image: Medicine Man Yellow Plume, photographed by Roland W. Reed, 1912. Wikimedia commons (link).
The book Empire of the Summer Moon, by S. C. Gwynne (2010), is remarkable on many levels and for many reasons. It relates the unforgettable story of the Comanche people, and of Quanah Parker, in the face of forces which would inexorably destroy their traditional way of life, but in the face of which they demonstrated qualities which have many profound lessons to teach us even if we live in very different times and face a different series of forces and currents.
The events described in the book are worthy of prolonged meditation and contemplation, but right now only one particular subject -- by no means the most important of the subjects in the book but an important subject nonetheless -- will be examined here, and one which takes up only three sentences in the entire 371 pages, and it concerns a phenomenon which was common to many other Native American tribes and cultures: the subject of singing. Here are those three sentences from Empire of the Summer Moon, quoted in context as part of a general description Gwynne presents of the Comanche warrior:
To their enemies, the Comanches were implacable buffalo-horned killers, grim apostles of darkness and devastation. Inside their own camps, however, where Rachel Parker Plummer, Cynthia Ann Parker, and the others now found themselves they were something entirely different. Here, wrote Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, one of the first Americans to observe them closely, the Comanche "is a noisy, jolly, rollicking, mischief-loving braggadoccio, brimful of practical jokes and rough fun of any kind . . . rousing the midnight echoes with song and dance, whoops and yells." He loved to gamble and would bet on anything -- absolutely anything -- but especially on horses and games of chance, and would happily wager his last deerskin. He loved to sing. He especially loved to sing his personal song, often written expressly for him by a medicine man. He often woke up singing and sang before he went to bed. He adored games of any kind, but more than anything else in the world he liked to race horses. He was vain about his hair -- often weaving his wife's shorn tresses in with his own to create extensions, as modern women do. He would roll those extensions in beaver or otter skin. He was an incurable gossip and had, according to Dodge, "a positive craving to know what is going on around him." He would dance for hours, or days. 47.
While Colonel Dodge (1827 - 1895), Gwynne's source for much of the above description, was no doubt reporting through the lens of his own nineteenth-century cultural biases (and prejudices, and his writing is occasionally very condescending but also at other points very respectful of the cultures he lived among and described), there is little reason to doubt the report regarding the importance of singing described in this passage. The description is short, but provides important observations to consider: the Comanche loved to sing, he especially loved to sing his own personal song, which was often written expressly for him by a shaman, and he often sang first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening before going to bed.
How many of us can say the same? Would it be written of us by an outside observer that we generally sing first thing in the morning and last thing before going to bed?
Richard Irving Dodge's entire book from which both of the quotations cited in the above passage were taken can be read online in facsimile form here. It was published in 1883 and entitled Our Wild Indians: Thirty-three Years' Personal Experience among the Red Men of the Great West. In it, Dodge mentions the importance of song many times, and not just among the Comanche but also among the Cheyenne, the Sioux, the Pawnee, the Arapahoe, and many others among whom Dodge traveled.
He also gives some description and even transcription of some of the songs, including an attempt to capture the musical notes of some of them for which he enlisted the services of the leader of the regimental band of the 23rd Infantry. The twenty-seventh chapter of his book, beginning on page 348 in the text linked above, is entirely devoted to a discussion of "Indian Music and Musicians -- Curious Musical Instruments -- Poetry and Songs." Dodge writes:
For music for all warlike and religious ceremonies, for gambling bouts, for dances, for all social gatherings and merry-makings, the Indian relies on his voice. Scarcely anything is done without this music, and similar and monotonous as it all appears to be to the uninstructed ear, each particular ceremony and dance has its own invariable music.
[. . .]
Many of the songs have words, but by far the greater number are "songs without words," but to which words may be adapted on special occasions. The words constantly vary, the music never.
The adaptation of words to a special song is frequently a matter of grave importance. A party of warriors returning from a successful foray, must embalm their exploits in song. They have decided on the music, but the work before them is to fit words to it which will be expressive and most highly eulogistic, not only of the performances of the party, but of each individual who distinguished himself. Night after night is spent in this grand effort. One man will propose a line; all try the effect by singing it in chorus. If satisfactory, it is adopted; if not, rejected or amended. The song must be, and is, ready by the time they get home, and on the first occasion thereafter is sung to the pride and gratification of all.
