Kenneth Rexroth: American Indian Songs, from Densmore & Others

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 7:23 AM

[This groundbreaking & highly influential essay (including an accompanying selection of poem-songs) was first published in Perspectives USA (1956). It was reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961) & again in Ken Knabb’s Bureau of Public Secrets. Rexroth’s selection of Dennsmore’s translations will appear in two subsequent postings. (Copyright © 1961 by Kenneth Rexroth, used courtesy of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.) I reprint it here as a homage both to Rexroth & to Densmore. - J.R.]

In all the public and academic libraries in America and in most of the principal libraries of the world, off in a corner somewhere or in a seldom entered room, you can find a good many square feet of bookshelves lined with the olive-green publications of the Bureau of American Ethnology, a department of the Smithsonian Institution. There are forty-seven annual reports, from 1881 to 1932, royal octavo volumes lavishly illustrated, averaging around eight hundred pages each. After the forty-seventh report, the ethnological and anthropological material has been published separately. There are about one hundred and fifty bulletins in octavo; these run from thirty-two to one thousand pages, and include the annual anthropological papers — about ten articles to each volume — published each year since the forty-seventh annual report. Besides this there have been a couple of hundred other miscellaneous publications.

This is the largest body of anthropological literature ever published by one institution, private or public. Although it is readily available to every American citizen in his nearby library and at least to every inhabitant of a national capital elsewhere, it is little known and less read — even by anthropologists. This is not due to the quality of its scientific writing. Many of America’s major anthropologists are included, often with their greatest works.

Every aspect of American Indian life and much major archaeological-exploration data can he found somewhere in the publications. Many of the monographs in the annual reports are larger than most books. Many of them treat aspects of Indian life now perished past recall. There are classic treatments of the life and culture of a whole tribe, like Paul Radin’s Winnebago, which takes up all the thirty-seventh annual report, and short essays on Indian crafts and ceremonies and detailed, comprehensively illustrated reports of archeological excavations. For instance, over the years an accumulation of papers on the ethnobotany of various tribes has covered the entire useful native flora of North America. Again, the twenty-first annual report contains sixty-three color plates of Hopi Katchinas, the dance masks and costumes which represent the demigods of Pueblo religion. These were all drawn by native artists just at the end of the nineteenth century. They are the first examples of Pueblo Indian painting and are still the best. Inspired by this first assignment, a whole school of Pueblo Indian painting has grown up and is today very popular in America and is shown periodically in the major art galleries of the country. The modern painting is more sophisticated and superficially more decorative, but none of it compares with the freshness and immediacy of these first examples.

Among the bulletins there are a number of handbooks — American Indians North of Mexico, edited by Frederick Webb Hodge; succeeded by Indian Tribes of North America, edited by J.R. Swanton; American Indian Languages, by Franz Boas; California Indians, by A.L. Kroeber; and now, completed only recently, the monumental Handbook of South American Indians, in six fat volumes, edited by Julian H. Steward. In addition to all this there are a large number of texts and translations of Indian oral literature — myths, legends, lengthy ceremonies and songs.
Most of the songs, both text and music, have been recorded by Frances Densmore, who has been working in this field for forty-five years, and whose collections of Indian music number more than fifteen volumes (three of which have been published elsewhere), each of the fifteen devoted to a different tribe. Besides the printed text and music, she has usually taken phonograph records as well, and these are part of the immense collection of Indian songs, folk songs, folk tales, and other oral literature held by the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress.
To the best of my knowledge, there does not exist any comparable collection of primitive lyric and music made by one person. I am well aware of the criticisms that have been made of Miss Densmore’s work by musicologists. It is of course true that primitive music can only be approximated by our Western notation, but at least she has approximated it, and in most cases with surprising accuracy. Any comparison of her notation with the phonograph records which I have ever made has never shown any serious error, once the validity of using our system of notation is granted. One can make a closer approximation by using special notation, but this too of course is still only approximation.

