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Tony Isaacs and In­dian House Records

Heav­ily rhyth­mic drum­ming is the foun­da­tion for the el­e­men­tal, wild singing that is char­ac­ter­is­tic of Amer­i­can In­dian mu­sic. To the trained ear, each of the thou­sands of songs has its own per­son­al­ity, and the per­for­mance can ex­hibit sub­tle dy­nam­ics. In a talk that was part of the 2009 South­ern Methodist Univer­sity sum­mer lec­ture se­ries, Tony Isaacs, of In­dian House Records, told the au­di­ence that, in Plains singing, the drum­beat is a lit­tle ahead of the vo­cal beat. “That cre­ates a rhyth­mic ten­sion or a buoy­ancy, and that’s a good drum­ming tech­nique. In Pue­blo mu­sic, they drum right with the voice.”

In­dian House Records, which boasts a cat­a­log of more than 150 record­ings by Isaacs, is 50 years old next year. “Pue­blo singing is more com­plex and more lan­guage-based,” he said dur­ing an Au­gust visit to his Taos home and stu­dio. “They don’t sing Pue­blo mu­sic on the Plains, but the other way around hap­pens a lot. The Plains song struc­ture is pretty sim­ple, and it’s easy for Pue­blo peo­ple to learn.”

Isaacs’ adobe abode is crowded with pa­pers, books, jour­nals — in­clud­ing a copy of the Whole Earth Cat­a­log that lists his 1968 record­ing Handgame of the Kiowa, Kiowa Apache and Co­manche:

Vol. 1, Carnegie Road­run­ners vs. Billy Goat Hill — and an as­sort­ment of ana­log record­ing ma­chines full of di­als and gauges. Al­most ev­ery­thing in the In­dian House cat­a­log was recorded in the field. Here is his old Na­gra IV, a Swiss-made de­vice that he used to record In­dian singing from 1972 to 1985, when he got a newer model. “For Na­graphiles, I also have a Na­gra III. It’s con­sid­ered the ma­chine in the eth­no­mu­si­col­ogy field.”

In small rooms, shelves are lined with hun­dreds of ana­log record­ings on long-play­ing records, cas­sette tapes, and 10-inch reels. He and his wife, Ida Lu­jan Isaacs, made about 88 LPs, the last one in 1979. Now ev­ery­thing is done on the com­puter and most of the In­dian House al­bums are avail­able on com­pact-disc for­mat. Against one wall is a stack of LPs from the Amer­i­can In­dian Sound­chiefs la­bel founded by Rev. Linn D. Pauahty. The Kiowa min­is­ter from Carnegie, Ok­la­homa, was an ear­lier pi­o­neer in In­dian-mu­sic record­ing and a men­tor to Isaacs. Pauahty’s fo­cus was Plains mu­sic. “In the early ’40s, I think, he was is­sued a home record-cut­ter by the Methodist Church to go out and record Na­tive hymns — Chris­tian hymns — straight onto vinyl blanks,” Isaacs said.

“I recorded as a hobby to be­gin with. I’m from Los An­ge­les orig­i­nally, and when I was in the Boy Scouts at about thir­teen, the scout­mas­ter as­signed me to learn

an In­dian song. I went down­town and a com­pany had some 78s, in­clud­ing Sound­chiefs and a cou­ple of 78s by [Phoenix com­pany] Canyon Records. I started learn­ing. I’d play the record, lift up the nee­dle, and write it out — ‘Yo hey yo,’ and all that kind of thing. That’s how I got in­ter­ested in it.” In 1954, he made his first field record­ing, of Oglala Sioux singers at a Flagstaff camp­ground pow­wow. “That one was made for some­body else, but in 1956 some friends and I made a trip to the Gallup cer­e­mo­ni­als, the Anadarko Ex­po­si­tion in Ok­la­homa, and up to Rock Is­land, Illi­nois. I was record­ing at all the stops we made. We went to South Dakota and to Pendle­ton, Ore­gon, and I recorded there in the camp­grounds.” He be­gan trav­el­ing to Ok­la­homa to hear more of the Kiowa singing that he loved from Rev. Pauahty’s Sound­chiefs al­bums. “I liked the South­ern Plains singing. The North­ern Plains singing was higher-pitched and a lit­tle ex­treme for me, I guess. I just grav­i­tated to the South­ern.”

