Song-Catchers: Documenting the Music of Northwest Indians

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 12/22/2005
  • Essay 7565
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Music played a deeply spiritual role in the lives of the Pacific Northwest’s First Peoples for eons prior to the beginning of recorded time. Much of this age-old music has survived by being passed down through oral tradition. But the documentation of these tunes -- whether via the literary descriptions of early explorers and settlers or via written transcriptions and audio recordings made by ethnomusicologists and anthropologists -- provides a unique angle from which to consider this history.

Even though the written opinions on tribal cultures left to us by some early observers occasionally display obvious biases, it is due to their efforts that contemporary eyewitness reports -- and even a significant portion of the Northwest Natives’ song traditions -- survive today.

Songs of Greeting

Written records on the earliest expressions of Northwest music trace back to the first European explorers who set foot here, and they contain information about the exotic song forms, vocal stylings, musical instruments, and various ceremonial (or other purposeful) uses of music -- including those of hunting, sea-calming, courting, wedding, gambling, child rearing, doctoring, war-making, enemy-taunting, and mourning -- by local indigenous peoples. But the first songs outsiders ever heard were songs of greeting.

On numerous historic occasions music was employed as a welcoming gesture between the indigenous tribes and their visitors. In July 1579 coastal villagers spotted the British expedition led by Francis Drake sail into their small bay (probably today’s Whale Cove, Oregon) and greeted their strange sea-faring visitors with gifts, songs, and a dance. Two centuries later, in July 1774, Juan Perez’s Spanish expedition arrived in the Northwest and was met by a number of Haida people who paddled their canoes out while chanting “a welcome accompanied by a kind of tambourine instrument” (Langlois).

Nootka Sounds

In March 1778, British Captain James Cook sailed into Nootka Sound where, he noted in his journal, the Nuu-chah-nulth villagers (on today’s Vancouver Island) greeted them with songs “in which all joined with a very agreeable harmony” (Langlois). Crewmember Lt. James King wrote how the two groups of strangers shared music with each other. One Indian man

“... repeated a few words in tune, & regulated the meaning by beating against the Canoe sides, after which they all joined in a song, that was by no means unpleasant to the ear. A young man with a remarkable soft effeminate voice after ward sung by himself, but he ended so suddenly & unexpectedly, which ... made us all laugh, & he finding that we were not ill pleased repeated his song several times” (Langlois).

This account was the first to reveal the remarkable mutual curiosity these strangers evinced when suddenly exposed to their counterpart's extremely exotic and alien cultures. The pleasant cultural exchange proved to be a two-way street when Cook’s crew reciprocated for their hosts:

“As they were now very attentive & quiet in list’ning to their diversions, we judg’d they might like our music, & we ordered the Fife & drum to lay a tune; these were the only people we had seen that ever paid the smallest attention to those or any of our musical Instruments ... Not to be outdone in politeness they gave us another song, & we then entertained them with French horns, to which they were equally attentive” (Langlois).

Music: The Universal Language?

The Nuu-chah-nulth’s musicality was also observed in 1793 by José Mozino -- the botanist/naturalist accompanying the Spanish explorer, Captain Juan Francisco de la Bodega: “They are generally fond of singing ... their natural voices create harmony in unison on the octave. They are accompanied ... by a noise which the singers make on some boards ... and by some wooden rattles ...” (Mozino). Mozino also saw that the locals took an interest in the music of their visitors.

The axiom that music is the “universal language” may be true, but that does not guarantee that exposure to exotic new sounds will always translate perfectly well to unaccustomed ears. After “hearing us play some of our instruments,” the village’s chief “assured me that he did not like them very much because they seemed similar to the songs of birds, which please the ear but do not require understanding. Another prince criticized our trills and all the music in which the languidness of the notes stood out. He said the person who trilled appeared to be shivering from cold and the others to be singing with an air of drowsiness” (Mozino).

