Native American musical cultures 1

More from Bruno Nettl—and the Blackfoot


In a Piegan lodge: Yellow Kidney (left) and his father Little Plume inside a lodge, pipe between them (Edward Curtis, c1900, Library of Congress). In a later version, Curtis erased the clock in the centre; by now, I suspect some anthropologists might even add it.

Learning about the disturbing story of Grassy Narrows reminded me at last to delve modestly into Native American ritual and musical cultures. [1]

Like ethnic minorities within the PRC, such groups are a much-favoured subject for fieldworkers (“The typical Indian family includes a father, a mother, three children, and an anthropologist”). Meanwhile the popular imagination easily reduces such cultures to an Exotic Other, sweeping social issues under the carpet—further compounded by New Age flapdoodle (cf. dervishes, Tibetan singing bowls).

Fortunately, changing Native American cultures have long been the subject of serious academic study. Their musics were among the major focuses of the great Bruno Nettl, and besides his dedicated monographs, for a novice like me in this vast field his The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions makes a cogent and eminently readable introduction, the fruit of his long engagement with Native American groups—notably the Blackfoot, his long-term fieldwork project—recurring as illustrations within his topics illuminating global musicking. So here I’ll assemble some of Nettl’s most pertinent insights (cf. Iran: chamber music and Heartland excursions).

Here’s a very basic map:

Map N. America

I’ll begin with a passage from Chapter 31, “Second thoughts: some personal disclosures”, where Nettl notes that our own ideas can and should be revised—such as concepts about the simplicity and complexity of “folk” and “art” musics (pp.455–8; for China, see e.g. my own Dissolving boundaries):

Fundamentally, around 1950 the principal distinction between the music of indigenous societies (then called “primitive”) and “art” (or “cultivated”) music involved intellectualisation. Indigenous music, it was thought, didn’t have ideas about the technicalities of music, while art music (in Europe but also in the so-called high cultures of Asia) was based on complex theoretical systems. Essentially, this is what my teacher George Herzog taught, although in one article, “Music in the thinking of the American Indian”, he contradicts this view. But it’s significant that this (actually very interesting) article is extremely short and appeared in an obscure periodical, in contrast to Herzog’s several major works on Native American musics of the 1930s, which appeared in major journals and were often quite voluminous but said virtually nothing about the ideas about music held by Indians. He analysed the songs and showed that structurally they were often moderately interesting. I have to confess that for a long time, this made sense to me. Societies that had been nonliterate, learned songs orally, had no formalised music teaching—they couldn’t, it seemed to me, have much in the way of a system of ideas about music.

Well, by now I think the opposite. The styles of Native American songs are certainly very interesting but hardly very complex, but in my experience the Blackfoot people, for example, didn’t seem to think that the structure was worthy of much attention. To them, Western music—which they called “white” music—now that was complicated music. One had to know a lot to perform it, including reading music and understanding harmony. But white people, some Blackfoot singers told me, didn’t think very deeply about their own music, they only enjoyed its sound.

The Blackfoot people, I discovered from a good many interviews and observations but also from reading older ethnographies and examining myths, actually had (maybe used to have) a very complex system of ideas about music. […] For one thing, music was a reflection, a kind of counterpart, of the whole of life. The most important myth about the origin of the Beaver medicine bundle, perhaps the most fundamental ceremony [see also pp.257–8], told how each animal or bird had its own song and its supernatural power. The right way to do something is to sing the right song with it; everything has its song. A man would expand his musical knowledge by having repeated visions in which he learned songs and by moving through a series of age-grade societies, each of which had its songs. The old man, the most respected, was also the one who had learned the most songs. And further, songs are like objects [!]: they can be given, traded, bought, inherited—though just what constitutes the identity of a song is not totally clear—and as a result, it is believed that songs cannot be divided, or changed.

These are the kinds of things that show that indigenous peoples do indeed have complicated ideas about music and about the role of music in culture. I certainly had to change my mind about that, moving from an image of indigenous peoples as having songs but no ideas about them to one of peoples whose systems of ideas about music gives you far more insight into the culture than merely listening to the songs. […]

These thoughts led me to consider Native American music more broadly. It’s the music with which I’ve been concerned longest, and early on two things struck me as significant, things that were generally accepted in the scholarly literature up to that time. One was that in each society or nation, there is one dominant musical style. These musical styles were grouped in somewhat homogeneous areas, each one geographically delimited; these areas correlated somewhat with culture areas, and somewhat with areas determined by language relationships, but they did not follow either—how shall I say it—slavishly. And second: many Native nations had a number of songs that were simpler than the rest—game songs, songs in stories, lullabies—and were pretty much alike throughout the continent. From this, one was led to believe, there could be reconstructed a kind of broad history of Native American music, in which an old, homogeneous layer of simple songs that all people shared was followed by a layer of styles that correlated somewhat with language and culture, and this was followed by individual and unique developments in each nation, representing relatively recent events.

