A Medicine’s Man Music: Lessons in Notation

“[The medicine man] gives no drugs, but he beats his tom-tom; he makes no prayers, but sings his incantation”

Found in a work titled “Our Wild Indians”, Colonel Richard Dodge recounts, to the best of his ability, his thirty-three years spent amongst Native American tribes. This chapter comes from his observations of the Nez Perce people. As seen in both Frances Densmore and Bruno Nettl’s works, the processes of codifying and immersion in a culture demand a high level of intent. Dodge’s recollections are more similar to the other primary sources we have seen of white settlers’ experiences with various Native American tribes.

The music of Native American people left many white settlers and anthropologists struggling to describe the sounds they heard, and led to inaccurate notations of the music. Attempts at notating non-Western music in a Western fashion have their own flaws, but it’s important to recognize that like most forms of music, Native American music exists beyond the realm of recitation and enjoyment. Therefore the notation of ceremonial music inaccurately relays the sounds, and strips the music of it’s greater purpose.

Colonel Dodge presents the music of a Nez Perce medicine man at work, and there are certain aesthetic parallels consistent with some of the sounds we have studied to be common in Native American music. One example is the constant beating of a drum. “All night long a tom-tom was beaten…”. Taken aurally out of context, the drums are no different from other drums one might hear in music. Yet in this situation, the drums were part of a larger cure for a sick infant. “All night long a tom-tom was beaten immediately over the head of the poor baby; this music accompanied by the sing-song incantations of the priest and the mournful howls of half a dozen old women”. The medicine man’s music is highly functional. It can’t, and I would argue shouldn’t, be notated as a means for performance. From an ethnography perspective, any notation of this music could be one facet of preserving the Nez Perce culture. However, beyond preservation, notation serves only to Westernize the Nez Perce.

Dodge’s full chapter from which excerpts where quoted can be found here:
Medicine Man Music

Works Cited:
Dodge, Richard Irving. 1882. Our Wild Indians: Thirty-three years’ personal experience among the Red Men of the great west. Hartford: A. D. Worthington and Company. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American West, http://www.americanwest.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Details/Graff_1114 [Accessed September 23, 2017].

1 thought on “A Medicine’s Man Music: Lessons in Notation

  1. We talked about this already, but I just want to reiterate that this is an excellent post in need of just a few more bells and whistles. Images, sound clips, more hyperlinks (for instance to a resource on the Nez Perce, preferably the official nez perce page –
    http://www.nezperce.org/) would all make this post shine. You already do a great job of referencing course materials and you’ve found a fascinating primary source, so it’s just a question of going a bit deeper in the ways we discussed and showing off a bit for readers. Keep up the good work – can’t wait to read your next post!

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