Talking of Singing

Medicine Songs

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Ceremonial Song Preservation

Five men of the Blackfeet singing group

Many times, during cultural events and public presentations, there is a need to have special songs of societies, flag songs, family songs, etc.

Men such as you see in this photo are responsible for rendering those songs. Chief Earl Old Person is one of the Blackfeet who have been gifted with the knowledge of them. These songs are used in honorings, giveaways, recognition of society members, and respect for veterans.

The men are, left to right: Ted Williamson, who currently [1998] serves on the Blackfeet tribal business council; Archie St. Goddard, who has served on the Blackfeet tribal business council; Earl Old Person, chief and chairman of the Blackfeet tribal business council; Paul Old Chief, who works for the Blackfeet tribe, and is a member of the Black Lodge Soiciety, of which his father is the oldest member; Kenneth Old Person, who works for the Blackfeet Community College, and is a member of the Rough Riders Society.

Societies such as the Black Lodge and Rough Riders are two of the societies that were established in the 1940s and 50s, so that the people could maintain some of their cultural ways. The need to establish these was a result of the punishings, denials of government entities, religious orders to turn Indian people against their beliefs and ways. The societies open an acceptable way for our people to continue being Blackfeet and respecting their own ways and identities.

The Black Lodge Society, in particular, was initiated in the 1950s by four old men, Paul Old Chief, John Tatsey, Louie Redhead, and Joe Morning Gun. They were responsible for the retaining of songs and dances, by simply committing their time, knowledge and effort , as most of the more religious societies were no longer active, due to hardships placed upon them by the groups mentioned earlier, and by reservation life itself.

Within the past two decades the Black Lodge Singers, a drum group, has established itself as one of the most requested drum groups in the world, at Indian gatherings. When the group began, the leader approached the eldest Black Lodge Society member for use of this name. No photo is available at this time, but the drum group consists mainly of Blackfeet who reside in White Swan, Washington.

—Joyce Spoonhunter; 1998

For more about the Blackfeet Nation, see


Pat Williams: From our country's earliest days music has enlivened us. In the halls of the rich and the streets of the poor music was and remains an integral part of our American society. As Lewis and Clark came west they surely brought with them the music of the time. Our reporter Pelah Hoyt talked with Professor of Music Joseph Mussulman about the expedition and its music.

Pelah Hoyt: Joseph Mussulman is a former music professor at the University of Montana. He is retired now, but works nearly full time on a multi-media web site about Lewis and Clark. Mussulman says music on the Lewis and Clark Expedition entertained the men, but it also functioned as a diplomatic tool.

Joseph Mussulman: The native peoples that they met regarded music in their cultures as something very essential. So, on at least one occasion they were asked to trade medicine songs with a tribe. It was Yellepit of the Walula people, over on the Columbia River. You see, in Indian culture a song may be given but may not be stolen or taken. And a song has power, and so what you are doing when you give away a song is you give some power with it. Now, we all have medicine songs in our lives, they have certain power for us, but I don .t think we have the proprietary sense that the native peoples do, or did at that time.

And, on this occasion, it was in late April, 1806, the Corps was on its way back from the mouth of the Columbia. They stopped and visited with Yellepit and his people. Yellepit threw a big party and called the Yakimas down. He asked if they would sing one of their medicine songs, and his people would sing one of theirs. Well, the men of the Corps of Discovery sang two songs. Now, this had to be a real gaffe as far as Yellepit was concerned because, you know, it's like people come over for Christmas cheer and you know they are going to bring a present so you have one ready for them, but they bring two, then what do you do? You're embarrassed. Well, I don't know what he did, but the point is that they sang two songs.

We don't know what they sang, but we can make some pretty good guesses because many of the songs that were popular in their day are on the fringes of what we call folk music now. There's a tune that they might have sung;

Come ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore,
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Filled with pity, love and power.
He is able, He is able,
He is willing, doubt no more,
He is able, He is able,
He is willing, doubt no more.

That could have been one of those medicine songs that they sang for Chief Yellepit, that April night in 1806.


A Guy Thing

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Pelah Hoyt: Mussulman says the remarkable thing about music during the time of the expedition was that it was much more of "guy thing" than it is today.

