Monday, September 13, 2010

Native American Music

pic from
Truly the first example of the American popular music don't you think? I admit I had to get past some preconceived notions I had about Native American music that was laid on me from old Westerns and Disney movies. I feel the guilt from not having dispelled this years ago, but my taste in music never led me to the path of enlightenment, which is one of the reasons I wanted to take my American Popular Music class.

According to Richard Crawford in An Introduction to America's Music, early reports of Native American music by explorers and settlers describe yelling and percussive sounds, either using instruments or parts of their own bodies. Many accounts speak of the natives using music to serve a specific function, such as healing or protection against bad spirits. Very little attention is paid to understanding the culture behind the music and Native Americans were labeled as savages. A push to "civilize" them through converting them to Christianity began, including leaving their own culture behind.

Fortunately, as time progressed, various individuals recognized the importance of documenting Native American music, even if purely to make it more accessible to non-natives, and melodies and lyrics were written down and eventually recorded. Native Americans also strove to preserve their heritage for future generations that were raised in non-native ways, allowing researchers to better understand the context of the rich material that comprises Native American music.

Listening: Reviews:

War Dance Song From Southern Plains Indians, CD1, #25 from Recordings for An Introduction to America's Music

The first thing you hear in this piece are rhythmic drums and bells establishing a steady half note beat undercurrent of continuing motion. A singular male voice quickly starts in with the first musical idea, which is soon echoed by another single male voice, then echoed again by a group of male voices. This specific configuration of 1:1:all never happens again in the recording, although there always seems to be one voice leading a new idea which is echoed by a chorus in unison. Another single voice adds various interjections like whoops or yells throughout the piece. At some points there is the faint sound of treble voices, which may be women or boys singing along, but it is not consistent.

The form of the song seems to be AABA. The percussion background is the only accompaniment to the voices and seems to have a loose, but definite structure that is cued by the different sections of the song. It is evident that the lead singer controls were the song goes and when it will end.  Being that the song has a specific function, a war song, it is difficult without a text translation of the sections to know if this would change the meaning of the song or if the sections are interchangeable at the will of the lead singer.

War Dance Song of the Los Angeles Northern Singers from Pow Wow Songs: Music of the Plains Indians

There is a definite stylistic difference in this Northern Plains war dance song from the above Southern Plains war dance. They both start the same with percussion and lead voice echoed by chorus, but right away the melodies seem more intricate with more twists and turns, staying longer in the upper ranges before settling down in the lower range at the end of a phrase. The sections are longer and even the overall time of this song (5:28) is longer than the first (2:45). The drums are also more prominent in cueing the end of each section.

Although the majority of the singing is done by male voices as with the first example, it is more evident that there are treble voices (most likely women) singing along, although this could be due to the quality of the recording itself. The form is not as evident as the first example in listening to it, but it seems that it is contained within the longer sections and may be a AA BCB form.The sections also seem to get higher each time they are sung and the drums quicken and put more emphasis on quarter notes adding to the excitement of the performance.


Crystal Jeffers said...

I love the blog. I wanted to point out something that most people over the pond may not know, Most Native Tribes prefer to be called Native Americans. If not Native American then you should refer to them by their tribe, Cherokee, Apache, Choctaw, etc. Each tribe is different, just like Italians are different then English. There are also a vast difference in styles from non-plains Native Americans. I do hope you will seek them out as well and listen to their different styles. There is something completely powerful about the melody of a flute or drum played in this way.

Tart Deco™ said...

Thanks Crystal for pointing that out. I have edited the original post to accomodate.

Crystal Jeffers said...

Thank you for editing the original post as well as just being open to learning something new. not everyone is.