One of the most significant contributors to music in the US is the minority group that the US has attempted to erase from history, Native Americans. Throughout US history, Native Americans have been oppressed due to colonization. Missionization in California attempted to civilize Indigenous people through the teachings of Christianity but resulted in the death of many. In 1907 in an effort to preserve Native music, the US government commissioned ethnologists to record Native musicians, convinced their culture would not survive. The late 19th century further brought oppression through boarding schools, which stole Native children from reservations and taught them European subject matters. Music is culture and is woven into the daily lives of Indigenous communities. Songs are a form of oral tradition passed down through generations and serve to tell a story. By adopting and adapting Western culture, Native artists have defied US attempts of erasure by influencing US music genres, proving that they are still here, still alive, and still singing.
Post WWI, the segregated United States saw the birth of new musical genres and styles from the rich heritage of musical traditions of various cultures, including Native American artists Charley Patton and Mildred Bailey (Fiero 107). Charley Patton, of Choctaw ancestry, from the Mississippi Delta is credited with being the father of Delta Blues – country blues from the Mississippi Delta. This region of the US is known for their history as slave states, as such the Native Americans who were “black passing” attempted to avoid being sent to reservations by assimilating into African American culture. This mixture of Indigenous culture and African American culture is what creates new composition.
Charley Patton was known to sing guttural blues and to play his guitar like a drum as drums were banned in the US. Music was seen as dangerous and drums could communicate secret messages over large distances (Rumble). Patton’s song rhythms were the same as those of traditional Native songs, which he introduced into blues. Native songs not only inspired Charley Patton but Mildred Bailey as well. Despite her Coeur D’Alene ancestry, Bailey was perceived as a white jazz improvisor, though she did not hide her Indigeneity. She was inspired by traditional songs she grew up hearing on the reservation, using stretched and condensed notes in her singing similar to notes found in Native American songs (Berglund “American Indian Jazz”). “Swing” music was considered a new style and variation on rhythm and Bailey was considered the Mrs. Swing of “swing style” jazz who inspired artists like Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and more. By adapting and making her own style out of European culture, Bailey’s “swing” impacted Western music through the adoption of improvisation.
Native songs and stories are learned generation to generation by word of mouth, meaning each time the song or story is performed, it may be adapted and changed depending on who is doing the storytelling. When the US government attempted to silence Native Americans and wipe away their culture, Native artists defied white suppression. During the time of segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, it was dangerous to be a person of color or a Native American in the US, it was something to hide. The 1950’s were a time of change as the Civil Rights Movement was taking place. Link Wray was a Shawnee guitar artist who exemplified the disruption and change that was happening in his song “Rumble”. Out of pain, and a history of hardship due to his Shawnee heritage, Link Wray took his frustration and turned it into creativity and defiance. Father of the power-chord, Link Wray distorted electric guitar sounds by poking holes into amplifier speakers and has inspired rock, metal, grunge, punk and grunge. His song “Rumble” was banned out of fear that it would cause violence amongst teenage gangs (Rumble). The efforts of the US government to control what the public listened to was censorship.
The power of storytelling lies in its ability to raise awareness, inform, and bring people together; Native artists advocated through songs, which told a story that was forgotten. Buffy Sainte-Marie was an activist for the Indigenous people as a Cree woman herself, who wanted to spread the message of the struggle and oppression that the Native Americans experienced. As a folk artist, Buffy told the story of the day, and the realities of Indigenous people. She represented the voices of the people being oppressed and silenced by creating a call to action in her songs against colonization (Rumble).
There was no recognition of injustices, treaty violations, or land seizures by the US due to government silencing, which lead to artists such as Buffy being blacklisted. To raise public awareness in the 1970’s the rock band Redbone, called such due to the groups multiracial cultures, performed in Native regalia and told a story otherwise not being told in the US. Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” is heard in the intro of Guardians of the Galaxy and proves the ability of popular music to reach mainstream media, allowing the Native American narrative to reach large audiences (Berglund “We Were All Wounded at Wounded Knee”). The later “We Were All Wounded at Wounded Knee” was banned in the US for recounting the events of the Wounded Knee massacre, which tells the story of a history not being shared.
Music serves as a message of survival and hope, not of blame. Native artists have greatly influenced US music culture by adapting Western instruments and language and creating something new, inspired by their identity. Native American music and songs tells a story of the ancestors and of traditional Indigenous culture. Culture is not static, but every changing and evolving. Music is a sharing ground of cultures; sounds, rhythm, and beat come from multiracial backgrounds and cultures but comes together to express emotions and feelings, which are universal. Music should not be silenced, just as history should not be forgotten. By sharing our stories and those of our ancestors, we are better able to understand one another and come together.
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