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Ojibway Music from Minnesota:
Continuity and Change

by Thomas Vennum, Jr.

Music was one of the last areas of American Indian culture to receive serious attention from scholars. Several factors were responsible for this-principal among them the inability to preserve examples for study before Thomas A. Edison invented the recording machine in 1879. Also, most listeners found the music to be unattractive and "primitive" by Euro-American standards. In the 1890s, however, the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology began to encourage active collecting of Indian music. Pioneer work in preserving and studying the music was undertaken principally by women, notably Alice C. Fletcher, Frances Densmore, and Natalie Curtis. Trained in classical Western art music, they applied their skills at transcription and analysis, but from their European cultural bias they invariably arrived at conclusions that today are generally recognized as ethnocentric and dated.

American Indian Music

        The hallmark of North American Indian music is that it is a sung tradition, accompanied almost exclusively by percussive instruments- rattles, drums, rasps, clappers, and the like. Another feature of Indian music that sets it apart from musical traditions elsewhere in the world is that the singers provide their own percussion. Indian song and dance are inseparable; most singing is functionally employed to accompany dancing. Thus, fairly rudimentary percussion rhythms support musically complex song styles. To the average non-Indian ear, all Indian music sounds the same; the pervasive unison melody-- much of it sung to vocables (lexically meaningless syllables) over a recurrent drumbeat-- gives the simple impression of "chanting while beating a drum." Closer examination, however, reveals distinct musical culture areas on the North American continent, different tribal styles, and, within a given tribe, a rich variety of styles specific to song genres.
        The Ojibway (Ojibwa, Ojibwe, Chippewa) have always been fond of singing, and their musical tradition has been a vital part of their culture. To be sure, performance styles have changed, music has been borrowed from neighboring (principally Siouan) tribes, and certain aspects of Ojibway song reflect culture loss. For instance, the dwindling number of speakers of the Ojibway language has led to a declining use of mean ingful song texts therein; thus an increasing number of songs are performed only to vocables. Yet the tradition retains a lively connection with the past, and good singers are still held in high esteem.
        Minnesota Ojibway were among the first American Indians to have their music recorded in any depth, due mostly to the efforts of Frances Densmore, born in Red Wing, Minnesota, in 1867. Inspired by the example set by Alice C. Fletcher, who had lived among the Omaha and written the seminal study Omaha Music (1893), Densmore began lecturing on Indian music, using Fletcher's transcriptions and accompanying them in composed, Western harmonic settings on the piano. As she commenced her own Indian music studies in earnest, it was both natural and convenient for her to investigate her home state. In 1905 she took down by ear the melody of a Grand Medicine religious song performed at her request by Little Spruce at Grand Portage. In 1907, using an Edison Home Phonograph, Densmore's first real recording session took place in an improvised "studio" at the back of a Detroit Lakes music store. Over the next five years she recorded nearly five hundred Ojibway songs, principally from the White Earth, Leech Lake, Red Lake, and Lac du Flambeau (Wisconsin) reservations. Her work was supported by the Bureau of American Ethnology, which engaged her as a " collaborator" and published her first major book, Chippewa Music (1910), and its companion study, Chippewa Music-II (1913). Although Densmore went on to research and write on the music of many other tribes, her corpus of Ojibway recordings, now preserved in the Archive of Folk Culture in the Library of Congress, remains among the earliest, largest, and most comprehensive of any North American tribal music.
        Although Densmore's collection is unique, it was Alice Fletcher, as far as we can tell, who made the first Ojibway recordings. Fletcher's principal focus was on the music of Plains Indians, but it was her habit to record singers of any tribe visiting the nation's capital on business. (Her house was conveniently located on a block now occupied by the Library of Congress.) Just such an opportunity presented itself on January 24, 1899, while a delegation from Leech Lake was in Washington to complain about treaty violations of their timber rights. Among the delegates was Gay-shegwun-e-osh (Swift Flying Feather), a fine singer with a wide repertoire. Reverend Joseph A. Gilfillan, a bilingual Episcopal priest at White Earth who was acting as interpreter, brought Swift Flying Feather to Fletcher's home, where she recorded six songs onto three wax cylinders, preserving them for posterity. (1)


1. Thomas Vennum, Jr., "The Alice C. Fletcher Indian Recordings," in Discourse in Ethnomusicology III: Essays in Honor of Frank Gillis, forthcoming.

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