I’ve come over the years to realise that this is a very simplistic approach. Let me fast-forward to the past couple of decades in which I’ve begun to think that if there is “a” history, it might have been quite different. We’re becoming increasingly aware of the complexity of many Native cultures before 1492. The advanced state of agriculture, which developed many plant foods that were then taken up and became staples in Europe, and the large cities in the Andes and Mexico, but also in what is now the United States, such as the metropolis of Cahokia near present-day St Louis—these suggest cultures whose social, religious, and economic structures matched their European and Asian counterparts, and so did the size of their populations. I find it hard to imagine that they didn’t have music consisting of long compositions with complex structures, perhaps polyphonic, performed by large groups of singers and percussionists and other instruments. Perhaps there was court music, and surely mass ceremonials. To be sure, we have no evidence of notation or complex melody-producing instruments. And we can’t talk about musical styles except in terms of 20th-century Native music. If we imagine that Cahokia had music with complex styles, we have no idea what it sounded like. […]

And it’s not as if the contemporary Native cultures we do know about didn’t have some pretty complicated music, especially when it comes to architectonic structure. I think of the song cycles of southeastern nations, of Pueblo peoples, of the Navajo, of Peyote songs of the Kiowa. But instead of seeing these as a kind of apex of Native American musical creativity, I would now like to think of them as the remnants of what may once have been a more complex musical culture—or cultures. […]

These ideas relate to some hypotheses recently promulgated by Joseph Jordania and also Victor Grauer, proposing that relatively complex music—polyphonic singing, in Grauer’s approach—was once more widespread in indigenous societies than it is now, suggesting to me that while many of the world’s musical cultures have moved to increasingly complex systems, the opposite—simplification, abandonment of complex structures—might, for a variety of reasons, be another type of development. Anyway, I’ve had second thoughts; the typical history of a society’s music may not be unidirectional at all.

In Chapter 19, as a prelude to his useful taxonomy of musical change in world societies, Nettl speculates on the more recent history of indigenous groups (p.282):

Our understanding of change in the past in indigenous and folk societies is extremely limited. But as an example, trying a bit of reconstruction and conjecture, let us see in a bit of detail what can be know or at least conjectured of the Plains Indians before about 1800CE, noting conditions parallel to some of those characterising the modern world. It is difficult to know when things happened in the history of the Plains Indians, but we know at least that certain things did happen. At some point, probably in the period between 1000 and 1500, a number of peoples from diverse areas collected in the western Plains. Their diverse origin is attested by the diversity of languages. In various ways, the area began to be culturally unified. Travel began to be widespread, related to the nomadic lifestyle adopted in part because of the horse. […] Relatively dramatic changes thus seem to have taken place, and we have in microcosm evidence of some of the characteristics of 20th-century world culture: technology, suddenly improved by the introduction of the horse and other indirect acquisitions from the whites; increased intertribal communication; a unified religious system overlaying more individual tribal traditions; and no nation-states, but a unified culture that led to tribal allegiances and intertribal languages, such as sign language and the widespread use of Lakota and, eventually, of English.

The evidence is extremely scanty, but there is a bit of an indication that rapid musical change accompanied or immediately followed this development. The geographic distribution of the so-called Plains musical style indicates rather recent origin, at least in the “classical” Plains culture, where this style developed its extreme characteristics. Distribution also suggests a diffusion to outlying areas—the eastern woodlands, the prairie tribes, and certain Salish and Great Basin peoples such as the Flathead and the Shoshone. Merriam particularly notes the Plains-like character of Flathead music and culture, despite the Salish background. The overlay of Plains music in the Flathead repertory, contrary to the homogeneous style of the coast Salish, appears to be recent, as does the introduction of the Plains style in the previously simpler and homogeneous basin repertory.

Again, it seems likely that rapid or at least substantial change in music and its surrounding social events occurred with, or perhaps followed, the development of technology, communication, and widespread standardisation along with knowledge and tolerance of diversity. But of course, this highly generalised ans speculative discussion is intended to do nothing more than suggest to the reader the possibility that certain kinds of cultural situations seem to be accompanied by large-scale change and others by its virtual absence.

