"The Four Directions - A History Of Two Women and The Songs They Saved"

Date: November 22, 2014 Author: stevehunter Categories: Latest


   My Native music CD, “The Four Directions” owes its existence to two women from the early 1900’s; Natalie Curtis and Alice Fletcher, but mostly to Natalie Curtis. Alice Fletcher published a book called “Indian Story & Song” in 1900, and Natalie Curtis published a book called “The Indian’s Book – Songs & Legends of the American Indians” in 1907. Of the two books, Curtis’s book is the one most authentic and extensive in the sheer number of songs and stories recorded. Curtis was the real musician of the two, and studied music at the National Conservatory of Music in NYC, as well as in France and Germany. Fletcher was an ethnologist who studied at Harvard and used two transcribers/arrangers to record the melodies. Also, Fletcher notated mainly the songs of the Plains Indians, mostly the Omaha and Pawnee, while Curtis traveled throughout the US and notated two hundred songs from 18 different tribes.

   In 1881 Fletcher made an unprecedented trip to live with and study the Sioux on their reservation as a representative of Harvard, and eventually made a presentation of Native songs in 1898 at the Congress of Musicians in Omaha; out of this grew her book published in 1900. Out of the thirty songs notated in this book, I used two; Pawnee Love Song and an Arapaho Ghost Dance song. But her appreciation and perspective is still very much a Victorian viewpoint of “the noble savage.” Here is her description of Pawnee Love Song – “there is no dalliance in this love song. It has no words, but the music tells the story: the insistent call of the lover to the maiden to fly with him, the wide sweep of the prairie, the race for cover, and the dauntless daring that won the girl from rival pursuers.” What a bunch of clap-trap. Straight out of a H. Rider Haggard or Fenimore Cooper novel. And the two musicians, both men, that Fletcher used to take down the melodies often added their own hymn-like chord arrangements that are also straight out of the era. I ignored the old arrangements and just used the melody as the basis for my arrangements. Pawnee Love Song is very spiritual, and in this song and all the songs on my CD, I’ve tried to emulate this spirituality. Especially heartbreaking is the Arapaho Ghost Dance song – the Ghost Dance phenomena was the last ditch attempt of the Plains Indians to retrieve their land by way of their spirituality and was the reason for the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee which put an end to all Native rebellion for good. (This song is not included on the CD, although I did record it. Maybe another time…)

   Natalie Curtis, on the other hand, was ‘in tune’ with the Native spirituality and just over a hundred years later, it’s obvious that she got it. She allowed a Native, Hiamovi, Chief among the Cheyennes and the Dakotas, to write the forward to her book. Here’s a bit of what he wrote –

   “There are birds of many colors – red, blue, green, yellow – yet it is all one bird. There are horses of many colors – brown, black, yellow, white – yet it is all one horse. So cattle, so all living things – animals, flowers, trees. So men: in this land where once were only Indians are now men of every color – white, black, yellow, red – yet all one people. That this should come to pass was in the heart of the Great Mystery. It is right thus. And everywhere there shall be peace.” Even now, this reads true.

   Here’s what Natalie Curtis had to say in her own Introduction –

“This book reflects the soul of one of the noblest types of primitive man – the North American Indian. It is the direct utterance of the Indians themselves. The red man dictated and the white friend has recorded. Songs, stories and drawings have all been purposely contributed to a volume that should be their own.” Curtis knew that soon through forced relocation and genocide, that the old songs, traditionally passed down through the generations, would be lost if they weren’t notated. After a trip to Arizona in 1900, she became fascinated with Native American music and devoted herself to the collection and transcription of such music. Starting in 1903, she worked from the Hopi reservation in Arizona and produced transcriptions, at first using the Edison cylinder recorder, and then afterwards mostly with paper and pencil. At the time, what she was trying to do was discouraged by the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which discouraged natives on reservations from speaking their language, singing their music or dressing in native clothing etc. It was only after the personal intervention of her friend President Theodore Roosevelt that she could continue her work unhindered. Here’s what Roosevelt wrote:


White House, Washington. May 17th, 1906

These songs cast a wholly new light on the depth and dignity of Indian thought, the simple beauty and strange charm – the charm of a vanished elder world – of Indian poetry.