So also in other songs. One man will adapt a set of words, whose appropriateness to some situation or personal peculiarity will make them popular for a little while, or until another set of words displaces them. Even the nursery songs of the mothers are a mere jumble, no two mothers using the same words, though singing the same song.
[. . .]
Indian songs are very curious, and though on all subjects, what may be termed the mechanism is the same in all. An isolated thought is expressed in a few words, possibly in one compound word. This, followed by a number of meaningless sounds sufficient to fill out the music to the end of the beat, constitutes the first line or verse. The other lines are constructed in the sam manner. Whatever is intended to be said is generally expressed in four lines or verses, though some of the songs have many lines.
The constant use of sounds without meaning, to fill up gaps in the lines, makes it easy for any Indian to be his or her own poet. 350-352.
Undoubtedly, there must have been much more to the subject of singing than Colonel Dodge was able to perceive as an outsider to the cultures he is writing about, but nevertheless he has preserved some valuable observations which are worthy of careful consideration. Perhaps chief among these is the fact that their culture, and the structure of these songs, made it possible for every man or woman "to be his or her own poet" -- it was not only possible but it was encouraged, and it was clearly common practice, for everyone to do so, and great importance was attached to doing so.
Contrast this description to the situation today in modern society, where the creation of songs is almost entirely "outsourced" to the manufacturers of popular culture -- professional songwriters, professional musicians, and (in most cases) a professional class of gatekeepers who determine what gets published and distributed and promoted. It would be difficult to argue with the observation that, for the most part, men and women today hum or sing (whether out loud or simply in their minds) songs that are created by others, and that the idea that everyone can "be his or her own poet" is far from the situation that prevails a little over a hundred years after Dodge wrote down his observations.
Clearly, he is discussing Native American cultures, in which singing -- and personal songs -- played an even more important role than in most European cultures of the same period, but it could also be noted that even in European cultures a hundred years ago, singing appears to have been much more of a pastime and an event that played a part of the rhythm of everyday life than it is today. That is to say, music was generated -- and sung -- by a much wider portion of the populace than is the case today, where a large portion of the populace can be said to consume music (and at times to sing along with music), but cannot be said to really create music or participate in its creation to the same degree that was once common.
For evidence to support this change, I can point to institutions that have existed for a hundred years or so, or which came to be in the late 1800s or early 1900s, which still have a tradition of singing, such as many rugby clubs, or the Norwegian Club of San Francisco (in which singing is a part of every meal, before during and after). You can also see evidence of the difference between the role singing once played and the role it plays today by watching certain films depicting the situation a hundred years ago, including the film Breaker Morant which was discussed in this previous post and which depicts incidents surrounding the period from August of 1901 to February of 1902. One memorable scene in the film portrays a heartfelt song after a supper, and at another point, Edward Woodward playing the lead role of Lieutenant Morant is shown in a flashback singing a remarkable rendition of a poem that was actually written by Morant himself, to the woman he hopes to one day marry.
Thus, it is clear that something has happened in the past hundred years to greatly diminish the role of singing in "western culture" as well -- most likely the rise of mass-production and mass-distribution of music due to certain technological advances, which has had the effect of "specializing" and "centralizing" the production and performance of music and diminishing its production and performance among the general public, although of course this is a broad generalization and there are certainly plenty of people who continue to make their own music and to sing and listen to one another in social gatherings.
It is clear from the descriptions given above and from other records, however, that the role of singing among Native American cultures has a distinctly sacred, ceremonial and personal component which goes beyond even that of personal artistic expression or expression of deep feeling. As S. C. Gwynne writes in Empire of the Summer Moon, a Comanche warrior's personal song was "often written expressly for him by a medicine man." Other sources explain the importance of singing before battle (Dodge mentions this as well, in addition to describing in detail the importance attached to commemorating a successful war-party in song, in the passage quoted earlier). Dodge also explains that in many cases, an individual would sing the personal song at the time of passage into the next world, and it would be the last words spoken in this life.
