Essays on Native American Indian Music

Collecting American Indian Music

by Tony Isaacs, 1988.

First, the title should be "Collecting Recordings of American Indian Music." You can collect recordings of Indian music, of particular performances, but you can't really collect the music – it's still out there with the people. From a traditional point of view, when you have a recording of a song, that's all you have, you don't have the ceremony that goes with it, you don't necessarily have the feeling that goes with it, and you don't necessarily have the history behind the song. You only have the song, and that's just a piece of it – a piece of a much larger event.


Historically, recordings of Indian music have been made since the 1890's, almost a hundred years now, beginning with Jesse Walter Fewkes' recordings of Passamaquoddy songs, Alice Fletcher's recordings of the Omaha and other tribes in the Midwest, Natalie Curtis in the early 1900's, and most prolifically by Frances Densmore from the early 1900's up through the 1930's. Almost all of this work was on wax cylinders, fragile, and for scholarly use.

In the 1930's, Laura Boulton made a number of excellent recordings from different tribes on custom-built portable equipment on aluminum discs. (See footnote 1) A number of these recordings were published on Ethnic Folkways. In the 1940's, Professor Willard Rhodes recorded a tremendous amount of material for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, also on phonodiscs. Most of his recordings, as well as many of Densmore's are published on LP's by the Library of Congress, and some are also on Ethnic Folkways. Up to this point, almost all recording was done by non-Indians for non-Indian use. There are a few others who have also done some good recording, but here I am just mentioning a few of the early major collections.

Beginning in the early 1940's, Mr. Manuel Archuleta from San Juan Pueblo was working at the Albuquerque Indian School, and began making recordings of singers at the school. These were originally published on 78's on his own Tom Tom label, and later on two 12" LP albums called Indian Chants - Vols. 1 & 2. Unlike the Library of Congress or Folkways albums, Archuleta's recordings were more available in the Southwest, and were purchased by both Indians and non-Indians. Also in the mid 1940's, Rev. Linn Pauahty, a Kiowa Indian Methodist minister in Oklahoma, obtained portable phonodisc recording equipment to record traditional tribal church hymns among the different tribes in Oklahoma. (Footnote 2) In addition, he began to record many other good singers on custom-cut '78's, and eventually established his own record label, American Indian Soundchiefs. These were first published on 78's, then later on LP's, and were sold primarily to Indian customers. Rev. Pauahty's unique style of recording is especially significant, and we will come back to this later.

In 1951, Mr. Ray Boley of Canyon Films in Phoenix was called by a friend to come hear a then unknown Navajo singer with an extraordinary voice. Boley went, and it was true, the man, Natay, did have a special voice. Boley asked Natay if he would be interested in recording, and with the album, Natay – Navajo Singer, Canyon Records was born. Originally expecting to sell to a non-Indian market, Boley was surprised to start getting orders from the Navajo reservation, and even other Indian areas. (Footnote 3) Eventually he recorded other tribes in the Southwest, and also some very good Oglalla Sioux singers who came to perform at the Flagstaff Powwow. Originally published on 78's and 45's, Canyon re-issued their growing catalog onto LP's in the late 50's and 60's. Today Canyon has over 200 albums of Indian music, and is the largest Indian music company in the U.S., and distributes a number of smaller independent Indian labels as well as their own Canyon recordings.

In 1966, Tony and Ida Isaacs began Indian House recordings in Taos, New Mexico, with the idea of "filling in the gaps" of what was recorded, to get the best singers available for the job, to make a more polished presentation of Indian music than had been available in order to inspire interest among young Indians, and also to make the music more accessible to a wider audience with introductory notes and translations where possible.

A few years later, in 1968, Oscar Humphries in Fay, Oklahoma, started Indian Records, Inc., designed to sell primarily to Indian customers.