More on styles (pp.325–7):

Physically, the Plains Indian groups, extending from the Blackfoot in the North to the Comanche in the South, are not particularly alike. Yet Blackfoot music is very similar to that of other Plains tribes, and so we rule out biological factors. There is a closer relationship between the distribution of the Plains musical style and the physical environment of the high Plains. But while it’s difficult to separate culture from ecology, the Plains musical style is also found in peoples living in other areas, and it has become a major component of the more recently developed intertribal powwow culture.

Language also appears not to be a factor. Although the minor musical difference among Blackfoot, Crow, and Comanche (members of three language families) might in part be related to differences in language and speech patterns, the main thrust of the musical style of the Plains peoples is the same, even though the languages belong to four or more language families.

On to matters of culture. The Blackfoot in their recent “precontact” history were a hunting-and-gathering society in the western Plains, but there is evidence that they came from farther east and once enjoyed a different lifestyle, possibly including some horticulture. Marius Schneider’s description of the music of hunting cultures sort of fits them: it is “interspersed with much shouting, is formed from free-speech rhythms, and has little tonal definition”. But Schneider’s correlation of hunting with polyphony and with metric predomination over melody doesn’t apply here at all.

Here’s my summary of traditional old-time Blackfoot culture, coming from standard ethnographies: based on human and animal energy, it had little social stratification. The social organisation was quite complex, revolving about the individual’s association with a nuclear family, with a band, with various societies, and with other individuals who shared the same guardian spirit, and so on, all however within a rather informal framework. For all of those characteristics, we can easily identify close relationship to musical concepts, functions, behaviour. But when it comes to musical style, we look far and wide for correlation. The variety of social relationships is paralleled by a number of musical genres with stylistic boundaries that are blurred, reflecting conceivably the informal approach to life’s rules. The lack of complex technology is reflected in the predominantly vocal music. In a more speculative vein, we would associate the great difference between Blackfoot singing and speaking styles to the supernatural association of music.

Referring again to McFee, Nettl concludes:

In the end, some of the most obvious musical traits cannot be related to a culture core, however defined, and we are unable, say, to associate pentatonic scales with bravery and heptatonic with cowardice. […]

In traditional Blackfoot culture, […] there was a great difference in cultural role between men and women. In most respects, human relationships were informal and easy. A person was associated with several social groups. Political hierarchy was absent and authority temporary. People did cooperate and showed little hostility to each other, but most actions were carried out by individuals, while collaboration was not pervasive.

In Blackfoot music, there are also substantial differences in men’s and women’s activities and repertories. The singing styles differ considerably. Informality is evident in many aspects of music, notably in the difference between theory and practice, between stated rules and execution. Thus, songs are said to be repeated four times, but recordings show a lot of variation. The musical system is exhibited as a large body of separable songs, but in fact the difference between similar songs and sets of variants is not easily drawn. Songs have texts but may also be sung with newly created words or meaningless syllables. As a person is associated with several groups, a melody may be associated with several uses. Musical authority resides in part with song leaders, who, however, hold musical power temporarily and informally.

Change more recently: intertribalism, the powwow, and white music
Bringing the discussion into the modern period, Nettl goes on:

In a powwow singing group—a “Drum”—there is a male (or, recently, sometimes a female) leader whose tasks are mainly administrative. He also leads more song performances than others, but the leadership role in a song’s structure is confined to the beginning, after which others, again informally determined, hold roles of prominence. Singing in groups is common, but in earlier times solo singing predominated. In group singing, a loose kind of musical cooperation is necessary, and articulation of notes and drumbeats must be in good unison, but singers make little attempt to blend voices and it is easy to hear the individual. Nonmembers of singing groups may be welcome to sit in, and a singer may perform with several groups tough mainly associated with one. Those elements of style that can be best related to components of social relations and conceptions of life are those that are conventionally called “performance practice” and are present throughout a musical performance. But Blackfoot culture and other things we know about the Blackfoot people really haven’t given us an explanation of the particular sound and style of their music.

Under the global theme of minorities under a dominant society, he ponders the influence of white contact upon Native Americans (pp.410–414):

Native American peoples of the north Plains readily distinguish between “Indian” and “white” music, both of which they perform and hear. The two are symbolic of the culture in which Indians move. “White” social contexts, such as drinking in a bar or going to a Christian church, are accompanied by white music performed by Indians. The traditional contexts of Indian music may be largely gone, but when the people are engaged in activities in which they wish to stress their Indian identity, such as powwows, social dances, or gambling games, they use Indian music.


