MUSIC: Exploring Native American influence on the blues
Washington, D.C.—The blues are considered to be rooted in the traditions of gospel singing and African-American folk music.
But Elaine Bomberry, host of “Rez Bluez,” a show on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network in Canada, explained to an audience at the National Museum of the American Indian that the roots of this American form of music also extend deep into Native American musical traditions.
“The whole heartbeat of the blues is very much like our drum,” Bomberry said, during a discussion called “The Blues: Roots, Branches and Beyond.”
Ron Welburn, a Native poet and scholar of jazz, said that he can hear the influences of music from many Native nations on early blues recordings.
“There are things that say to me that someone knows something about stomp dancing, a part of Southeastern Native American music from before European contact,” he said. “It’s the call-and-response phrasing, and the length of the statement, which may be longer than the response.”
The Aug. 22 conversation was followed by a concert in the museum’s Indian Summer Showcase series. Performances featured blues artists George Leach of the Sta’atl’imx Nation in British Columbia; the Rez Bluez All-Starz with Murray Porter, Mohawk, and Beaver Thomas, who is Cowesseness First Nation; plus special guests Corey Harris, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” and string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
The blues were birthed in a unique moment of history when the slave trade and colonization of the American South forced people and their musical traditions to come together, explained Welburn, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Plantations brought together Irish indentured servants, African slaves and also Native slaves. “All lived together, all procreated together,” said Justin Robinson of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Later escaped slaves found refuge in Native communities from the South and, in time, up the Underground Railroad to the Six Nations in Canada.
“The Underground Railroad was Tuscarora Indian trails to the Niagara River and across. Tuscaroras would bring the escaped slaves across to Six Nations, where I’m from,” Bomberry said. Watch a clip from Bomberry’stelevision show at www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kpi_vQOb4w.
When the blues began to be recorded in the early 20th century, many artists self-identified as Native American. Welburn said Charley Patton, who is called the father of Mississippi Delta blues, was Choctaw. Scrapper Blackwell was Eastern Band Cherokee. Listen to Blackwell atwww.youtube.com/watch?v=yjZO44o0E8A.
But ancestry isn’t as important to musicologists as what can be documented in the music, said Welburn, who is Gingaskin/Assateague, Cherokee and African American.
“They want to know what a person picked up from another musical source, like four beats to the measure,” he said. “Powwow drumming is four beats to a measure.”
Welburn counts: boom, boom, boom, boom. He hears this beat in the earliest blues recordings, though later it would be expanded upon.
“‘Chika, ching, chika, ching, chika, ching’ was started by a drummer—a Mohawk and African American guy, Jesse Price,” he said. Price lived in Kansas City and toured with the likes of Count Basie on a circuit that included Oklahoma. His peers said they believe his drumming style came from Native music.
“Because of that location you can associate certain dances,” Welburn said. “In round dancing, there is a ‘chika, ching’ syncopation. Even guys who have bells or deer toes on garters make a similar sound walking around.”
The blues’ call-and-response song structure, which has been attributed to African-American folk music, may also have older roots in Native American music. “It’s not a matter of someone trying to take credit,” Welburn said. “It’s about finding the roots.”
Blues and jazz artists have made similar observations.
Oscar Pettiford, the late Cherokee, Choctaw and African-American bandleader, gave an interview in 1960 to the magazine Jazz Times, in which he stated that jazz attempts to render an American Indian beat.
In the 1970s, Welburn remembers Lewis McMillan, a drummer with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra who was mixed-race Cherokee, telling him, “Ronny, don’t ever let anyone tell you that our people didn’t have anything to do with jazz.”
Recently, singer and percussionist Cyril Neville, the youngest of the famed New Orleans’ group the Neville Brothers, told Bomberry, “Sister, we both own the blues.”
Murray Porter, who first heard B.B. King as a teenager at the Six Nations in Ontario while listening late into the night to radio from Chicago, said the genre has always been about cross-pollination.
“It’s not an African thing; it’s not a Native thing,’’ he said. Later, in concert before more than 1,000 people at the museum, he improvised a sort of musical invocation, singing, “Everybody get together. Everybody get together. Everybody get together and let the good times roll.”