TONY ISAACS & INDIAN HOUSE RECORDS
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, www.indianhouse.com, 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