Folk Music in The United States

Indian Music of the United States   

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Indian Music of the United States                                            29

many are due to the lack of a permanent written record against which one can check a performance. The errors are part of the process of communal re-creation, which is common to all music in oral tradition. However, such changes are only occasional and very gradual, and they do not alter the basic fact that Indian music exists in stable forms and not simply as a spontaneous torrent of emotion which could hardly be called art. Already the fact that the music can be notated (with some difBculties, to be sure) in the conventional Western system of notation is evidence favoring this view, and all conversation with Indian informants on the subject of music points in the same direction. The Indians that I have known have always referred to music as "songs,'' never as "music" or "singing" in the abstract.

According to George Herzog, Indians rarely speak (or think) of songs as "beautiful." Rather they tend to consider them as "good" or "powerful." This reflects the functional nature of Indian music, the fact that it is rarely, if ever, music for its ov^m sake, but almost always an essential aid for other aspects of their culture. Herzog says that "good and beautiful may merge, and be expressed by the same word. This is the case with many tribes of the Southwest: the Pueblo, Navaho, Pima. The term is applied in many cases where 'good* or 'beautiful' alone would be meaningless; where undoubtedly the feeling for the ritualistically good and aesthetically pleasing is one and the same."^

What do Indians sing about? Paradoxically, many of the songs do not have meaningful texts. These songs do not have words but groups of meaningless syllables. Such syllables correspond roughly to the "la la la" found in many Western songs, but they are more complex and varied and, again, are not improvised but form an integral and fixed part of the song. Often they bear a close relationship to the rhythm and other musical features of the song.

But many of the songs do have meaningful texts, which, in many songs, do not take up the entire stanza. In such songs, the meaningless syllables tend to point out and emphasize the meaningful words. Although these texts can be considered poetry, usually they do not have the distinguishing marks which we ex-

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E-Book - An Annotated Compendium of Old Time American Songs by James Alverson III