Conversely, later visitors had their own misgivings about the sounds of Northwest coast music. John R. Jewitt -- the blacksmith from the British ship Boston who was held captive for two years (1803-1805) as a slave of the Nuu-chah-nulth -- was initially tormented by his captors’ “horrible drumming” and “a very noisy, a most doleful kind of music” (Jewitt). As his ears acclimated, Jewitt was able to concede that:

“Their tunes are generally soft and plaintive, and though not possessing great variety, are not deficient in harmony. Their singing is generally accompanied with several rude kinds of instrumental music; among the most prominent of which is a kind of drum. This is nothing more than a long plank hollowed out on the under side and made quite thin, which is beat upon by a stick about a foot long ... But the two most favorite instruments are the rattle and the pipe, or whistle ... They likewise have another kind of music, which they make use of in dancing, [and] is produced by a number of muscle, or cockle, shells tied together and shaken to a kind of tune, which is accompanied with the voice” (Jewitt).

Fiddling Around

On October 16, 1805, the overland Lewis and Clark expedition finally reached the Columbia River and William Clark noted that “about 200 men” arrived at the camp “singing and beating on their drums and keeping time to the music. They formed a half-circle around us and sang for some time.” After wintering near the Clatsop people, the Corps of Discovery headed back upriver on the long trek home. On April 28, 1806, Lewis recorded that members of two tribes arrived at their camp “where they waited very patiently to see our party dance. The fiddle was played and the men amused themselves with dancing about an hour. We then requested the Indians to dance, which they very cheer fully complied with” (Journals of Lewis and Clark).

The following evening they met back up with the Walula people who they’d befriended a year before at the Walla Walla River, and Chief Yellepit celebrated with a notable reception where “Two of our party Peter Crusat & [George] Gibson played on the violin which delighted them greatly” (Journals of Lewis and Clark).

In 1807 the French-Canadian fur trader and explorer David Thompson founded a new trading post at the headwaters of the Columbia -- and later set out to map the river, crossing paths along the way with numerous Northwest peoples -- including the San Poil, Nespelim, Methow, Wanapam, Yakima, Walowa, Umatilla, and the Palouse whose tribesmen, Thompson noted, “danced till they were fairly tired” (Nisbet).

Classic Cultural Collisions

In 1811 Robert Stuart -- who helped found Fort Astor (at Astoria, Oregon) for John Jacob Astor’s new Pacific Fur Company -- was greeted at a Chinook village (on today’s Baker Bay), served a feast, and then entertained with song and dance: “Their manner of singing has something in it harsh and disagreeable to the ear, their songs being almost all extempore ... They have several kinds of dance, some of which are lively, pleasing and possess some variety” (McCartney).

Not all such early encounters were so fully appreciated: An early agent at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver outpost along the Columbia, back in 1832, recalled that local Indians would often sing there, but “as there were no Handels nor Mozarts amongst them, the music was anything but charming to a delicate ear” ("Reminiscences of Fort Vancouver ..."). Even Francis Parkman Jr. -- the acclaimed author of the 1849 classic, The Oregon Trail -- relied on a classical music reference to register his disgust at a performance by some Indians, writing that it “would have killed Paganini outright” (Parkman).

Yet the violins that would have been adored by just such a European classical composer clashed with the ears of some local Indians: In 1841 the residents of Fort Nisqually held an Independence Day party that included a dance. The historian Murray Morgan writes of how the Sequalitchew tribe “were puzzled by the violin: ‘They tried to determine how it was possible for the Little Box as they called it to make so manney strange sounds,’ said [John W. W.] Dyes. ‘They thought that we’d passed with a devel and he must be in the little box. They examined the fiddle but when they found it was hallow, they were even more surprised and said the devel was invisible to Indians’ ”(Morgan).

Tunes Along The Trail

That sort of cultural collision, in which Indians were puzzled by Euro-American ways, was mirrored by some newcomers’ reactions to Indian ways. Many an Oregon Trail emigrant's diary includes indignant comments about the bothersome chanting, singing, and all-night dancing engaged in by the various tribes they encountered, and historical accounts are rife with examples of people responding negatively to Indian practices -- referring to this or that tribe’s music-making as “unbearable,” “incessant,” “infernal noise” -- or noting how “the drum and voices, [are] so unpleasing to our wearied ears.”

In 1852 a Bostonian named James G. Swan arrived and began interacting with various tribes (including the Chinook, Chehalis, and Makah peoples). An occasional journalist, Swan wrote of his friendly hosts that: “They are all very fond of singing, and some of their tunes are plaintive and sweet ... . While these songs are sung, time is kept by beating with sticks, or thumping the roof of the lodge with a pole” (Swan).