   Curtis continues in her Introduction; “The songs were written down by the light of the tipi fire or under the glare of the desert sun; in adobe houses while the women ground the corn, or in the open camp where after some festival or ceremonial gathering of the people, a leader re-sang for the book a characteristic song. Many Indian songs are sacred to certain occasions or ceremonies. Respect was always shown, therefore, for the natural and sometimes superstitious reluctance of the people to sing such songs at other than the proper time, or even to consent to the recording of them. (So many of the songs were lost; what a hip forward thinking woman Curtis was to save what she did!) “Many of the songs in this book are traditional and of lost origin; some are current songs of the day. The making of this record has been a consecrated work. Joy in the task has been shadowed by close contact with a struggling people in their need. It was impossible to live near to Indian life without being heart-wrung by the pathos of its tragedy – impossible to be among Indians without crying, ‘is there a people more deeply misunderstood?’

   This book reveals the inner life of a primitive race. The Indian looks out with reverence upon the world of nature, to him the only world, while deep in this being thrills the consciousness of a power greater than nature, greater than man, yet eternally manifest throughout all life. (She nails the real spirituality of the Great Spirit here; one that I try and grasp through the CD) The Indian is at all times prayerful. Sacred to him is the hour of birth, sacred the hour of death; and in symbol and ceremony he tells his reverence.

   The songs in this book are written exactly as sung by the Indians, as nearly as musical notation can record. No harmony has been added. The original melodies are absolutely un-changed. Also, it should always be borne in mind that Indian music is essentially for singing. It cannot properly be performed on a piano, but must be sung. Notation of Indian music, however accurate, must necessarily be but as a skeleton to the living form. The rendering of the song – the vocal embellishment, the strange gutturals, slurs and accents that make Indian singing so distinctive – all this is altogether too subtle and too much a part of the voice itself to be possible of notation.”

   This last paragraph is very important to remember; I used a flute sound to carry all the melodies, as I could bend the notes while playing them to emulate what I thought a singer would sound like. I also used very simple drum patterns to emulate what I thought would accompany the singing. The chords and arrangements are all of my own ideas, and it is important to keep in mind that it might not be true to the original intent, and most likely a Native from 1903 to 1905 when Curtis notated these songs, would not approve of what I’ve recorded.

   But I think these melodies I’ve picked (one from Fletcher and 4 from Curtis) are very powerful and tremendously spiritual, and the settings I’ve given them emphasize this to a modern listener. In 1987 I had just started on a two year Canadian tour of CATS. Don Francks had given me these books with the suggestion of doing ‘something’ with the melodies. I had a 4 track Fostex cassette recorder with me, a Yamaha DX7, a Yamaha drum machine and some simple outboard gear for reverb etc. And a lot of spare time in between shows. I scrupulously went through the two books, playing through the melodies, and made note of what caught my ear, and then started making rough demos. I was immediately struck at how evocative they sounded in a modern context, and I had in mind to record the 9 songs I picked, and to repeat the melodies over and over, starting very simply with just drum and flute, and slowly adding textures and instruments to build to a climax over the course of 5 minutes or so, and then to quickly fade out. I wanted the listener to be taken on a meditative inner journey and to feel the ancient power of these melodies, long forgotten in the two obscure books. Next year, back in Toronto, I booked some time in a 24 track studio, and started recording the songs, all in real time, track by track. In between each song, I wanted to do a short  “echo” of the song melodies using solo flute over nature sounds. Don Gibson had been recording nature sounds and releasing them on records on a label called “Solitudes” which was very obscure back then, but now is a very well known label specializing in ambience/relaxation CD’s. I phoned him up to ask him permission, and he immediately agreed to let me use them and also told me he had had the same idea and was just starting to record his own nature/music records! However, when I took the records into the studio, the hiss and scratch of the phonograph needle was too obtrusive, and so I invested in what was then a brand new format, a CD player, and bought some more Gibson nature soundscapes which I used. I also had Don Francks record two “echos” with him playing his homemade bamboo flutes. On one, the key of the flute is exactly in the key of the birdcalls, and it sounds like they’re playing off of each other.

