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Song Catcher: Life Story
Text of lecture on Indian music given by Frances Densmore at a High School in Minot, North Dakota
April 23, 1935


A GREAT DEAL HAS BEEN SAID about world fellowship through music but there are few subjects on which the world is more divided. One man's music is another man's misery. In listening to the family radio some prefer opera and some want to hear jazz. Opinions differ. But when early settlers and explorers heard the Indians singing there was only one opinion­­ it was terrible. They praised the nobility of the Indians and their oratory, but not their singing. Yet the Indians liked their music and could listen to it all night - the performance was longer than a Bernard Shaw play.

The tourist of the present day says the Indians have few songs and sing them over and over. That is the way the Indian singing sounds to him, yet an Indian singer knows several hundred songs. I have tested this in my recording of Indian songs for the Bureau of American Ethnology. One man sang more than 200 songs and was not near the end of his repertory. This man was Billie Stuart, a Florida Seminole. He recorded part of this number one winter and the remainder the next winter and remembered what songs he had sung on my previous visit. He hummed a song of the Quail dance and said, "I won't sing that again - . . .I recorded it for you last winter." Yet the Indians had no notes -­ no form of written music.

We should remember that Indian music, to some extent, is like ancient poetry that was recited, not written down. It was to be heard, not seen, listened to but not looked at. The words were often poetic and were much enjoyed by the Indians in such songs as those connected with the old legends and sung in cycles, on certain occasions.

The singers received no applause and no pay - except perhaps some food. You remember the quotation that, "No one shall work for money and no one shall work for fame." Indian singers were unselfish people, and the music was not entirely an esthetic pleasure - rather it was intended to awaken a physical, rhythmic response. People danced during the singing, often a stately dance in which they stood still and flexed the knees, with a gentle rise and fall in time to the singing.

I have studied Indian music from the human as well as the musical side. Mine was not the first work in this field. The first worker was Miss Alice C. Fletcher who recorded Omaha songs about 1889 which were published by the Peabody Museum of Harvard University in 1893. Her phonograph records were transcribed by Professor John C. Fillmore of Milwaukee who supplied them with piano accompaniments not unlike Gospel hymns. Carlos Troyer published Indian songs with typical piano accompaniments and they were widely sung. Arther Farrell transcribed them for piano, and the works of Charles Wakefield Cadman and Thurlow are familiar to us all. Natalie Curtis also collected and published Indian songs. Many other composers have used Indian themes for violin compositions, operas, choruses and orchestra. But let us consider Indian music in the original - as it looks, or sounds, to the Indian. If you were an Indian this would be your music, and we all have a little of the Indian in us. We all respond to the free outdoor life and the beauties of nature. Indians believed so many happy things about nature­­ about kind spirits and helpful spirits. They had many beautiful beliefs, with which music was, in various ways, connected. The Yuma have a dance called the Deer Dance and these are the words of one of its songs - "After the deer had been in the darkness a long time he asked the spider to make a road for him in the darkness. The spider made the road and the deer is now traveling on it." Another song told of the little blackbirds, singing that song as they danced around the four corners of the sky. On the Northwest Coast the men sang about the whale and the shark, for those Indians went far out to sea in their canoes. An old medicine man living near the end of Cape Flattery recorded a song addressed to a shark with these words - "Where are you, on whose back the waves break?"

The Indians used music in the treatment of the sick and some had different songs for each ailment­­ a doctor in British Columbia said that he had five songs and he recorded them all. He had one song for pneumonia and other songs for smallpox, palsy, fever and hemorrhage from the lungs. Other doctors were specialists and treated only one disease or ailment. A Yuma doctor treated men who had been wounded by a gun shot in the chest. A Sioux doctor specialized in fractures. Many stories were told of the recovery of Indians treated by these singing doctors. The patient paid whatever he could afford, but one doctor said that if the sick person did not pay something, he would not get well.

Every doctor was his own druggist. He gathered his herbs or roots, dried and pounded them and put up his own prescriptions. He sang as he gathered the roots , and at every stage he sang to make the medicine effective. I saw tobacco put in the ground when a root was dug, as a sort of offering, and a song was quietly sung.

Indian doctors did not always give medicine. Sometimes the doctors said the sick man must get up and dance and have everybody happy around him. Sometimes they found the sick man had made a vow and not fulfilled it. They told him to do this or he would not recover. We call this psychology but the Indian doctor did not have such a long word for it­­ he just did it and knew that it worked. The test of everything among Indians is "does it work?"