Af­ter he grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Los An­ge­les with a de­gree in an­thro­pol­ogy, he asked him­self if he wanted to im­merse him­self in Na­tive record­ing rather than just keep­ing it at the hobby level. Ul­ti­mately he de­cided to make it his vo­ca­tion. Then he re­al­ized he needed to be on the reser­va­tion year round, be­cause there are dif­fer­ent songs per­formed in the dif­fer­ent sea­sons. So, in 1962, he moved to Ok­la­homa. He at­tended the Sum­mer In­sti­tute of Lin­guis­tics at the Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa in Nor­man. “It was part of the Wy­cliffe Bi­ble Trans­la­tors, and their mis­sion was to train mis­sion­ar­ies to go out and learn ob­scure lan­guages and trans­late the Bi­ble into them. I was there for about three years and I stud­ied the Kiowa lan­guage and I’d go to dances and ask them, ‘Do you mind if I set up my recorder?’

“I saw how much there was that was never recorded, and I started build­ing up my col­lec­tion. I wanted to es­tab­lish an archive of tra­di­tional In­dian mu­sic. A lot of peo­ple in the eth­no­mu­si­col­ogy field told me I had to have a union card, mean­ing a Ph.D., to get any fund­ing, so I went back to school at Wes­leyan [Univer­sity] in Con­necti­cut.” He only lasted a year there. On one of his trips to Ok­la­homa, he met Ida Lu­jan of Taos Pue­blo, who was a stu­dent at the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico. In 1966, the two mar­ried and opened a store named In­dian House on Bent Street in Taos.

“We were sell­ing Sound­chiefs and Canyon and Smith­so­nian Folk­ways record­ings and Ida said, ‘Some of your field record­ings are bet­ter than these.’ Taos has lots of com­posers and their songs are then learned in Ok­la­homa and sung there. There were Sound­chief records of Kiowas singing them and Ida said there should be record­ings of Taos songs — these are so­cial dances, not re­li­gious songs — that are sung by Taos peo­ple.

“We’re a cat­a­log com­pany, mean­ing that any­thing we put out is still in print, but we fig­ured most of the sales would be in the first five years, so we set up a five-year royalty plan. Our first record­ing was made in 1966 and came out in Fe­bru­ary 1967. The hard­est thing to do is get­ting the singers to­gether. Once you get them all to­gether, there are a lot of songs, so a lot of these record­ings are in two vol­umes.” Thus came those first two vol­umes of Round Dance Songs of Taos Pue­blo.

In the decades since, Isaacs has archived a tremen­dous va­ri­ety of songs for In­dian House. There are Yakima and Umatilla grass dance songs and jin­gle dress side step songs (recorded at San Felipe Pue­blo in 2004), Navajo pey­ote songs and skip dance songs, Black­foot stomp songs, Sioux ka­ho­mini songs, Picuris Pue­blo ditch-clean­ing songs, and tunes by Cal­i­for­nia’s Pai nik tem Bird Singers. “I like do­ing things that are dif­fer­ent,” Isaacs said. “The bird songs, for in­stance, hadn’t been done. Those are his­tor­i­cal songs of their trav­els and mi­gra­tions and the dif­fer­ent birds and an­i­mals they see.”

Tony Isaacs has archived a tremen­dous va­ri­ety of songs for In­dian House. There are Yakima and Umatilla grass dance songs and jin­gle dress side step songs, Navajo pey­ote songs and skip dance songs, Black­foot stomp songs, Sioux ka­ho­mini songs, Picuris Pue­blo ditch-clean­ing songs, and tunes by Cal­i­for­nia’s Pai nik tem Bird Singers.

One al­bum ex­am­ple from the In­dian House cat­a­log is Ea­gle Whis­tles — Live at Crow Fair, recorded in Mon­tana in 1999. On the 21 tracks, Hi­datsa, CheySioux, enne, Blood, Cree, Black­feet, and Co­manche singers per­form a Viet­nam vet­er­ans’ song, old Sioux trick songs, a San­tee Sioux slide song, Crow-style dou­ble-beat songs, and chicken dance songs, to name a few. Those are all gen­res of songs within the Plains frame­work, which is ex­plained in the liner notes. “At In­dian House, I think that’s where we’ve ex­celled, pro­vid­ing good liner notes. Linn Pauahty never did that. He just had the plain white la­bel.”