Frances Densmore recording Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief for the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1916. Source: wiki. Cf. Bartók in 1907.

Nettl goes on to adduce the Native Americans as a case study of “a minority overrun by immigrants to their territory who became the majority”:

But their musical cultures have not been studied very much from this perspective. […] I have in mind issues such as these: how being a minority has affected a Native tribe’s musical culture, how the music of the majority has affected them, how they have used music in relating to the (white) majority, or how they affected the music of the white majority. Typical studies of American Indians have essentially treated each culture or tribe in isolation, trying to reconstruct their musical life as it might have been before and without majority intervention—before the coming of white people and their music.

My principal experience has been with the Blackfoot people of Montana, and this conventional approach was the one I followed when I studied, principally in the small town of Browning and its surroundings. Looking back now, I could have come up with a somewhat different ethnographic and musicological picture if I had looked at the Blackfoot people as a minority among the various culture of North America. Let me give a few examples of the kinds of things on which I might have concentrated:

Basically, the Blackfoot say they have both Indian and white music, and in their musical lives Indian music is a minority music, but it has special functions in the modernised Blackfoot culture. Their most important musical activity, the powwow, is used to negotiate and to a degree resolve conflicts. For example, at a large powwow there is the daily presentation of the US flag with an American military colour guard to the accompaniment of unmistakably Indian music. The functions and uses of the traditional repertory have shidted in accordance with culture change. While powwows are explicitly modern events, some of the older and at one time central Blackfoot musical traditions that were wiped out, forgotten, or abandoned are being reconstructed, and there are some musical styles of white-Native fusion. The participation of non-Blackfoot Native Americans, and also of white dancers and singers (usually referred to as “hobbyists”), in certain components of Blackfoot musical life would be important to study. Now, coming initially from a tradition of scholarship that emphasised the purity and authenticity of the tradition to be investigated, I have to criticise my research tradition for treating these issues as merely the result of corruption or pollution.

But the Blackfoot picture is made more complicated because their main town of Browning, Montana, population around 8,000, is not homogeneous but consists of several groups perhaps best labeled as minorities. When I worked there, around 1966–83, there were a small number of whites, including the majority of professionals and business owners, the wealthy; there was a majority of people who called themselves mixed-bloods, although this was a category less biological than cultural, as biological descent is hard to specify, indicating allegiance to a mixture of cultural values and practices; and then there was a smallish population of so-called full-bloods, largely poor people whose cultural interests were closer to older traditions. They were treated like a minority by all of the others, and this included customary stereotyping with undesirable connotations—drunkenness, laziness, ignorance of modern ways. This kind of a mix goes back to prewhite days, when the various and complex ways in which traditional Blackfoot divided themselves socially—including the special role of women—had its musical analogues.

And so, as with most Native American peoples, the musical culture of the Blackfoot, despite their small population, was not homogeneous. To put it very simply, not all people knew all the songs. On the contrary, the Blackfoot repertory was divided among formally constituted age groups, among people associated with different guardian spirits, among different bands of people who separated during winter, by gender, and more.


Source here.

Very significantly, some of this situation was the result of the events of the 19th century when Native American peoples came to have a minority status among the white invaders. The musical repertories experienced both centrifugal and centripetal forces. On the one hand, as tribal allegiance of individual Blackfoot people began to vary and among some to simply disappear, the typical musical idiolect (the individual’s musical experience) became more varied. Some people held on to many songs, even singing songs to which they traditionally would not have been entitled. Others again forgot most Indian songs and learned “white” music—church music, vernacular music, folk music. On the other hand, as the extant repertories of most Native American peoples shrank because their functions declined or disappeared, and as member sof once separate tribes were thrown together on common reservations and in cities, some songs became a core of common property that, through the intertribal powwow circuit, came to be shared intertribally.

Like most American minorities of European origin, a large proportion of Native Americans in the United States today live in large cities, maintaining a tenuous, perhaps love-hate relationship to the reservations from which they came and where relatives still live. Like the Europeans (more properly, Euro-Americans), they have developed national festivals celebrating music, dance, foodways, the most important being the already mentioned powwow. Thus, for example, about half of the nation’s Blackfoot people live in large cities in the North—mainly Seattle and Minneapolis—and many schedule annual visits to relatives in Montana so as to participate in the main four-day powwow. But while there are anthropological studies of urban Native American communities, not much has been done to learn about their musical culture. How is it like and unlike that of Italian Americans, Arab Americans, Mexican Americans, Hungarian Americans? Although there are, perhaps surprisingly, interesting parallels, one is struck by the significant contrasts.

