down the history of the people. The drumming which is a group activity, is punctuated and controlled by the story teller, who of course gauges and times his performance for the best group reaction. Frequently associated with the story telling, are formal dance presentations that help illustrate the story and reinforce the message. The whole thing is sort of a mediated neolithic interactive multi-media presentation, very different from any form of song that the "newcomers" would have ever experienced and very difficult to convert or assimilate into the newly forming popular culture.

Q: What do you call those people who are always hanging around musicians?

One must realize that until the advent of the Jazz combo and more recently Rock music, drumming had a very small, stylized place in European and American popular music particularly of the parlor songs era. In Europe the drum evolved into a weapon. Drummers learned fundamental sets of drum beats to communicate orders on the battle field. To this day trained drummers learn these same fundamentals and are even called fundamental drummers, however their role has changed from a military tool to highly skilled technicians in the studio and on the stage. Drumming as a mass audience participation activity just wasn't going to happen in popular music.- Robert)

Aside from percussion, what constitutes an Amerindian song? Lets listen to a kinder gentler song than Bob is talking about and listen to a MIDI transcription of a genuine Native American song. This transcription is taken from an actual song, documented in 1954 by a researcher named McAllester. Listen to the Navaho War Chant. Now, for comparison, listen to this Comanche Peyote Song (documented by McAllester, 1949). Though you will hear differences from area to area and tribe to tribe, both of these songs encapsulate all of the basic elements of Amerindian music. By the way, the voicing of these mid files is not intended to reflect use of any particular instrument. In both cases, the melody is intended to be sung, accompanied by percussion.
      From those examples, which are typical, you can see that Amerindian music is simple. Usually monophonic, often sung in octaves by men and women. In most cases, the singing is gutteral with what has been described as a harsh tone. The song styles are usually strophic ( different lyrics for each repetition sung to a precisely repeated melody ). The scales may sound almost Asian to you, there is reason for that. Amerindian music used primarily pentatonic (five note) or tetratonic scale, the same as many Asian cultures. In fact, Bob has pointed out that some Korean songs sound very similar to Native American songs.

(Another interjection, Native American music is often described as pentatonic or five note in nature. And this is given as one of the reasons for it's "unusual" sound. However just because a scale has five notes doesn't necessarily make it pentatonic as we understand it. The "true" pentatonic scale is just a subset of the Western/European diatonic (do, re, me) scale and has been used by all European cultures including the Scottish and Irish for tens of thousands of years. What makes the Native American scales sound so alien is that the pitches of the five notes are seemingly chosen at random. They vary from tribe to tribe, family to family, and person to person. Why? Many reasons really. The North American continent is big, living groups are separated by large distances resulting in language and cultural differences including musical tastes. Also without a written language there is no real way of recording or documenting standards so things just change. The closest thing to a pitch standard available to some tribes, the flute, was by the very nature of it's construction a beast of randomness, but more on that later. Finally as we all know even with a reliable source of pitch untrained singers tend to sing what ever is easiest or natural for their individual voices and as most song was done as a group activity involving lots of untrained voices, well we have all been there before. - Robert )

Melody lines for Amerindian music generally has a descending melodic contour. Finally, percussion is an integral part of the music. It is unusual to find singing without the accompaniment of drums and rattles.

Below: Though much Amerindian music is vocal and simple, that does not mean there were not instruments used as illustrated in this photo of an Apache "fiddler" from around 1882

Let that settle for a moment. Basically, we have a musical style that is heavy on percussion and that uses a scale and musical patterns that sound very different from the Euro and African American styles. How can one possibly merge or combine an eight note system with a five note system? How did Amerindian music influence American popular music and what influence did it have on popular musical development in the USA.
      Sadly, the answer seems to be that it was not assimilated nor has there been any discernable influence. Amerindian music seems to have been incompatible with the other musical traditions and has found its own separate way. Ethnomusicologists are quick to point out that the Amerindian cultures were systematically destroyed and the reason for their music not being assimilated is simply a result of that exploitation. Though we agree, the Amerindian cultures have been tragically mistreated (probably too mild a term), that did not seem to stop us from borrowing heavily from other cultures who we oppressed. African-American culture for example. There seem to be three main reasons for the lack of Amerindian music style in American popular music.
      First is the aforementioned musical conflict, the styles are so dissimilar, they are difficult to reconcile. Composers would be hard pressed to create a work based on the Amerindian style that would sell. Just go back and listen to Golden Arrow once more and then the Peyote song. Which do you think would make the hit parade? Whenever you hear a pentatonic work, "foreign" images almost immediately come to mind. Second, we do need to look at what happened to the culture. The Amerindians were systematically prosecuted and persecuted and ultimately ended up isolated on reservations with virtually no contact with the rest of us. As a result, no one was interested in them or their culture. It was virtually cast aside as unimportant and not useful. Third, the exposure of their music was limited to very, very few people outside of themselves. Almost all of the Amerindian tribes were vitually imprisoned on remote tribal reservations. As a result, there was virtually no opportunity to influence music during the critical period from ca. 1880 - 1920, when American popular music developed its primary style.
      Over the last few years, there has been a growing interest in Amerindian music, especially fueled by perhaps its most captivating instrumental form, the flute . I would say there has been a reanaissance for the flute but since there was never any previous interest other than academic, this may be its first real popularity. Through the efforts of some fine Amerindian musicians, this music has become popular and is enjoying a substantial following of fans. Again, some information from Bob about the flute and other instruments.