It was during this time in the mid-sixties that the Indian market really began to develop. Inexpensive battery-operated phonographs began to appear for the first time, so Indians in areas without electricity could afford to have a battery-powered player for the first time. The influx of inexpensive consumer electronics from Japan had begun, and by the early 1970's, 8-track tape and cassette players, all portable and battery-operated, quickly found their way into Indian homes everywhere.

Originally published only on phonodiscs, Canyon Records, Indian House, and Indian Records, Inc. all added 8-track tapes and cassettes to their catalogs in the early 70's; but by the end of the 70's, 8-tracks and LP's were no longer in demand by Indian customers who account for an estimated 85% to 90% of their total sales, so none of these companies now produce LP's or 8-tracks. Since the Indian customer quickly preferred tapes for his pickup truck, car, or powwow cassette player, the demand for LP's in the Indian market dropped severely in the mid-70's, almost a decade before it dropped in the rest of the country.

In the early 80's, several other small Indian-owned labels were started – Featherstone in Minnesota, and Indian Sounds in Oklahoma, published entirely on cassette tape.

Today [in 1988], there are about seven active Indian music labels: Canyon Records, Indian House, Indian Records, Inc., Indian Sounds, Featherstone, Tribal Music International, and High Star Productions. Also, there are a growing number of Indian musicians who are now publishing their own music on cassette, and even a few on compact disc, but these might not be considered a "label" yet, since they have only one or two cassettes of their own music.


There are several ways to make a recording depending upon the interest of the recordist, the equipment available, and the intended purpose of the recording. The early recordists of this century were generally concerned with presenting a musical cross-section of a tribal culture to a non-Indian audience. Consequently, a lot of recordings were made presenting one lullaby, one war song, one corn dance song, one rain song, etc. This we will call the cross-section approach.

Within this approach, there are vast differences in the types of recordings which were made. Densmore never planned for her recordings to be a published item. It was her written transcriptions and analyses which were intended for publication, and she made the recordings only as an aid to more accurately transcribe the songs. Also, Densmore was concerned with recording the oldest songs and singers in a tribe – those who had been born in tipis and hunted buffalo. Many of these singers were well past their vocal prime, but they did know the songs from their youth. Also, because of the very limited dynamic range of cylinder equipment, and for clarity of the recording, Densmore preferred to record only one or two singers at a time, and instructed them to sing not too loud, nor too soft, and to hit the drum lightly. (Footnote 4) With this approach she was able to obtain the clearest recordings of the oldest songs available which was exactly what she wanted. Her recordings were never intended to show how the music was actually performed in a traditional setting.

Both Laura Boulton and Willard Rhodes recorded significant samples of different musical genres within a tribe, but in the end, only one or two songs from each genre were actually published on disc. In my opinion, both Boulton and Rhodes had a "good ear" for performance, and probably a good field technique for getting talented singers to record for them, because most of their recordings have good singers on them. Willard Rhodes' equipment was not battery operated, and so he had to record where electricity was available. In the early 1940's on reservations, this generally meant recording at the local government school, (Footnote 5) so many of Rhodes' recordings have an "indoor" sound to them, although he often obtained good performances.

Now we come to Rev. Linn Pauahty, a Kiowa Indian who knows his music, and knows what his Indian customers want to hear. First, his customers don't want to hear old songs they already know, they want to hear new songs, they want to hear "the latest" songs. Second, his customers don't want to hear a cross-section of a musical culture they already know. If they like round dance songs, they want to hear all round dance songs, maybe 12 or 16 new round dance songs; or if they are interested in war dance, they want to hear all war dance songs, or all peyote songs, or all sun dance songs for the whole album, and this is how Rev. Pauahty made his albums – we will call this the in-depth approach. It is only natural, since this how Indian music is normally performed, and this is how Indians like to hear it. Today, it is this in-depth approach which most of the Indian music labels now use because they are directing their recordings to the Indian market.