Over and above its musical interest, Miss Densmore’s work is also possibly the largest body of primitive lyric poetry in the original language and in translation in existence. As such, it is of tremendous importance to the student of literary origins, to the aesthetician or critic, and especially to the practicing poet. In spite of this her work is almost completely unknown among literary people, and only one American poet of any importance — Yvor Winters — has ever mentioned her in print or shown any sign of her work’s influence.

Although any work done with American Indians in the twentieth century can hardly be called early, Miss Densmore was not too late to catch many primitive customs before they became corrupted or forgotten. For instance, a substantial number of the songs in her first book, Chippewa Music (1910), are chants in the ritual of the Mide-wiwin Society (the Great Medicine Lodge) — what in our own civilized world would be called a religious and fraternal organization somewhat resembling Freemasonry, possibly originally the organization of the tribe’s medicine men. Societies of this sort are now dying out, and in much of the North American Indian world being replaced by the peyote cult. At one time they flourished; many were intertribal, sometimes over a wide area. Less disturbing than the apocalyptic movements like the Ghost Dance religion, they served the same purpose without getting the Indian into so much trouble. That is, they provided cohesion and consolation, and protected and sustained the Indian in his struggle to adjust to the gradually all-enveloping white civilization. Since Miss Densmore always roots each song in its social context, much of the Chippewa study is also one of the best studies of a nonaggressive intratribal cult society.

In 1915, when she visited the Teton Sioux, the Plains Indians, although defeated and broken, still kept much of their culture intact. There were still plenty of men who remembered the days of the buffalo hunt, and many of the great war chiefs were still alive. The memory of the bitter resistance to the white conquest of the Plains was a living thing to every member of the tribe. Furthermore, the Sun Dance religion, an intertribal movement which the Indian Bureau was attempting, unsuccessfully, to suppress, was still flourishing. It is extraordinary that Miss Densmore, a white woman visiting the tribe under the auspices of the government, was able to collect so much material. Not only was she able to gather some thirty-two Sun Dance songs, but she presents them in a context which is still one of the best studies of the Sun Dance religion. She also gives many songs of the dream societies, of the Sacred Bundles, of personal dreams, which, taken together — song and context — probably give more of the significance of these aspects of Plains Indian culture than anything else ever written on the subject.

Not all of her studies are of still flourishing tribes. She has also sought out tribes represented by two or three families of aged people who still treasured a few fragments of melody which they no longer understood.

Musical form can weather amazingly well the social vicissitudes to which it may be exposed and may survive relatively intact in a fundamentally different cultural setting, or from a bygone age, charged with new life and meaning. Music is one of the most persistent culture elements to be found in primitive societies and the most resistant to change. By and large, Western European music shows far more influence stemming from the American Indian (slight in bulk as that actually is) than his music has accepted from us. Not only is music, song — and with it of course, but sometimes to a lesser degree, the words of the lyric, the poetry — unusually persistent and resistant, but of all cultural intangibles it lends itself most to fairly exact record and quantitative analysis and comparison. However fragmentary, nothing else can give us comparable insight into alien and past modes of life. For instance, nothing gives a sense of historical presence like the words and music, surviving from over half a millennium in the Appalachian Mountain communities, of the ballads of their medieval Scottish ancestors.

The important thing about this half century of careful field work is that Miss Densmore has revealed as clearly as anyone ever has the sources of song in the religious and secular experience of primitive society. A great deal of theory has been written on this subject, but outside of work done by or under the inspiration of Erich Maria von Hornbostel in Germany, too little has been done in the field. No one has accumulated so much living data — the actual substance of song itself — from which it is possible to draw theoretical conclusions and also watch many practical conclusions draw themselves. I should add that Miss Densmore’s work is incomparably better than the collections of Natalie Curtis Burlin, Theodore Baker, and others which greatly influenced composers like Busoni and MacDowell in the early years of this century.

