MUSIC: Roots of the blues go deep into shared Native and African American history

Posted on December 22nd, 2009 by americanindiannews in Music

Jimi Hendrix meteorically rose to rock-and-roll fame playing, smashing and burning guitars, yet he never stopped talking about his Cherokee grandmother.

Photo by Graham F. Page, courtesy Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. Jimi Hendrix, the Royal Albert Hall, London, Feb. 18, 1969.

Photo by Graham F. Page, courtesy Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. Jimi Hendrix, the Royal Albert Hall, London, Feb. 18, 1969.

Hendrix—who not only identified himself as Cherokee but also performed at Woodstock in buckskin, and elsewhere wearing a hand-beaded jacket—is featured in an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian called “IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas.”

Ron Welburn, a Native poet and English professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who contributed a chapter to the book accompanying the exhibition, explains that the roots of the blues lie deep in Native America. It was the blues guitar that Hendrix taught himself as a young man.

The blues were born at a unique moment in history when the slave trade and colonization of the American South forced people and their musical traditions together, he said. The blues came to life on the Tuscarora Indian trails that the Underground Railroad followed across the Niagara River to the Six Nations and freedom, said Elaine Bomberry, host of “Rez Bluez,” a show on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network in Canada.

The blues peculate up from the soil of the experience of stolen peoples and stolen lands.

“There are things (in blues music) that say to me that someone knows something about stomp dancing,” said Welburn, who is Gingaskin and Assateague, Cherokee and African American. “It’s the call-and-response phrasing, and the length of the statement, which may be longer than the response.”

The chika-ching syncopation, pioneered in jazz by innovative Mohawk and African drummer Jesse Price, sounds much like the bells or deer hooves that Native dancers wear. As Oscar Pettiford, the Cherokee, Choctaw and African-American bandleader, told  Jazz Times in 1960, it’s jazz attempting over and over to render an American Indian beat.

Or as Carlos Santana said in 1995 to “UniVibes,” a Hendrix fanzine, “Most music comes from Indian reservations,” from cultural and spiritual practices interpreted by “just two people—Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley, you know.”

Late in his life, Hendrix drew on these Native roots for help.

Hendrix traveled to the Tuscarora reservation in New York to seek a cure for sleeping problems with medicine man Wallace “Mad Bear” Anderson, said nephew Wray Anderson. The elder Anderson agreed to help Hendrix obtain a cure, but told the musician he would have to give up his prescription drugs. Hendrix set a time to return after the Isle of Wight Festival in England in 1970. He died before he could.

As the exhibition’s text muses, “Out of the struggles and triumphs, African-Native American people have created cultural innovations by bringing together sensibilities from two ancient and beloved continents. By ‘eating out of the same pot,’ delicious cultural fusions arise, such as gumbo and the blues.”

View the exhibition online at www.nmai.si.edu/exhibitions/indivisible/ or buy the book at www.nmai.si.edu/subpage.cfm?subpage=shop&second=books&third=IndiVisible.

Hendrix at Woodstock

By Kara Briggs, American Indian News Service

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