In Other Words Heartbeat, Warble, and the Electric Powwow: American Indian Music by Craig Harris and Asegi Stories: Cherokee Queer and Two-Spirit Memory by Qwo-Li Driskill
by Craig Harris, University of Oklahoma Press, 267 pages
In the 1960s, Canadian First Nations singer Buffy Sainte-Marie both wowed and baffled her fans in the Greenwich Village folk music revival scene with her mouth bow and her octave-spanning warble. She also happened to write exceptional pop songs. Among her credits are “Universal Soldier,” “Cod’ine,” “Lazarus,” and “Up Where We Belong” of An
Officer and a Gentleman fame. Joni Mitchell dueted with her, Barbara Streisand covered her, Kanye West sampled her, and Bob Dylan sang her praises.
Though adopted and raised by white parents in Maine and Massachusetts, she returned often to her birthplace in the Piapot Plains Cree First Nation Reserve in Saskatchewan, a move that not only strengthened her cultural roots but also built her formidable singing voice. “Critics, rivals, and unknowledgeable people scolded me and warned me that I was going to ruin my voice, because of how strong I sang in ranges, volumes, and timbres that they’d never heard before,” Sainte-Marie says in Heartbeat, Warble, and the Electric Powwow: American Indian Music, musician and journalist Craig Harris’ intimate survey of North American Indian music in the 20th and 21st centuries. “They had never been around powwow singers who sang all night with strength and power.”
Sainte-Marie seems to have embodied many of the experiences faced by Native American musicians. She straddled Native traditions and pop relevance; she toured globally while tending a small-scale farm at home. And like many Native Americans who achieved celebrity, she used her public platform to advocate for Indian political causes — a step that got her blacklisted from American radio beginning in the early 1970s, even as her fame skyrocketed abroad in Europe and Australia.
She discovered the blacklisting in the late 1980s when a radio station interviewer apologized to her, “for having gone along with letters that he’d received in the 1960s from then-Pres. Lyndon Johnson’s administration commending him for suppressing my music.”
“I was flabbergasted,” SainteMarie says in the book, after getting the chance to review her declassified FBI files in Washington, D.C. “I didn’t want to believe it, but it explained the sudden drowning of what had been a huge career — the disappearance of big-time national television shows, movies, record sales, and major magazine stories. I did not know that politicos in the Johnson and Nixon White House were making nasty phone calls behind my back to sink my career. Who would think something like that? I just thought that people’s taste had changed.”
Politics be damned, well into her seventh decade Sainte-Marie continues to write hit songs, win awards, and experiment with a number of genres ranging from electronica to country while drawing sellout crowds in Europe, Asia, and Australia. While her ongoing global popularity may be exceptional for a Native musician, her commitment to singing as a vehicle for social change and tribal unity reflects the way many Native musicians have pursued careers in music.
Harris has compiled more than a hundred profiles of Native American producers, classical musicians, DJs, and record-label owners as well as country, reggae, folk, and punk singers in this impressively researched volume. The book grew out of magazine articles he began writing in the 1990s on powwow music, where he learned that while some Native musicians perform to preserve tradition, many more use their musical heritage as a launching point to create blues, classical, reggae, and electronica steeped in their roots.
For instance, Keith Secola (Anishinaabe/Italian), a Minnesota musician described as “the Bob Dylan of American Indian Music,” mixed powwow music with folk and blues to create “NDN Kars,” now a classic bar boast song about driving to a powwow in a car held together with little more than bumper stickers and hope. Despite having lost hearing in his right ear due to a brain tumor, Secola found minor fame in the 1990s, opening for David Bowie, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and the Neville Brothers.
In other chapters, Harris digs deeper to look at the history of record labels that first began recording traditional Native American music. He considers the story of the American Indian Soundchiefs, an influential label founded in the 1940s by Rev. Linn Pauahty (Kiowa), who recorded more than 4,000 tribal chants, songs, and dances over four decades. Though not a musician himself — his background was in ministry and animal husbandry — Pauahty launched his record label to help Native Americans recover their spiritualism through song.
In contrast, Canyon Records, which has been releasing tribal music recordings for decades for a largely Native American audience, was founded by a man who had no prior connection to Indian culture or music. Record-label head Ray Boley was a Phoenix resident who recorded Navajo singer Ed Lee Natay to create a soundtrack for a local theater production. The eponymous 1951 album has remained continuously in print, paying royalties for more than six decades, while the Grammy-winning label remains strong, having survived the death of its founders and its key original recording musicians.
While Harris’ book shines a light on the diversity of genres that contemporary Native American musicians write and perform, he also makes a strong case for those trying to preserve a musical form whose roots reach back thousands of years and have survived countless attempts to extinguish them. — Casey Sanchez