I think the easiest way to sum up Miss Densmore’s conclusions is to say that songs, like other things which we call works of art, occupy in American Indian society a position somewhat like the sacraments and sacramentals of the so-called higher religions. That is, the Indian poet is not only a prophet. Poetry or song does not only play a vatic role in the society, but is itself a numinous thing. The work of art is holy, in Rudolf Otto’s sense — an object of supernatural awe, and as such an important instrument in the control of reality on the highest plane. This, of course, is not an uncommon aesthetic theory, but it is something else again to see it concretely demonstrated by an immense mass of evidence gathered in the field.

Of course, there are those who would not choose, on aprioristic or temperamental grounds, to accept such an extreme conclusion from the evidence. Even so, the crucial importance of song, and hence of the work of art, as the very link of significant life itself, of the individual to his society, of the individual to his human and nonhuman environment, is certainly patent.
It is very significant that the texts of almost all these songs are not only extremely simple, but that most of them are pure poems of sensibility resembling nothing so much as classical Japanese poetry or Mallarmé and certain other modern French and American poets, notably some of the Imagists at their best. It is possible, of course, to say that Miss Densmore greatly simplifies the poem by cutting out repetitions and nonsense vocables. But the Japanese poetry which we think of as so extremely compact on the printed page is similarly sung in extended fashion. Certainly the Indian singer does not feel that he is dulling the poignancy of the transcendental awareness of reality which he is communicating by musical elaboration, but rather the reverse. And, if the song is sung, or the record is available, it is immediately apparent that this elaboration is insistence, not diffusion.

The resemblance to Japanese poetry is indeed startling, particularly in the Chippewa songs. This is not due to the influence of Amy Lowell and other free-verse translators on Miss Densmore. On the contrary, she worked with the Chippewa many years before such Japanese translations and their imitations in modern American verse came into existence. As the years have gone by she has moved on to tribes which do not show the same kind of resemblances either in music or in lyric, for instance the Papago, and this is made sufficiently obvious in the translations. Still, certain things remain. She has analyzed exhaustively the musical constants and variants of Indian song. Each new work in an appendix sums up and compares all past collections with the one at hand.

Are there similar constants in the lyric? I think there are. Western European man characteristically regards himself not only as an independent entity in a fundamentally hostile environment but as the relatively permanent factor in a perishing world and the sole source in it of value. Most Western European poetry is, even in its erotic lyric — “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” — concerned with the tragedy of the waste of value in a world of fact. There is nothing of this in American Indian poetry. The intense aesthetic realization which precedes the poem is a realization of identity with a beneficent environment. Often this is focused in a dream or vision, waking or sleeping, after long lonely fast and vigil in the forest or desert. An aspect of the environment, an animal or a natural object or force, appears to the Indian, waiting in a trance state, and gives him the song, which remains his most precious possession and the pivot of his life forever after. As such, however simple, these songs always express mutual acceptance and approval of the self and the other, focused but also generalized, amounting to identification. In other words, the holy is not the Judeo-Protestant “utterly other” — a term of Otto’s — but the utterly same. They also express the accompanying emotional state — a feeling of extraordinarily intense hyperesthesia, concentration of all faculties in one realization, and the emotional tone of the realization itself — what we call transfiguration and transcendence — the kind of general sacramentalism we identify with St. Francis’s Canticles and certain poems of Wordsworth or Francis Jammes.

It is apparent that the creation of song or poetry, “the creative act,” as we say today, occupies a place in American Indian culture similar to what may be called, roughly, yogi practices of concentration and nervous-system gymnastics in the cultures of India and the Far East. This is the identifying link. The brief poems of Hitomaro or Basho, or the lengthy reveries of Su Tung P’o, as a matter of fact, share the same attitude toward the creative process and produce a product essentially similar.

It is possible to hold that this is a saner and more civilized approach to life than that commonly exercised by Western man. At least, American Indian song operates, at its best, on the highest possible cultural level: it “enhances life values” at least to the degree attempted by our own most ambitious works of art. In a period when life values of all sorts are seriously threatened, it is not profitable to ignore it.

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