Further to the idea of expressing various kinds of identity (p.271):

The major midsummer powwow, North American Indian Days, is a kind of event that would not have been conceivable in earlier Blackfoot history and even in the first part of the 20th century. It is polysemic, overtly and subtly expressing
1) Blackfoot national identity—the emcee says so, and occasionally speaks Blackfoot;
2) Native American ethnic identity (or is Blackfoot the ethnic group, and are Native Americans the nation?)—again, the emcee tell us, the Drums, the singing groups, come from many reservations in the United States and Canada, and the dancers perform a widely intertribal repertory;
3) US national identity—much is made of the presentation of the colours by military veterans;
4) age identity—there are dance contests for different age groups; and
5) personal identity—there’s the incredible variety of costumes.
There is plenty of “white” music going on in town at the time of the powwow; country music and rock at dances for older and younger folks, respectively; US patriotic song recordings on sale at an “Indian” rodeo. But at North American Indian Days, while all kinds of appurtenances from “white” culture are in evidence, from flags to tape recorders, the music is totally “Indian”, even for the presentation of the military guard. The association of music with identity is very strong here.

More on the powwow (pp.351–2):

If one were to look for a ranking of musicians among modern Plains Indians, one could do it most conveniently by comparing ensembles of singers who habitually perform together and by examining the social and musical structure of the individual ensemble. At the major Blackfoot powwow […] in the 1960s, several Drums (singing groups) alternated, each performing for an hour or two. The groups were associated with towns on and off the reservation—Browning, Heart Butte, Starr School, Cardston (Alberta), and so on. Members did not need to be residents, and membership was informal and floating; a singer from one group could occasionally sing in another. Each group had a leader who began many but by no means all of the songs and who assembled the singers. Each singer in the group could lead songs, for example, determining what song to sing and to begin it by singing the first phrase solo; there was no set order for the leading of songs. On the surface, at least, the situation was one of informality and equality. Most of the time, little was made of distinctions among groups and singers. In the powwow sector of the culture, there is only one class of individuals who make up something of a musical elite, the class of (mainly) men known as “singers”. But the Blackfoot do distinguish quality and status of musicianship. The singing groups competed for prizes, and during my stay with the Blackfoot there was one that had the reputation of being the best, its superior quality attributed to the members’ musicianship,with details unspecified. Individual singers were also singled out as being particularly excellent. The criteria included knowledge of a large repertory, as well as the ability to drum well (quality of singing was evidently a less important criterion), with emphasis on the ability to drum in a precise “off the beat” relationship to the vocal rhythm, and in perfect unison. Men who made songs were also (automatically) regarded as superior singers but not put into a separate class as composers. Since the 1960s, the culture and social organisation of powwow Drums have become much more formalised and commercialised; it is now similar to that of professional musicians in American society as a whole, and the music has become part of American mass-mediated musical culture.

Nettl also reflects wisely on the scholarly use of Native American music in education. In Chapter 9 on comparative study he again considers changing academic perspectives, giving instances of student reactions to his lectures outlining musical styles over 25-year intervals (pp.122–3).

Native American culture again features in Chapter 29 in a highly pertinent discussion on applied uses of ethnomusicology and social activism (cf. Guo Yuhua), “Are you doing anyone any good?”—including sections on healthcare, the politics of representation, and “Trying to make peace”.

Music and learning
Nettl points out that while such music may seem “simple” in certain parameters, it’s quite complex in many other respects (cf. What is serious music?!).

In his very opening discussion of how to define “music” in the first place, he observes that rather like the Hausa of Nigeria, Native American societies have no word to tie together all musical activities (p.24):

The Blackfoot have a word, paskan, that can be roughly translated as “dance”, which includes music and ceremony and is used to refer to religious and semireligious events that comprise music, dance, and other activities, but this word does not include certain musical activities, such as gambling, that have no dancing. They have a word for “song” but not one for instrumental music [cf. the care needed in approaching “music” in China (cf. here; in traditional north China it doesn’t apply to vocal music, or even other genres of intrumental music, but narrowly to the paraliturgical shengguan wind ensemble!].