   I completed “Mesa – The Four Directions” as a cassette in 1988, but I couldn’t get it released with any record companies because it was too esoteric for the time. It was rejected by Windham Hill. The Native labels didn’t want it because I wasn’t native. There was no such thing as the internet where you could self market your own recordings. And so I gave it away to friends, and soon CD’s took over the market, and it and the cassette became obsolete. And so it languished for 26 years – until the summer of this year, 2014. I had a master copy saved on DAT format, and had it transferred to Pro Tools and after editing, to a CD. After listening to it after all these years, about half the songs sounded dated to me in how they were arranged and the synth sounds I used back then. But the others were surprisingly fresh and inspired me as they had 26 years ago. I uploaded it as an 8 track online CD to my Bandcamp website which is now linked to my new website. And people are starting to notice it.

   Most of these songs have specific stories that inspire them. I’d like to present these stories here, along with a link to the CD.


   The first song is a medicine song from the San Juan Pueblo; I called it Tewa San Juan Medicine Song after going there in 1988 and finding out that the Tewa tribe of people lived there.This pueblo was founded in 1200 AD by the Tewa Pueblo Indians. It’s located in northern New Mexico north of Los Alamos. In 1598, the Spanish conquistador Don Juan de Oñate renamed the pueblo San Juan after his patron saint, John the Baptist. In November 2005, the Tewa people renamed it Ohkay Owingeh, it’s previous name before the Spanish conquest. It means “place of the strong people.” There is no description in the Curtis book of what this song means. But it has a rolling feel to it that is reminiscent of some kind of motion, maybe horseback riding. It has an ABAB form with a reprise of the B section repeated twice each time through that is compelling. Here is a picture of the notated music by Curtis.


   You can listen to it by clicking here and playing track 1 on the Bandcamp site.


   The second song is the Pawnee Love Song. You’ve already read the ridiculous meaning Fletcher gave to it. Here is some information from Curtis as to the origin of the Pawnees.

   The Pawnees are one of the most famed tribes of the West. Though they form a group of the Plains Indians, yet the Pawnees are a distinct linguistic stock, allied to the Wichitas, Caddos, Arikarees, Waces, Keechis and Tawacumers. Pawnee means “Wolf” and was probably given to the Pawnees because of their method of warfare, their skill as scouts and their tireless endurance. Until recent years (1870’s) their home was in southern Nebraska and northern Kansas. But it is generally believed that they originally came from the Southwest, even Mexico. They are also more agricultural than most of the Plains Indians, and possessed permanent villages like the people of the Southwest. In 1874 the pressure of white interests forced the Pawnees from their homes on the Platte River to Oklahoma, then known as the Indian Territory. Since their removal the people have suffered great sickness and loss. The close proximity of the white frontiersman brought to the Pawnees disease, discouragement and vice. From a tribe eight thousand strong they have dwindled to a scant six hundred.

   Another sad story in the history of the Natives. But the melody in Pawnee Love Song is very catchy and powerful. 

   You can listen to it by clicking here and listening to track 3 on the Bandcamp site.


   The third song is Navaho Mountain Song and I made a medley by inserting Pawnee Woman’s Rejoicing Song in the middle of it. To me the Navaho Mountain Song is the most spiritual and powerful of any of the songs I recorded. Here is Curtis’s own history of the Navahos…

   The Navahos are a large nomadic tribe whose home is in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. Their own name for themselves is “Diné, or the People.” The conquest of New Mexico by the Spanish in 1540 brought domestic animals to the area, and since that time the Navahos have been shepherds, whose main sustenance is from their flocks of sheep and goats. They are intensely religious, and their ceremonies are long, elaborate, poetic, abounding in long chants, which contain many verses with preludes and refrains.

   The Navaho song I love so much is one of a Hozhonji Song. Curtis explains: The Hozhonji songs are holy songs, given to us by the gods. They are songs of peace and of blessing. They protect the people against all evil. A man will often sing a Hozhonji song before starting on a journey. Ceremonies are begun sometimes with a Hozhonji song, and always end with one, for the song is a final blessing. (This Mountain Song is a Hozhonji song, one of many under the name of Dsichl Biyin.)