Well first of all a bit of a description of the Love Flute, as the Native American ducted flute is most often called. The popular version is that it was used just for courtship, built by each suitor and used to capture the heart of the coy maiden. Once it's task was accomplished the flute was put away and not used again. Given the difficulty in making an actual functioning flute I would guess that there were a lot of bachelors out there, or very tone deaf maidens. Actually there were a variety of styles, and they had many roles in the various different cultures. Basically it not a flute but a whistle with finger holes. Very similar in many ways to early pre-Renaissance-style recorders and modern Irish penny whistles. The unusual feature, that you will notice in the picture is the "bird", the small structure near the mouthpiece on top of the flute. This is an incredibly ingenious solution to creating a very precise high tolerance tone head when your tools are pieces of broken rock and shell. The evolution of a recorder type instrument as opposed to the much easier to manufacture but much more difficult to play end blown open tube flute is a mystery in it's own right.
Vastly simplifying things there are three ways to make a Love Flute and three ways to determine the scale.

   1. Flute body
       A.Find a stick or piece of branch about as long as your forearm drill the center out with a
       rock tipped stick, an old arrow might work. Create both a compression chamber and the bore.
       B. Spit a piece of straight grained softwood (cedar is nice) carve out the compression
       chamber and bore with your handy dandy rock chip or piece of broken shell and glue the pieces
       back together with pitch. securing the pieces with leather wraps or ties.
       C. Find a nice piece of hollow reed, cut it to length put a plug in to separate the compression
       chamber from the bore.
   2. Carve the tone head components with your piece of rock, keeping in mind some of
       the pieces need to be within a 64th. of an inch accuracy.
   3. Carve the bird and attach it over the the working parts of the tone head to enclose it.
   1. Boring the figure holes and tune it.
       A. drill 5 holes in the tube and hope some of them sound actual notes.
       B. Drill five equally spaced holes of the same diameter. Fiddle with the tone head until it works.
       C. The anatomical method.
         The flute body is the length of your forearm.
         The first or top hole is one hand width down from the tone hole.
         The next hole is down the tube the space between your first two knuckles.
         Jumping to the bottom of the flute the last hole is one hand width up from the bottom of the tube.
         Next hole up from the bottom,do the knuckle thing again. You now have five notes.
   If you need a little more flexibility in your playing style. Put one more hole a little
   less than a fingers length down from the center of the distance between the bottom of the
   flute and the sound hole.
Depending on your anatomy the anatomical tuning method gives you a flute that can come remarkably close to a "true" pentatonic scale. the actual pitches can be adjusted by changing the sizes of the finger holes. With a good ear, or an electronic tuner this method can create very accurately pitched flute. In the hands of a good player these instruments can play the entire diatonic scale to nearly two octaves maybe a little more. This isn't easy however and even with large investments in modern shop tools, access to lots of quality examples, plans, diagrams, computerized design and layout software, and lots of leisure time and a very good support group of networked like minded individuals, a lot of long skinny hollow exotic firewood is created on a daily basis. Given the conditions that the originals where created the music coming out of them had to sound pretty alien and given the randomness of the pitches difficult to integrate into the popular music form. - Robert)

What we are most likely to hear today as Native American flute music is something slicker, almost a new age sound. Though no-one can doubt the sweet sound of a well played flute, is it possible that much of what we are hearing today is Amerindian flute that has assimilated aspects of other popular music styles in order to appeal to the masses?

Cited by The New Grove as "the most important melodic instrument" of Amerindian music, the flute is found in many different forms across the continent, but is most prevalent in the West and South. Flutes are almost always solo instruments though in the Plains tribes, the music appears to be also sung. The number of finger holes varied from three to six. The majority of flutes were end blown although some, like the above example, were duct flutes or whistles, others were true end blown flutes. In addition nose flutes appear to have been used by some tribes.
      There are a number of popular Native American flute artists now who are recording their music. In some cases, the music is authentic, in others, it is influenced by Western ideas, probably to make it more acceptable to American tastes. Sadly, one of the drastic effects of the erosion of the native culture has been what New Grove calls, "the impoverishment of Indian musical culture". Though some musical cultures have remained intact, most have been obliterated. Traditional music has been largely replaced by concerts in the western style, often intended for tourists. While not wholly destructive, this trend has certainly diminished the originality and veracity of Indian music.
      One result of all of this is that Western music has provided the Amerindians with ways to develop and enhance their music. This is most evident in the flute music enjoying its current popularity. For some examples of current Indian flute music, here are a few sites that may interest you. In each case, you will be able to hear some sound clips. Listen to them and compare them and decide for yourself as to what has/is happening to Amerindian music.

Native Heart, Native American artist, Richard Burdick
Charles Littleleaf, Native American flute player and storyteller (requires Real Audio)
Whirlwind Studios, Native American Flutes & Art

Is there a conclusion to all this? We think so. Sadly, we have to conclude that our search for the influence of Amerindian music on American Popular song comes up empty. There seems to have been virtually none. Except for some isolated songs and an echo of Amerindian music in some rock music. Indian music seems to have had no influence on American music. On the other hand, also sadly, Amerindian music seems to have become influenced by the European model and as a result is becoming something other than what it originally was. For the acadamicians, that is nothing short of a disaster. For the entertainment and enjoyment of the public, it isn't so tragic. For the enrichment of the Native American performers, it is definitely a good thing. In listenting to the commercial Native American music available today, who can deny its beauty and simplicity?

Back to this months feature.

Rick Reublin, Bob Maine March, 2000

Some photos displayed in this essay are from the Museum of American Indian. Major sources for much of the text discussion is from The new Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and Bob Maine's personal experience and contact with Native Americans in the Morthwest. See our references page for details.

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