Navajo Indian Songs

Geoffrey O'Hara Record

‘Navajo Indian Songs’ – Geoffrey O’Hara
File embedded from
Cylinder Preservation & Digitization Project,
Department of Special Collections,
Donald C. Davidson Library,
University of California, Santa Barbara

Every song tells a story. Most old sound recordings I’ve found online have some metadata attached – composer’s names, performers names, date of recording. When I start looking into these names and reading about the lives and careers of the people involved in the recording, it brings a new layer of understanding to the material. When I stumbled across ‘Navajo Indian Songs’, I knew there must be an interesting story behind it. Introduced and sung by Geoffrey O’Hara, a Canadian American composer, singer, ethnomusicologist and music professor, his respect for the Navajo musical tradition is apparent, though his use of the word ‘savage’ is typical enough of the time. He introduces one Navajo medicine song by saying, These songs abound in strange and wonderful rhythms and melodies, many of them quite baffling and bewildering to our ears. At first hearing, they sound as if they were simply improvisations of a savage mind. But upon investigation, the student finds that they are composed along well-established rules and abound in poetic figures of speech. And in the performance of most of them, not the slightest error is tolerated.

There’s a great forum for antique phonograph and recording enthusiasts called ‘The Talking Machine Forum’. On it I found a thread about O’Hara’s Navajo recordings. Lenoirstreetguy posted a wonderful photograph (apparently taken from a book – see bottom of post) of O’Hara and three Navajo singers, with unnamed phonograph operator and, as interestingly noted by Lenoirstreetguy, a battery-powered phonograph recording machine. O’Hara’s recordings of Navajo songs began in 1913, on behalf of the U.S. Government. Another member of The Talking Machine Forum, Discman, added the text from a May 1913 article in Le Petit Journal’s illustrated supplement, Les Peaux Rouges et le Phonographe (The Redskins and the Phonograph). If I’m not mistaken, this is Discman’s own English translation of the French article…

Everyone knows how quickly the last races of the primitive inhabitants of North America are disappearing. Within a century, perhaps, there will be no more redskins in the United States.

This disappearance is unavoidable. This is why, before it becomes accomplished fact, the American government is taking the effort to collect all the materials which will permit future scholars to study these people.

Thus, the Secretary of the Interior in Washington chose Mr. Geoffrey O’Hara to collect the songs and music of the indigenous tribes of the United States. These songs are, it appears, highly original.

Therefore Mr. O’Hara has arranged to record into a “talking machine” the principal songs of the tribes, which still exist. He began with the tribe of the Blackfeet who are encamped in the Glacial National Park, in the state of Montana.

Three of the principal chiefs: “Medicine Bull,” “Sleeps Long Time,” and “Big Top,” were brought to New York where they were invited by Mr. O’Hara to sing into a precision phonograph.

”The Indians,” we read in Musical America, ”could only with difficulty understand how, in singing into a sort of funnel, one could possibly harvest the sound of their voices. A few minutes after they had recorded their first song the machine was started up. The magic of the operation left them stupefied. They declared that it was the most extraordinary marvel of any they had seen in the Empire City.”

The modern reader is struck by the callousness of the first couple of paragraphs, the description of Native Americans as ‘primitive’ and the casual assertion that their ‘disappearance is unavoidable’. If these were the prevailing ideas of the time, then the story of Geoffrey O’Hara’s engagement with their musical culture becomes more extraordinary. He found a musical sophistication and depth where many others heard ‘improvisations of a savage mind’. ‘Navajo Indian Songs’ was included on The Edison Phonograph Monthly (v.12 from 1914) which was very well-subscribed at the time. It would have been the subject of many heated discussions, no doubt. I can’t help but admire O’Hara for undertaking a musical project that must have been so strange to his sensibilities, rather like my own journey into the archives. If music is unfamiliar to our ears, we may dismiss it immediately. Or we may realise that it has something to teach us.

O'Hara & Navajo Recording

Above is the image shared by Lenoirstreetguy.
Below, the cover of Le Petit Journal which featured the article translated by Discman.
Original French text available on cent.ans.free.fr

LePetitJournal Navajo

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One response to “Navajo Indian Songs

  1. Pingback: Canadian Music Archive Resource – The Virtual Gramophone | Hundred Years Late

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