In Chapter 26, engagingly titled “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?“, among Nettl’s instances of teaching, learning, and rehearsing in a variety of cultures around the world, he wonders how traditional Native American societies worked (pp.381–3):

Blackfoot people traditionally believed that humans could learn music in two interconnected ways, from supernatural powers such as guardian spirits in visions and from other humans. The ideal was the learning of songs from the supernatural, and the concepts of learning and creating music are therefore closely associated. The way in which songs were thought to be learned in visions, normally in a single hearing, has influenced the concepts that people have about learning music in an entirely human context. In the culture of the Blackfoot, “once” may presumably mean four times through, so the concept is there, but the idea that the guardian spirit teaches you a song simply by singing it to you is important, and human teachers instruct similarly. Thus, a medicine bundle, with its attendant songs, was transferred from one person to another by a single performance of the ceremony, during which the new owner was expected to learn the songs. Today, when people learn songs from each other and recognise the process as such, they say that quick learning is desirable and certainly possible, though lately often subverted by the ever-present cassette recorder. The standardisation of form and the possibility of roughly predicting the course of a song from its initial phrase also facilitate quick learning. […]

There is evidence that those cultures that demanded the precise rendering of music for validation of religious ritual also required systematic practising and rehearsing and looked at it all competitively. We are told this about the Navajo and the North Pacific coast peoples […]. Rehearsing was essential, mistakes were punished, and rituals in which mistakes were found would have to be repeated entirely or in part in order to be valid. Some northern Plains peoples took a less formalist attitude. Having been learned largely from visions for the use of one person, music was more closely associated with the individual and private rituals, and therefore the control of the community over musical performance was less highly developed. Evidently, a man who learned a song in a vision would use his walk or ride back to camp as an opportunity to rehearse or work it out. No doubt, actual composition took place along this walk [cf. Unpacking “improvisation”—including a wonderful passage on the creative processes of Mozart, Blackfoot singer Theodore Last Star, and Brahms!]; the inspiration from the white heat of the vision would be rationally worked out. Practising in effect took place at this point, and the song would be readied for presentation to the other members of the tribe. But since music was primarily a personal and individualistic activity and experience, practising was not done systematically to any large extent, and not much heed was paid to the accuracy of performance. Just as composing and learning are related concepts, composing and practising overlap. How things have changed!

 Nettl’s consultant told him (p.293):

“Oh yes. Every year about a hundred new songs come to the reservation.” Did they sound different from the old songs? “No, they are new songs and we add them, and that way we get more and more songs.” The Blackfoot regard change as basically a good thing.

Pondering the life of the “typical musician”, Nettl comments on the changing life of an individual Blackfoot (p.195):

He moved through a series of age-grade societies whose activities included ceremonies and music. As an individual grew older, he or she was successively initiated into new societies, learning their songs and dances. Again, the oldest men would know the largest amount of music, learned gradually, more or less at four-year intervals. The vision quest of the Plains Indians and of tribes surrounding the Plains exhibited a similarly gradual learning of songs. A so-called medicine man or woman would have a succession of visions of his or her guardian spirit, each time learning more in the way of dealing with the supernatural, which included songs.

This is the traditional picture. For recent times, the tendency to gradual learning of new material is a pattern both supported and altered in the career of one Blackfoot singer with whom I worked. Born about 1915, this man was first exposed to Western music through his reservation school, learning French horn, but he also—sometimes secretly—learned a few traditional songs. As a young adult, he took up the modern intertribal repertory of the powwow culture, which consisted largely of social dance songs without words. In later life, he gradually became interested as well in the ancient traditional Blackfoot music, learning it from older persons who knew but rarely performed the songs. This sequence had idiosyncratic causes: the third stage coincided with the death of the singer’s stepfather, an esteemed tribal leader. But the pattern may also be typical, at least insofar as the most sacred music has long been the province of tribal elders. In this respect, my consultant, although he was exposed to musics not known in earlier times, such as the so-called intertribal songs and powwows and the music of the whites, seems to have followed a traditional pattern. But in the sense that he withdrew from interest in one musical repertory as he learned a new one, he probably did not reflect the gradual and cumulative learning of a cohesive musical system. In any event, the concept of typical pattern in musical life can be found among the ordinary singers of a small tribe as well as the master composers of Western music.

In a passage on “genius”, he finds technical virtuosity of little significance among the Blackfoot (p.59):

Outstanding singers and men who commanded large repertories of religious songs were singled out, but the role of musical culture hero seems to me to be most clearly associated with those men who, in times of the greatest adversity of the Blackfoot nation, tried to lead the tribe into some kind of acceptable future and did so by maintaining and teaching the people’s songs and dances.

