Indian Nation and the Blues (pt. 2)



edited from Joe Gioia (

The question of North America’s original, or indigenous, inhabitants hardly ever comes up in popular histories of American music, the assumption being that the land inhabited by the European arrivals, and their slaves, had been mainly clear of earlier people and empty of song.

Africa and the British Isles were seen as the only possible sources of the music that evolved from that place and time. The possibility that the musical traditions of indigenous peoples might be central to American harmony has never been articulated, much less considered at length.

This is pretty remarkable, not only because so many of the musicians—black, white, and brown—had pronounced Native American roots, but by the given historical details of the settlement of the North American continent.

In 1901 the anthropologist Charles Peabody, while excavating a pre-Columbian Indian mound in the Mississippi Delta at Coahoma, became, he said, distracted by strange music. Professor Peabody is not remembered now for any artifacts he uncovered, but for what he discovered in the air, what he called the “extraordinary” songs of the black men working for him.

Professor Peabody’s reactions to African-American workmen’s songs—“monotonous” and “weird,” he said—is pretty much how Europeans described American Indian music. That Peabody may have been closer to the mark when he said the music sounded Asian is, for many, counterintuitive.

Between 1600 and 1840, three cultures—Native American, African, and European—each with a highly evolved choral tradition, came to encounter one another, in war and peace, by choice and under duress, in the old and new settlements of the vast American interior east of the Mississippi. To assume that only one of these cultures predominated in how the music evolved, or that another had no influence whatsoever, flies not only against logic but also in the face of any practical knowledge about how musicians work.

Consider also how connected to the specific landscape the Indigenous tradition would have been. If any musical style prevailed, it was probably the one that reflected the strangeness of the new land to those who had only recently, either by force or choice, arrived there; one that also reflected the despair, the blues, of those who saw the old way of life die.

Our accepted history says the blues is of African origin, and that any blue notes heard on early country music records, and there are a lot of high and lonesome twangs, got there by way of black musicians that the white musicians heard.

But something about that accepted history doesn’t add up. After almost half a century of extensive research and, beginning in the 1960s, a wave of associated books, blues antecedents in Africa remain undocumented. Though certain traditions of musicianship, along with the banjo, can be traced there, nobody’s proved that the regular rhythms, tonic intervals, vocal techniques, and the individual let-me-tell-you-how-things-are-with-me at the heart of blues music are originally African.

For 250 years, when the far west was still east of the Mississippi, three cultures clashed and combined in the great American interior. It might not be a coincidence that what is now considered the cradle of country music—east Tennessee, western Virginia and North Carolina, northern sections of Georgia and Alabama—covers exactly that land held by the Cherokee Nation at the end of the American Revolution.

History, of course, says that the Cherokee were forced out, rounded up by the Army and transported to the Oklahoma territory, a district set aside by the federal government in the early 1830s as a final homeland of the Native American nations of the East and Midwest. The South was cleared of its indigenous inhabitants in one decade. The Cherokee transit, in 1839, was the last and also one of the harshest, called now The Trail of Tears.

But history, it turns out, misses a lot; southerners were mostly interested in bottom land for cotton planting. Those Cherokee living far up mountain hollers in Virginia and North Carolina, some two thousand of them by one estimate, stayed where they were, either passing as white or protected by such white neighbors and kin they had.


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