    Curtis continues: The singer of this Mountain Song was an old man of character and great intelligence, who was looked upon as leader by a certain band of Navahos in New Mexico. Said he: “It is well that our songs should be written, and it is now time, indeed, that this should be done. The Young people grow careless of the songs, and mistakes will come into them. Unless the songs are written they will in time be forgotten. I have tried myself to find a way to record the songs, but I cannot write. Now you will write what I sing. I will sing for you the oldest song I know. It was taught to me by my grandfather. He learned it from his father, for it has been taught by fathers to their sons for no one knows how many years. The song I will sing is a holy song. In olden times it was the first song that a boy learned. It was taught to him by his father, for every boy should know this song before starting into life.” (This brings goose bumps to me, to know that this song is so old and powerful. I can feel it distinctly, and I hope others will too.)

    Curtis continues with the meaning of this song: “In a certain ceremony for healing, holy mountain songs are sung over the sick man. These songs describe a journey to a holy place beyond the sacred mountains where are everlasting life and blessedness. The Divine Ones who live in and beyond the mountains made the songs, and so they tell of the journey as of a home-coming. When this song is sung over a man, the spirit of the man makes the journey that the song describes. Upon the rainbow he moves from mountain to mountain, for it is thus that the gods travel, standing upon the rainbow. The rainbow is swift as lightning. Any man many know this to be true, for he may clearly see where the rainbow touches the ground, and walk to the spot, but before he is there the rainbow has moved quickly away and is far beyond. He can never overtake it; it moves more swiftly than anyone can see. There are many mountain songs, and of the songs here given there are six, all to the same music. Each song is sung four times, once for each mountain, and the singers must make no mistake in their sequence nor miss a word. We always sing of the mountains in this order – East, South, West and North, for it is thus that the sun moves. (Again, the Four Directions.) The mountain protects man like a god. When a man sings of the mountain, then, through the singing, his spirit goes to the holy place beyond the mountain, and he himself becomes like the mountain, pure and holy, living eternally, forever blessed.

   Wow! This is really heavy stuff, and very sacred and powerful. For me to have the temerity to insert another song into this Mountain Song is maybe outrageous, but since it is so centered on the male side of Native legend, I thought it proper to put a women’s rejoicing song in here, and as the melody is so uplifting and sacred, I feel it gives a proper ‘lift’ to the original Mountain song and so becomes even more powerful. Pawnee Women’s Rejoicing Song  is under the subheading of Kisaka, or song of Rejoicing and Thanksgiving from the Pawnee Tribe. Since the number “four” is so important, the rejoicing song is done four times, after the third Mountain Song verse, and there is one more Mountain song verse after the Rejoicing Song. Every time I listen to the Mountain Song, I feel my soul and spirit rising to the very top of a spiritual mountain and beyond. To me, this is the most sacred of all the songs I’ve recorded. Here is a rough English version of the first verse which will give you an idea of what the song is about…




Swift and far I journey

Swift upon the rainbow

Swift and far I journey

Lo, yonder, the Holy Place!

Yea swift and far I journey


To Sisnajinni and beyond it,

Yea swift and far I journey;

To Chief of Mountains and beyond it,

Yea swift and far I journey;

To Life Unending and beyond it,

Yea swift and far I journey;

To Joy Unchanging and beyond it,

Yea swift and far I journey.


You can listen to this song by clicking here and playing track 5 on the Bandcamp site.


   The last song is the first from a group of three, KLEDZHI HATAL, Dance songs from the Ceremony of the Night Chant. I call it simply Navaho Night Chant. There is no explanation in the Curtis book as to the origins of this song. But it plainly sounds like a lullaby to me, and that’s how I arranged it. It’s the last song of the CD, and I mean for the listener to be soothed and coaxed to a place of peace, solace and relaxation.


You can listen to this song by clicking here and playing track 7 on the Bandcamp site.


   And so ends this lengthy explanation of the music on “The Four Directions.”  I feel there is more to be done in the exploration of these ancient melodies and songs, but I sincerely hope more people are exposed to this music and that it contributes to the spiritual healing of the planet and the human soul. Thank you for reading and hopefully listening…