Indians believed in all sorts of mysterious results through what we call magic­­ they called it "supernatural help" - and singing was part of it all. They sang for success in war, for success in playing games, and in every undertaking. Gambling, to them, was "big business" and was the way in which fortunes were made or lost. They bet blankets, beadwork­­ all sorts of possessions and prayed hard for the spirits to help them win. Spectators bet heavily, and there were songs for every sort of game.

The Indians had songs for success in hunting. These were individual songs, generally received in dreams, or visions, and were used by men hunting small game. There were also songs for the success of a buffalo hunt which was a tribal or mass undertaking.

Most of the ceremonies of the Indians were connected with the food supply­­ either for rain or for good crops. The singing was always important. Among the Pawnee I was allowed to enter the tent during the Morning Star ceremony, held every year for good crops. It was said that only one other white person had been allowed to do this­­ that person being Dr. George A. Dorsey. We are all familiar, to some extent, with the ceremonies of the Indians in the Southwest to bring rain. Three times in my experience I have recorded rain songs with no desire to have rain, but rain has followed. In Arizona, among the Papago, I wanted certain songs and the Indians said it would rain if they sang them. I doubted whether rain would come as we were having no ceremony nor speeches and I was not even giving tobacco, but the Indians said it would rain and it did­­ much to my inconvenience. It was not the season for rain but it poured for two or three days.

I recently received a letter saying - "I have had a little trouble getting acquainted with Indians. You seem to have made many friends among them. How do you do it?" That is rather hard to tell. Of course experience has a good deal to do with it. But I do not do it by pretending to be one of them, and eating out of the same dishes. I have seen people who used this technique and did not find out very much. There is no use trying to be a social climber among Indians. If you begin at the bottom you will probably stay there. I start at the top and make friends with the professional men­­ the chiefs, doctors and tribal leaders. I stay at the Government agency and have some sort of an office to which the Indians come. Once my office was an old coal shed. I pasted newspaper on the walls and there was a certain formality about it all. Of course I check the reputation of the singers by their standing with the Government Superintendent, the

missionary and the trader­­ they know whether a man can be trusted. And I am very careful in the choice of an interpreter.

Having decided on my office and interpreter, I unpack the phonograph and begin work. Many times the Indians have never heard a phonographic recording of a voice. One Indian said, after hearing the record of her own song - "How did the phonograph learn it so quick? That is a hard song." The work is patiently explained to the Indians who are required to give the history of the song and the meaning of the words. Then I take the records to Washington or to my home, where I transcribe them in musical notation and analyze them. The notation does not show the exact pitch of every tone that is sung by the Indians but neither does it show the exact pitch of the singing by our own singers. Exact pitch is a matter of physics and can be shown only by tone­photographs transcribed on charts. Some of my records have been treated by that method but it requires an immense amount of time and the difference from transcription by ear does not justify the work. We are accustomed to musical notation and if one is to be understood, one must speak a familiar language.

The transcribed songs, with their descriptions and analyses, have been published by the Bureau of American Ethnology.

In selecting places for recording Indian songs I have chosen those of different environments. My work has been regional rather than tribal, and I have worked with the most representative tribes in each region. Beginning with the Chippewa, or Ojibway, which is a north woodland tribe, I passed to the Sioux, or Dakota, which is a typical tribe of the Great Plains. I also studied the Mandan and Hidatsa in North Dakota. The high plateau region is represented by the Northern Ute, and the low desert by the Papago, while the tribes of the Colorado River are tile Yuma and Cocopa. A Mexican tribe in the United States

is the Yaqui whose songs were recorded in Arizona. The Maidu is a tribe of northern California, and farther north I studied the Quileute and Makah, collecting also Clayoquot songs that came from the west coast of Vancouver Island. In British Columbia I recorded songs from Indians living far north. Songs of Indians on the Gulf of Mexico include the Alabama of Texas, Choctaw of Mississippi and Seminole of Florida. The songs of Pueblo tribes have been obtained from members of those tribes temporarily in a low altitude. This indicates only a portion of the scope of the work in which differences are found between songs of the various regions, indicating early influences and tribal custom.

A portion of my work is the collecting of specimens of musical instruments which are made of material available in the region. (Specimens of drums, flutes, whistles and rattles shown, after which the slides are shown, the list containing brief comments on the subjects of the slides).

­­ Correction­­ after the lecture as written and before showing the musical instruments, there was a description of work on the Fort Berthold reservation, about 200 miles from Minot.

SOURCE: Frances Densmore papers, Library of Congress Archive of Folk Music, Box 19.


Song Catcher