Yet within this in-depth approach, there are distinct differences in recording content and style. Linn Pauahty was not trying to show Indians how Indian music is traditionally performed, he was trying to present a clear, well performed recording of new songs for listeners who already know what Indian music sounds like. A perfectionist, Pauahty soon discovered that his best quality sound came from using a local radio studio, and to use a small group. "I like to get three or four singers who are well practiced-up on the songs. If you get more, like six or eight, the edges begin to get a little ragged. Also, they have to learn not to hit the drum too hard, and then you get a good recording." (Footnote 2) Many of Pauahty's recordings, particularly the Kiowa recordings are almost perfect in performance, but sometimes lack spontaniety or movement.

As a beginning student of Indian music, I spent my early years studying Pauahty's and other studio recordings in Los Angeles without having ever attended a real event to hear how Indian music is actually performed in a traditional setting. Because of this, I carefully learned a smothered studio style of singing –- soft-voiced with a moderate drumming technique. Imagine my surprise when I first went to Oklahoma and saw twenty-five men around two bass drums singing as loud as possible, all beating on the drums just short of breaking them. So much for a recorded introduction to Indian music!

Because of my own personal misguided experience, I prefer to record a full group of singers, as large as is traditional, in an outdoor setting, to show how the music is traditionally performed. I believe that Indian customers like this sound, and Indian singers can turn in a better performance in a natural setting rather than a studio. Also, it gives the listener from outside the tradition a much better idea of what the music really sounds like. Indian singers use their voices differently indoors than outdoors. Inside, a singer will tend to tune his voice to the room, or hold back his voice, whereas outdoors, singers do not hold back their voices, and you get the unique outdoor vocal quality which is what I try to show in a recording.


For the student of Indian music, the in-depth approach has several distinct advantages over the variety or cross-section approach. First, with a sample of 10 or more songs from the same song type, or genre, such as round dance songs, it allows the student to quickly discover the compositional shape of a song type – that is, to see what is "formula" material in a song type, repeated in song after song, and what is original composition in each song. Also, with a variety of original compositions within one song type available, the student can begin to determine the "normal" artistic expression within a song type, and then recognize and truly appreciate the occasional "artistic surprise" in a composition when it occurs.

In contrast, in a cross-section type recording with only one song from a song type available, it is impossible to determine what is formula and what is original composition, and to determine or evaluate what the composer has done. Good composition and poor composition occurs in Indian music just as in any other music. Only by knowing the "ground rules" of composition (or accepted range of composition) within an established form, and also being familiar with a large number of compositions within that form, can the student begin to determine what is good work. One time I heard some songs described by a singer as "corny," meaning trite or obvious composition, nothing new, predictable. Other songs have been described by Indians as "home-made," meaning awkwardly tacked together, such as a home-made chair put together with ill-fitting pieces. Good taste applies in Indian music just as much as any other music, and good taste varies among Indians as in any other population.

Thirdly, the in-depth approach has allowed a relatively undocumented aspect of Indian music to be recorded. This is the art of "lining up" songs for dramatic impact. In much Plains singing, for example, songs are short compositions, but a good lead singer, with hundreds of songs available in his head, will carefully choose his songs, and line them up in such a way that each song builds upon the one before it, setting a musical stage for the next song, much as in movements of a symphony, or perhaps more like musical lines in jazz where what comes next is often inspired by what went before. Finally when one hears the third or fourth song in a set, it can pack a powerful musical punch or flip, which would not have been possible without setting up the stage with the previous songs – here the music can be truly inspiring. This lining-up of songs is an important aspect in the art of Indian singing which has been largely overlooked by students who have been limited to studying only one song at a time in cross-sectional recordings.


As can be seen by the foregoing, every recordist has personal preferences, biases, and style of recording. Even the content of what is recorded is subject to the recordist's preferences or goals. For example, one recordist wants to present all songs with English words in them, and another recordist wants to avoid songs with English words just out of editorial preference. So recordings show only what the recordist wants to record at the time, and not necessarily what was the total musical picture at the time. However, knowing the personal goals and preferences of a recordist enables a student to better evaluate and use those recordings. All recordings are biased, it's just knowing how.


