Native America and American Music on NPR: “A Battleground”

This Hamms Beer commercial, which I vividly remember from childhood and our brand-new black-and-white TV, signals “Indian music” with a steady tom-tom beat. The tune (and its tom-tom) adapts the Dagger Dance in Victor Herbert’s opera Natoma. The words – “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters” – reference a once popular concert song by Charles Wakefield Cadman. Both Herbert’s opera and Cadman’s song belong to the “Indianist” movement in American music – the topic of my latest NPR “More than Music” installment: “Native American Inspirations.”

“This tale in its totality,” as I remark at the top of the show, “is a battleground. It actually holds up a mirror to the discontinuity and mistrust that plague the American experience today. But it also incorporates some pretty remarkable music – some of which, you might say, is more or less ‘cancelled’ by present-day sensitivities.” 

Unpacking it all, I confer with Timothy Long, who heads the opera program at the Eastman School of Music. Both his father, who was Muskogee Creek, and his mother, who was Choctaw, spoke English as a second language. His mother had been raised in an Indian orphanage in Oklahoma, after which she was moved to an Indian sanatorium. She was so bored there that she began to listen to Beethoven sonata recordings played by Wilhelm Kempff and Alfred Brendel – the music with which Long grew up. So Tim Long lives two musical lives. He also prefers not to listen to the Indianist composers. His reasoning, which he eloquently expounds, has nothing to do with “appropriation” or “permission.” Rather, he says: “We still don’t get recognition – we’re not in the history books, people know nothing about us. This really makes it very difficult to me to listen to the Indianists. We were being occupied, and the occupiers were celebrating us with our music.”

And yet I have long made the music of Arthur Farwell – the most sophisticated of the Indianists — a cause. He seems to me the closest thing to an American Bela Bartok. And he spearheaded a thirty-year chapter in American music that – make of it what you will — is a significant component of our nation’s cultural history.

As it happens, the pianist who has most recorded the Indianist compositions of Farwell is herself Native: Lisa Cheryl Thomas, whose ancestry is Cherokee. She uses word like “authentic” and “informed” when she discusses Farwell. She also says: “I feel we owe a great gratitude to the [non-Native] ethnographers and to the Indianists, especially Farwell. . . . And it’s my goal to keep promoting this with my concerts so that Native American music has a lasting legacy in the fine arts.” 

Starting with Louis Ballard (1931-2007) ,whose music I also sample, a growing number of Native American composers have taken up the challenge of marrying Native American sources with the Western concert tradition. On my NPR show, we hear a tribute to Crazy Horse by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. It’s performed by Delta David Gier and the South Dakota Symphony, whose “Lakota Music Project”, now more than a decade old, has fostered musical collaborations with Lakota musicians.

I conclude: “Would that a coming to terms with Native America – with the cultural vigor and desolate ordeal of this country’s first inhabitants – could enrich a more harmonious America to come. In truth, that day still seems far distant. But we have at least put far behind us the tom-tom beat of that Hamms Beer commercial with which I grew up.”


2:06: Victor Herbert’s “Dagger Dance” (1911)

5:30: The Scherzo from Dvorak’s New World Symphony (1893), inspired by the Dance of Pau-Puk Keewis in Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha

7:00: Arthur Farwell’s Pawnee Horses (1904), performed by pianist Benjamin Pasternack

8:25: Farwell’s choral Pawnee Horses (1937), performed by the University of Texas Chamber Singers led by James Morrow

12:00: An Omaha song recorded in 1895

16:05: Art historian Adam Harris on George Catlin’s controversial paintings of Indian life 

19:25: Lisa Cheryl Thomas on Arthur Farwell

20:45: Farwell’s Navajo War Dance No. 2 (1905), performed by Benjamin Pasternack

25:30: Timothy Long on the Indianists movement

29:05: Charles Wakefield Cadman’s “From the Land of the Sky Blue Waters” (1909)

30:30: Louis Ballard’s Devil’s Promenade (1973), performed by the Fort Smith Symphony conducted by John Jeter

32:15: Jerod Tate on Louis Ballard

33:40: Tate’s Crazy Horse tribute from his Victory Songs (2013), performed by Stephen Bryant and the South Dakota Symphony led by Delta David Gier

37:45: Raven Chacon’s Nilchi’ Shada’ji Nalaghali (Winds that turn on the side from Sun) (2008), performed by Emanuele Arciuli

41:00: Jeffrey Paul’s Wind on Clear Lake, performed by Lakota flutist Bryan Akipa and the South Dakota Symphony led by Gier

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