Joseph Mussulman: They liked to sing high, they liked to sing loud, they liked to make a lot of noise. So, for instance, one of the most popular tunes of that day is one that we still use. They would have sung:

Ye sons of Columbia who lately have fought
For those rights which unstained from your sires have descended.
May you long taste the glory their valor has bought,
And your sons reap the soil that your fathers defended.
Mid the reign of mild peace, may your nation increase
In the wisdom of Rome and the glory of Greece.
And ne'r may the sons of Columbia be slaves.
While the earth bears a plant, or the sea rolls its waves.

Now that tune is embarrassing to most guys now. You know, it's too high. But in those days those guys loved that, because they could show off. And, they would have called the words, the song, and what they sang it to was the tune. And popular music in those days was based on the principal of mix and match. There were eighty different sets of words, of songs, written to be sung to that tune, and any one of those eighty would work. And so, a real guy was one who knew a lot of tunes, and knew a lot of songs, and could combine them in ways that would make the other guys say, "Oh, cool, man! Let me hear that again. Awesome! I want to learn that!"

And, it 's spontaneous, it's part of what guys do. We just don't do that much anymore. One of my favorite examples is . . . see . . . this idea of singing being a man's stuff, a man's thing, lasted through the nineteenth century. In 1876 in Lincoln, Montana, there was a Fourth of July celebration that featured a glee club contest and five men's glee clubs took part. There are singers in Lincoln now, but do you suppose you could put together a competition of five men's glee clubs from that neighborhood? But, these are the miners from around there, and they were all from—many from—the old country and that was their tradition to sing. And, it was show off, it was competition, it was what you did.

Musical Diplomacy

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Pelah Hoyt: Music historian Joseph Mussulman says music is mentioned about thirty times in the journals. William Clark is particularly pleased when the men sing and dance or are "merry," as Clark puts it. The men brought jews harps along as well as a fiddle.

Joseph Mussulman: Pierre Cruzatte had a fiddle, and he was very popular with the men and very popular among the Indians. Can you imagine? Many of these people had never seen a white person before, to begin with, and then to hear their music. This is magical stuff, because of the place of music in Indian culture generally. They may have picked up Indian instruments along the way. Sergeant Ordway refers to a tambourine.

During the winter stay among Mandans in 1804-1805, at Christmas time, New Year's Day as a matter of fact, Sergeant Ordway remarks that a bunch of the guys go to one of the Mandan villages. They go from house to house, from lodge to lodge, and sing and dance. They take their tambourine with them and the sounding horn.

The sounding horn was just a signaling horn, it was not a trumpet. You couldn't play a tune on it. It was a noise maker, and we know how noise makers go with New Year's, right? Same thing then. But they were . . . this going from house to house was a southern tradition that was known as "breaking up Christmas"—where rural families would go, day to day, around the neighborhood, maybe a day's travel from one house to another, and celebrate Christmas together that way, with their neighbors.

Grateful Tunes

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Pelah Hoyt: According to Mussulman, in those days, anytime was a time for music. The men probably sang marching songs as they carried their boats and gear around the great falls of the Missouri, or sang when the men finally returned to Travelers Rest near Lolo Montana, after crossing the Bitterroot Mountains.

Joseph Mussulman: Coming back when they left those "tremendous mountains," as Clark put it, having suffered cold and hunger, the likes of which they had never experienced before, and never would want to experience again. Clark is almost prayerful coming back; we made it, we made it. I can imagine that somebody at a quite time, at dusk, might have begun:

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come,
T'was grace that kept me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

September 14, 1806 . . . they get back to Saint Louis on the 23rd, so they are somewhere near Fort Leavenworth Kansas, and they are going home, man they are moving fast, as fast as they can. They are making 50 to 60 miles a day. Nine days from the end of the journey Clark wrote in his journal, "Our party received a dram"—they had picked up some more alcohol from some traders they had met going upstream—"Our party received a dram and sung songs until eleven o'clock at night, in the greatest harmony." He's pleased that they're enjoying themselves.

The Human Element

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Pelah Hoyt: How did you get interested in music and the Lewis and Clark expedition?

Joseph Mussulman: In the whole Lewis and Clark story, I am most of all interested in the human element. Not the facts, but the feelings behind the facts. And so, when Clark says they sang songs until eleven o'clock at night, in the greatest harmony, knowing that music meant a lot to men in those days, I want to know what they could have sung, and I like to guess.