Underground and Overseas

By the mid-1850s the U.S. Department of War’s Office of Indian Affairs was actively working to “Americanize” the tribes by, in part, banning the performance of their sacred tunes -- an effort that caused the most faithful practitioners to go “underground,” a cultural rebellion that saved many songs from extinction.

Fortunately, those same years saw the emergence of a few pioneering ethnographers, musicologists, and anthropologists who had a greater sense of appreciation for such music. And it would be their efforts at documenting it that would ensure its survival in a form other than the traditional oral means.

In 1879, American Antiquarian published Myron Eells's pioneering essay, “Indian Music,” which included a study of the local Klallam tribe. Scholarly research progressed when a group of nine Bella Coola Indians were invited by a Capt. Adrian Jacobsen to travel to Germany in 1885. They performed in 22 cities, including Berlin, where a select audience included the anthropologist, Franz Boas. Boas would make his first of many field trips to the Northwest in 1889. He began his work by transcribing songs in various coastal tribal villages.

Boas was also responsible (with the financial assistance of Swan) for organizing an exhibit of Indian artifacts, and he helped arrange an 1893 trip by group of Kwakiutl people to Chicago. There, at the World’s Columbian Exposition, he used an Edison wax cylinder recorder to cut a few of their performances, creating the earliest known recordings of this type.

Academic Archiving

In 1896 Boas joined the Columbia University faculty where he profoundly influenced a series of protégés who carried on, recording music and sacred myths. In 1889 Livingston Farrand cut wax cylinders with the Quinault and Quileute people. Then, two of Boas’s students arrived in the area and began their work: Herman Haeberlin recorded the Snoqualmie and Snohomish in 1916, and Leo Frachtenberg recorded the Quileute at La Push in 1917. In 1925 another Boas student, Erna Gunther, recorded the Klallam at Jamestown, and in 1926 the Tsimshian, Squamish, Yakima, Carrier, and Ninitat were also recorded there.

Also in 1926, two Boas students, Thelma Adamson and Melville Jacobs, documented Chehalis tribal melodies, and in 1927 Boas joined Adamson to record songs by the Chehalis and Nisqually at Oakville. That same year Jacobs recorded the Chinook, Cowlitz, Klickitat, and Taidnapum at Nesika. In 1928 he cut the Upper Cowlitz at Lewis, and in 1929, the Klickitat, and Yakima, at Husum. During 1929-1930 he continued with the Clackamas Chinook, Kakmiyuk, Tualatin, Yamhill, and Yonkalla at West Linn, Oregon. In Auburn, Jacobs and Gunther recorded the Muckleshoot and Duwamish. In 1932 Adamson cut the Nooksack, and in 1935 Gunther cut a few aluminum “instant discs” of Quinault and Makah material.

The following year, Melville Jacobs recorded the Duwamish in Seattle -- and during three decades as a University of Washington instructor he also recorded the Lummi, Nooksack, Swinomish, Skagit, and Twana -- and trained subsequent generations of anthropologists who carried on similar work.

Independent Research Quests

Not all such recordings were made by associates of Boas or Jacobs: From 1907 through 1913, the famed photographer Edward S. Curtis (dubbed by various Indians the “shadow catcher”) made cylinder recordings with the Klickitat, Makah, Yakima, Wishram, and possibly the Snohomish.

In 1923 Frances Densmore -- who had initially been inspired by witnessing various Indian performances at the Chicago Expo in 1893 -- arrived to record the Clayoquot and Makah at Neah Bay, and in 1926 she returned to record the Quileute and Yakima at Chilliwack, B.C. In 1932 an amateur enthusiast, Arthur Ballard, recorded the Snoqualmie, Puyallup, and Duwamish in Auburn.

Then, in 1940, a Bellingham-based and self-taught anthropologist and musicologist named Harry Smith -- occasionally accompanied by his sidekick, Bill Holm (later an esteemed UW anthropologist) -- began lugging a disc recorder out to document Lummi ceremonies. A dozen years later Smith impacted the course of music history when he produced the ground-breaking Anthology of American Folk Music albums for Folkways Records. The 1940s also saw John Marr cutting discs of the Duwamish, Lower Chehalis, and Lummi, and William Elmendorf recording songs by the Twana people.