Did Isaacs ever have the idea that he could sam­ple In­dian mu­sic from through­out the coun­try? “No, it was just too much. Some­body asked me if I had a plan laid out, and I said it was only a mat­ter of who I hap­pened to meet or who I hap­pened to hear. I’d snoop around try­ing to find out who would be good singers, but a lot of it had to do with be­ing ac­quainted with singers and get­ting to know the aes­thetic. I hap­pened to find Boni­face Bon­nie, a Navajo who was a gold mine of songs. He was a grand old man.”

Chris­tian ideas are rel­a­tively com­mon in In­dian mu­sic, but their ex­pres­sion varies. “It de­pends on the per­son. I did some record­ings of Yank­ton Sioux pey­ote songs in South Dakota and they had a rev­erend and his words had a Chris­tian feel. But another singer who was there said if he had trans­lated those songs, they’d have been dif­fer­ent. There are two types of In­dian church songs. They will take a Chris­tian tune like ‘Amaz­ing Grace’ and put it in their own lan­guage. Then you have Kiowas, Co­manches, and Pon­cas who com­pose new songs in their lan­guage that are about Je­sus. I’m more in­ter­ested in those be­cause it’s orig­i­nal mu­sic. The Kiowa church songs were com­posed by Kiowa men from the ground up about the Chris­tian ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Much of the singing you hear on the In­dian House records, how­ever, is not made up of words. “A lot of the songs in the round dance and the pey­ote songs have no words: they’re us­ing vo­ca­bles and those are pre­scribed; they’re not im­pro­vised. You can get go­ing pretty good with that. The round dance is a Plains form, I’m guess­ing Cheyenne, that was adopted by Taos in about 1900. I have eight vol­umes of Taos Pue­blo round dance. There are many other songs, but they don’t want them recorded. The only one we have that’s real Pue­blo is a cou­ple songs from Picuris Pue­blo and then from San Juan Pue­blo, where they’ve been will­ing to record their real Pue­blo songs — not dur­ing a dance, but in a [record­ing] ses­sion.”

All of the al­bums listed at Isaacs’ com­pany’s web­site,­di­an­, have song clips, so you can hear sam­ples of many singers. “Most of our al­bums are spe­cial­ized, like the Taos Pue­blo round dance, and it might all sound the same to the un­trained ear, but then we have a few that are va­ri­eties. One is Proud Her­itage: A Cel­e­bra­tion of Tra­di­tional Amer­i­can In­dian Mu­sic, which gives you a se­lec­tion. The Folk­ways records would try to present a cross-sec­tion of In­dian cul­ture; they’d have one corn-grind­ing song, one skip dance song, one yei-bi-chei song, and so on. What that doesn’t give you is a sense of genre. Also, Folk­ways was try­ing to in­tro­duce the mu­sic to a nonIn­dian au­di­ence. Linn Pauahty recorded strictly for the In­dian peo­ple. He liked round dance songs, for in­stance, so he’d do a whole al­bum of them, by the same group of singers, so you’d have an in-depth view of the round dance.”

Isaacs talked about the first times he re­al­ized that there is more go­ing on in In­dian singing than may be ob­vi­ous — in­stances of what he calls “artis­tic sur­prise.” One time was when he was in Ok­la­homa lis­ten­ing to a se­quence of round-dance num­bers. “It was this song, this song, this song, and all of a sud­den there’s a song that’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. It sort of pushes the bound­aries on com­po­si­tion — oh, that’s neat. A good singer has hun­dreds of songs in his head. He starts out with one, then he picks another maybe in the same mode. Then maybe the third song hits a flip on what’s been set up mu­si­cally and you say, Wow. It re­ally gets you. Our first two LPs gave us the abil­ity to show that. It’s a con­tin­u­ous per­for­mance. I even left the crackle of the fire in be­tween the songs. So you get the idea of how the singers build up the mood.”

Tra­di­tional In­dian mu­sic is not writ­ten down. Peo­ple like Boni­face Bon­nie have stored all of the songs in their heads. In the South­ern Methodist Univer­sity lec­ture, Isaacs said some of the In­dian songs are hun­dreds of years old, but their pre­cise age is not known. “My wife used to say, when asked about some­thing way back, ‘Well, I’m not re­ally sure. I wasn’t there.’ ”

Na­gra recorder; above, Navaho en­sem­ble The Klage­toh Swingers

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