From these examples, it is clear that the singing being discussed had a personal spiritual component, closely connected to the individual's identity, but also connecting him or her to the universe. The fact that the most personal individual song was often given by a shaman, an individual who used song to travel to the realm of the stars and to the realm of the spirits, indicates that the song almost certainly connects the individual to the order of the cosmos.
This aspect of the personal song may in fact account for the descriptions Dodge records, that the songs almost always stayed within a single octave and emphasized rhythm more than melody or lyrical content: they can probably be more accurately described as a form of chant, as discussed in this previous post in which the importance of chanting is discussed, and examples of chanting that clearly have a strong spiritual component, from cultures around the globe, are given along with embedded videos of each.
Note that in each of those videos, the only instrument used is the human voice (video links here, here, here, and here). Dodge states at the beginning of the passage quoted above that the voice is usually the only instrument used, although he also notes that the tom-tom is the universal and predominant additional instrument, when another instrument is added. It is notable that the drum is one of the most characteristic and universal pieces of equipment of the shaman the world over (see this previous post), and that the authors of Hamlet's Mill provide clear evidence that the rhythm of the shaman's drum was connected to the motions of the celestial bodies, and especially the planets.
There, much discussion and examination of the world's myths links the planet Saturn to the rhythm created by all of the planets in their orbits. Saturn was seen as "the giver of measures" -- both measures of time and of distance -- and by having the longest orbit of the visible planets was seen as the one who "ordered the time" for all the other planets -- and for human beings on this planet as well (note that Saturn is associated in some ways with Kronos, the ancient Greek god of Time). Saturn was mythologically linked to the mysterious figure of the Smith (this connection can be seen in Greek myth, for example, where Hephaestos is a Saturnian figure, but also in many other myths of the world).
The rhythm of the smith's hammer upon the anvil was described as the origin of all musical instrumentation in some myths (see Appendix 10 of Hamlet's Mill for some discussion of this connection), and is almost certainly connected with the beating of the drum, an instrument which had clear celestial aspects as documented by the authors of Hamlet's Mill as well as by Mircea Eliade in his landmark examination of shamanism the world over.
Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that the beating of the drum was seen to be directly connected to the motions of the cosmic cycles and to the higher realms of the planets, according to the ancient wisdom found in many cultures around the world. As such, the rhythmic nature of the songs or chants described above, the fact that if they were accompanied at all they were accompanied by a drum or tom-tom, and the fact that the most special or personal of them were often given by a shaman (who is associated with a drum and with shamanic journeys to the celestial and spiritual realm), strongly suggests that this particular category of singing clearly links the singer to the entire universe of which he or she is a part, including the spiritual realms which are strongly connected to the motions of the circling heavens.
In light of the foregoing discussion, it is worthwhile to contemplate what a powerful and positive role singing and chanting clearly played among the people of the Americas, and what an example that can be to us living today in a world which over the past several decades has seen mass-produced music replace individually-produced song to a greater and greater degree. It is evident from the four different examples of chanting linked earlier, each in different languages and each originating from a different culture dispersed widely across our planet, that the specific words or languages may be less important than the general form and rhythm of the song: and indeed, the specific testimony given by Dodge and quoted in the passages above, seems to confirm that very conclusion.
The attitude described by Colonel Dodge, that each Native American man and woman was not afraid "to be his or her own poet" is one which we might carefully consider emulating. In an age in which music is so commonly produced only by professionals, it is easy to forget that we can sing whenever we want, simply for the love of it (as described in the passage from S. C. Gwynne above) and not even for the consumption of anyone else at all! We can realize that singing is not something we need to do to impress anyone else, or with the approval of anyone else, or even loud enough for anyone else to really perceive it -- but it is also something that can connect us in very profound and real ways to the "music of the spheres" in the endless heavens above us, and even to aspects of the unseen realm which interpenetrates the visible world at all times, even when we are unaware of it.
We can find sources of such song from a variety of different places, but perhaps most importantly we can simply make it ourselves.