The post-World War II era saw the advent of magnetic tape recorders and a resultant explosion of such field work as pioneered by the aforementioned “song catchers.” And remarkably -- as the 1999 book, Spirit of the First People: Native American Music Traditions of Washington State, reveals -- this tape recording technology has even allowed some area Indians to relearn a few songs that otherwise may have been lost in the mists of time.

Among such notable efforts were those of  Leon Metcalf -- a high school music teacher who had been raised among the Tulalip tribe and was deeply concerned that ancient local languages were facing extinction -- who acquired his own reel-to-reel tape recorder and in 1953 began recording various people based on the Muckleshoot Reservation near Auburn. Some of the most beautiful sounds that Metcalf documented were those of two singers of Duwamish tribal heritage -- Betty Losier and Annie Daniels -- whose wonderful songs are now featured in the "Native Voices" exhibit at the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center (4705 West Marginal Way SW).

Sources: Samuel Bawlf, The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake 1577-1580 (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), pp.318-319; W. J. Langlois, editor, “Captain Cook and the Spanish Explorers on the Coast,” in Sound Heritage Vol. 7, No. 1 (1978) Bruce Hallman website accessed December 20, 2005 (; José Mozino, Noticias De Nutka translated & ed. by I. H. W. Engstrand (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991), pp. 57-59; John R. Jewitt, White Slaves of the Nootka (Surrey B.C.: Heritage House [1815] 1994); Excerpt from Journal of James Cook (March 30, 1778) and excerpt from the journal of Lieutenant James King (1778), Bruce Hallman website accessed December 20, 2005 (; The Journals of Lewis and Clark, American Studies at the University of Virginia website accessed December 20, 2005 (; Jack Nisbet, Sources of the River: Tracking David Thompson Across Western North America (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1994), pp. 190-191, 201, 204-205; Laton McCartney, Across the Great Divide: Robert Stuart and the Discovery of the Oregon Trail (New York: Free Press, 2003), pp.96-97; Washington Irving, Astoria: Adventure in the Pacific Northwest, (London: KPI, [1839] 1987), p. 288; “Reminiscences of Fort Vancouver on Columbia River, Oregon in 1832,” Connie Lenzen website accessed December 20, 2005 (; James G. Swan, The Northwest Coast: Or, Three Years’ Residence In Washington Territory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, [1857] 1972); Francis Parkman Jr., The Oregon Trail (New York: Penguin, [1849] 1985) p. 363; “Diaries, Memoirs, Letters and Reports Along The Trails West,” The Overland Trail (Elizabeth Larson) website accessed December 20, 2005 (; George Herzog, “Salish Music,” in Contributions to Anthropology, Vol. 36 (New York: Columbia University, 1949), pp. 93-110; Murray Morgan, Puget’s Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979), p. 59; John Bierhorst, A Cry From The Earth: Music of the North American Indians (Santa Fe: Ancient City Press, 1992), pp.15-17, 35-36; Library of Congress, The American Folklife Center website, (; Spirit of the First People: Native American Music Traditions of Washington State ed. by Willie Smyth and Esmé Ryan (Seattle: University of Washington Press 1999); Roberta Haines, “Singers, Dancers, Dreamers, Travelers,” in Spirit of the First People: Native American Music Traditions of Washington State, p.7; Linda J. Goodman, Helma Swan, “Makah Music,” in Spirit of the First People: Native American Music Traditions of Washington State, pp. 96-97; Laurel Sercombe, “Ten Early Ethnographers in the Northwest: Recordings from Washington State,” in Spirit of the First People: Native American Music Traditions of Washington State pp. 148-168; Tony Stasiak, “Ahead of his Time: Bellingham Youth’s Folk Recordings Reverberate Through the Years,” Bellingham Herald, December 2, 2001; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Hilbert, Vi (1918-2008)" (by Janet Yoder),  (accessed on February 27, 2009); Author conversation with Andrew Whiteman, Senior Curator, Burke Museum, February 27, 2009.

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