Related are Nettl’s comments in a section on locating informants, consultants, and teachers in various cultures (pp.152–3)—reminding me of our search for ritual specialists in China:

In working with Blackfoot people, I was introduced to a man who was described as a singer. I did not ask further; he had been so designated in contrast to dozens of others who were not. I didn’t care whether he was the best or the worst, as I was grateful for anyone’s help, and I assumed that he would be somehow representative of that part of the population who were titled “singers”. I had it in mind to study the musical culture as it existed, was interested in the mainstream of musical experience, not in what was exceptionally good, or, for that matter, bad. I valued most the contact with someone who would speak articulately and give me a lot of information. I hoped he would in some way be typical, and I thought I would later be able to put my hope to the test. I believed, rightly or not, that among the sixty or seventy “singers” whom the community turned out to have, perhaps a half dozen would be considered outstanding, another few barely adequate, and the majority simply good, in a sort of bell-shaped curve. This majority group interested me the most. The members of the society seemd to find my approach compatible, didn’t feel that I should be concentrating only on the best.

More on “polymusicality” (p.314):

Most of the world’s societies find themselves in the 20th century participating in two or more musics that can be rather easily distinguished, and the idea that each music functions as a symbol of particular aspects of a culture is a convenient approach to the study of one aspect of musical symbolism. In the culture of the Blackfoot during the 1960s, three kinds of music were distinguished by insiders and outsiders: older, traditional, tribal music; modernised intertribal or “pan-Indian” music; and Western music. The three had different symbolic values, the first as a symbol of the tribal past, to be remembered but placed in a kind of museum context; the second, of the need of Indian cultures to combine in order to ensure people’s cultural survival as Indians; and the third, of the modern facts of Indian life. Integrations as a tribe, as an Indian people, and into the mainstream American environment are symbolised. The relationships seem obvious to an outsider, but they are also articulated by the culture’s own interpretation of itself.

McFee, looking at modern Blackfoot society, followed a similar line of thought, dividing the Blackfoot population and its values into white- and Indian-oriented groups. For Indian culture, he lists individualism, bravery, skill, wisdom, and generosity; for white orientation, self-dependence, acquisition, and work. The two groups overlap, but one can find some of the Indian-oriented values in traditional music and musical behaviour. Individualism is evident in the need for people, ideally, to learn their own songs in visions and to develop personal repertories of songs, and perhaps also in the tendency for traditional music to be soloistic or, when performed by groups, to avoid a high degree of vocal blend [cf. Lomax].

Bravery can conceivably be related to the practice of singing before a group, sometimes with improvised texts, in a ceremony replicating courage in physical conflict. Generosity is exhibited in the system of giving songs, the willingness to borrow from and give to other tribes. The three “white” values given by McFee can be associated with “white” music and with the modern Indian music used by the Blackfoot. The use of notation and the ownership of complex instruments such as pianos and electric guitars can in various ways be associated with all three. Composition (in contrast to acquisition of songs through visions) is related to self-dependence. The importance of size of repertory in the modern genres and the idea of rapid learning with the use of tape recorders are relevant to the idea of acquisition. The practice of rehearsing and the development of complex performance styles in modern Indian music can be related to the idea of work.

Gender, scholarship, and recording
Nettl was always attuned to gender issues (for my brief reading list under flamenco, see here). Among the Blackfoot in the mid-20th century (p.394),

women probably sang little in public (my consultants regarded it as evidence of immodesty). I was told they had some songs of their own (some of these songs could be given to men), but often they “helped” the men, and they seemed to know—though usually not to sing—many of the men’s songs. But I was told (and read) that women were important as sponsors of music-bearing rituals [cf. China], and in the mythology they are instrumental in bringing songs into existence. Since 1980, however, women have become very active in the powwow repertory, participating as a minority in many of the Drums, and forming a few “women-only” Drums. Early recordings show women’s singing style to have been rather different to that of men. Thus, in the public dance repertory, the rhythmic pulsations that in men’s singing consisted of sudden, momentary increases in amplitude or dynamics were rendered by women as slight changes in pitch. When participating in Drums, in recordings made after around 1980, women’s singing style approximates that of men.