For some years, a number of scholars in literate society, having been conditioned to believe that the written word (or written music) is the preferred and most efficient form of cultural education and continuity, have consciously or unconsciously concluded that an oral tradition is inferior to the written, using terms such as "non-literate society" or "pre-literate society," implying that the people haven't learned to write yet, but eventually they will as their culture develops, and most lately "developing society." It is interesting and important to note that many traditional Indian societies, although fully literate in English, still prefer not to write down their traditional material – they have the choice, but they prefer the oral tradition to the written when it comes to their own Indian material. Why?

The oral tradition has a number of advantages over the written. First is the control of information, the protection of material. In Indian societies, not everyone is supposed to have access to everything. The keeper of certain religious material, for example, or certain songs, can choose who is qualified to have the material, and teach it to that person only. If written or recorded on tape, anyone, qualified or not, is able to gain access to the material and perhaps learn it incorrectly or misuse it. In the oral tradition, the teacher merely needs to keep quiet, and the material is protected, very simple and very efficient.

A second advantage is making sure the student properly learns the whole of a song or ceremony. A traditional singer must know not only the song, but should also know when it is to be sung, how it is to be sung, and the history behind the song. This kind of training and information cannot be transmitted in written words, it has to be learned by experience over a period of time.

A third advantage is correctability. When a student makes an error, there is a teacher present to point out the error. In a written or recorded tradition, a student can learn something incorrectly, and be unaware of his error. When first learning Indian songs only from recordings, I made some mistakes in the songs, but I didn't know this until several years later. In an oral tradition, a teacher can point out an error to the student insuring more accuracy in learning than in the written or recorded method where meanings or music can be easily misinterpreted.


Today, especially in Plains powwow singing, many songs are being learned from tape recordings, both published and unpublished. In fact, the amount of private unpublished cassette recording by Indian people is at least 100 times, or even 1,000 times greater than the amount of commercially published recordings. Some Indians record just to have something new to listen to. Others, especially active singers and dancers, record to learn the latest songs in order to keep up to date. Also, an increasing number of traditional composers will now rush to record their new ideas on tape.

Unfortunately, in the rapid quest for the latest songs, some singers do not learn the songs properly, and many do not learn the whole of the information that traditionally should go with the songs. It has happened, for example, that a singing group learned a memorial song from a tape, liked the song, and then, not knowing it was a memorial song, sang it for the wrong occasion. This happened because there was no teacher to tell them how or when the song should be used. In other cases, songs considered the property of certain families have been learned from tapes, and used without permission by some singers, causing some ill feelings by those families. So there are some disadvantages to learning from recordings of traditional material.

Yet there is also some good that comes from traditional recordings. One man told me how a son played a recording of peyote prayer songs for his mother in the hospital, and she felt a lot better to be able to hear those songs. Without the recording she wouldn't have heard those songs. Indian craftspeople have said how they like to play Indian music when they are making pottery, beadwork, or jewelry – it helps them get in the mood, like painting to music. Some people just like to have it playing in the house. Some Indians relocated to cities far away from the reservation have written how they like to listen to the songs from home, and how it makes them feel good to hear these songs. In other cases, published recordings have helped some singers become known in distant areas where they have been invited to sing, and then have made new friends.


"You can't save Indian music by recording it; it has to be kept alive
by the Indian people who still believe in it, and continue to sing it."

                                                             Ida Lujan Isaacs, ca 1970.

1. Personal conversation with David P. McAllester.
2. Personal conversation with Rev. Linn Pauahty.
3. Personal conversation with Ray Boley.
4. Hoffman, Charles. Frances Densmore and American Indian Music.
    Contributions from the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation. (1968) Vol. 23, p. 41.
5. Personal conversation with Willard Rhodes.


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