Besides women as performers, Nettl also observes (pp.400–401) that

the five most significant scholars of Native American music before 1950 were the following four women (plus George Herzog). The major accomplishments of this group constitute the classics of that period: Alice C. Fletcher (1904) published the first detailed description of a ceremony, with complete transcriptions. Frances Densmore’s oeuvre of publications still probably exceeds what has been published by anyone else, but her detailed musical and ethnographic collections of Chippewa and Teton Sioux musics (1910, 1918) are early exemplars of comprehensive accounts of musical culture. Natalie Curtis’s main work, The Indians’ book (1907), did much to bring Native American music and culture to the attention of the public. And Helen Roberts’s imaginative analytical work on Native Californian and Northwest Coast music and her study of geographical distribution (1936) of musical styles, providing the first continental synthesis, belong to the central literature of this area. After 1950, too, women scholars, including Gertrude Kurath, Ida Halpern, Charlotte Frisbie, Judith Vander, Charlotte Heth, Victoria Levine, Beverley Diamond, and Tara Browner, continued to provide leadership. To a somewhat lesser degree, the same could be said for other world areas and repertories.

(In China the preponderance of female music scholars and students had to wait until the 1990s.) He goes on:

It’s interesting to contemplate the cultural or personal roots of the special contributions of women scholars to Native American music studies. It may be suggested that women were motivated in this direction because their own unfavourable social position made them sensitive to oppressed peoples and also because they found themselves directed towards the margins—to marginal peoples, and to music, a marginal field in the Western academy, and in America marginal even among the arts. No doubt a few early figures, who had arrived by chance and through personal interest and determination, such as Densmore and Fletcher, became models for others. Franz Boas encouraged women to enter anthropology in its early American years. Considerable female participation may generally have been characteristic of new yet unestablished fields; ethnomusicology was not taken as seriously as ancient history and Latin philology, for example, thus permitting women easier access. The fact that American and English women are particularly well represented in this group may also be related to the common relegation of music in Anglophone cultures to women, and thus to the fact that music departments in North America were first introduced at women’s colleges.

On the “repatriation” of recordings and archives (pp.182–3; cf. similar projects for Australian Aborigines) Nettl refers to archives such as the Federal Cylinder Project, the Smithsonian Institution and the American Folklife Center, mentioning works such as Victoria Levine, Writing American Indian music (2002) and Brian Wright-McLeod, The encyclopedia of native music: more than a century of recordings from wax cylinders to the internet (2005).

Blackfoot cover

He describes his own “longitudinal” work on the Blackfoot (p.186):

After doing some fieldwork and making some recordings, I had the opportunity to examine collections of Blackfoot songs made earlier. I was astonished to find that although, for some reason, no ethnomusicologist had published research on the subject, a huge amount had been recorded, beginning in 1897. By 1987 (when I finished with this project), I could identify some sixteen collections made by ethnomusicologists and anthropologists—cylinders, acetate disks, reel-to-reel tape, cassettes. And I identified about forty commercial recordings, largely LPs (but there were five songs on a Victor record of 1914), and some prerecorded cassettes. Since then, a few dozen more cassettes and CDs have been produced, for Blackfoot listeners and for tourists, and for some singers in other tribes. Well, comparing those early recordings with the recent ones helps to show how very much things have changed in repertory, singing and drumming styles, form, intonation, and—I guess—aesthetics. If early ethnomusicology concentrated on how consistent an authentic culture had to be, using archives and the history of records helps us to see, at least for a period of about 120 years, some aspects of the way musical life has changed [for early Chinese recordings, see here and here].

So here’s Nettl’s An historical album of Blackfoot Indian music (1973/2004; click here for his fine liner notes), with 19 tracks recorded between 1897 and 1966 (the latter by Nettl himself), including Beaver Medicine and Sun Dance songs, war music, love songs, lullabies, gambling and social dance songs:

And for a taste of Blackfoot ceremony, here’s the 1956 documentary The Piegan Medicine Lodge, filmed in Heart Butte, Montana, on a ceremony commissioned as a vow to give thanks upon a grandchild’s recovery from polio (for background, click here):

Nettl’s perspectives, accessible even for those diffident about tackling “music”, are valuable for us in studying any culture—including WAM and China.

For my second post in this series, on the Navajo, click here.


[1] The anthropology of Native American cultures is a vast field. For musicking, see e.g. The Garland encyclopedia of world music: the United States and Canada (1998), Part 3 Section 1; Elaine Keillor, Timothy Archambault, and John M. H. Kelly (eds), Encyclopedia of Native American music of North America (2013); and Chapter 2 of Jeff Todd Titon (ed.), Worlds of music: an introduction to the music of the world’s peoples (with CDs; 5th edition by David McAllester, 6th by Christopher Scales).

8 thoughts on “Native American musical cultures 1

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