To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Chronicle: Interview with a Seneca Songman, Richard Johnny John (Part One)

[What follows – my introductory note & Richard Johnny John’s account of his life as a traditional singer & songmaker – was originally published in Alcheringa, the journal of ethnopoetics that Dennis Tedlock and I co-published & co-edited in the early 1970s.  Johnny John, whom I’ve celebrated elsewhere, was my adoptive Seneca father through the years I spent visiting & then living on the Allegany Seneca Reservation in western New York.  Those years marked my opening to a world that would have otherwise been foreign to me – an adventure in poetry & life that has remained crucial to my sense of how poetry & life could intermingle.  If that time & place are now far from me, they remain in mind & continue to inform my sense of poetry & what it may mean in my own life & in the lives of all with whom we share the few years afforded to us in our time on earth. 
               A full run of Alcheringa can be found at and (J.R.)]

NOTE. Richard Johnny John was one of the leading singers & makers-of-songs at the Allegany (Seneca) Reservation in western New York State, descended from singers, some of them, like the two grandfathers he mentions, very important in their own time. The narrative is a piecing together of bits from a series of interviews between us in August 1968.  I asked him to speak about his life as a songmaker (poet too in the use of both words & word-like sounds) & about the practice of his art as carried on within the heh-non-deh-not-ha or traditional Iroquois Singing Society.

The “woman's dance” songs mentioned throughout are the most popular of the secular or social dances, also the most interesting from my own point of view; i.e., they're the only ones still being made with any frequency & they often do have words to them, whereas most Seneca pop songs (& many sacred ones as well) are “wordless.” Typical structure of the contemporary woman's dance song is: intro sung by leader; repeat of intro plus 2nd part, by leader & chorus; repeat of whole by leader & chorus. Instruments are horn rattles for chorus, water-drum for lead singer. While I was at Allegany in 1968, the principal makers of woman's songs for the Cold Spring Longhouse Singing Society were Herbert Dowdey (then absent in Canada), Avery Jimerson & Richard Johnny John.
The Kinzua Dam is the flood control project on the Allegany River, backwater from which was supposed to sweep over that part of the reservation on which most of the Senecas were living. They put up a strong fight for an alternate plan, but lost & are now resettled on two sides of the proscribed land, still waiting for the waters to come in.  The Gaiwiyo (“code” or “good message”) was brought by the Four Beings to the Seneca prophet, Handsome Lake, in the last decade of the 18th Century, & resulted in a fundamental reformation of the native religion. Even so it retains many ancient features, both in the public ceremonies (or “doings”) at the longhouse, & in the rituals 0f the various medicine societies. It is today one of the principal vehicles for retaining a deeply-rooted Indian way-of-life among the Senecas.

My transcription of the interview follows.

How I really got started with songs was from the old-time Singing Society that they used to have amongst the oldtimers, amongst the older men. At that time there was a lot of older men that was in the Singing Society, and I kind of picked it off from them, the ways that they were singing. I guess everybody's got their own way of singing and how to make up songs.
            There's quite a few old men that I remember. I can't forget my two grandfathers - they were both singers - and a lot of others besides. One of my grandfathers was Chauncey Johnny John naturally, and the other was Howard Jimerson. Then that goes all along through Amos Redeye (he used to do a lot of singing), Wesley White and Willy Stevens, Clarence White, Sherman Redeye: there was quite a few of them. And old John Jimerson used to do quite a bit of singing himself, made up a lot of songs. In years back too you can't forget Ed Currey.
            All them oldtimers talked about even older men than they were, they called them oldtimers themselves, and there were still some older ones than they were. Even up till today we sometimes talk about the oldtimers, and we sing songs that's even older than what we are as of today. Sometimes we get in the mood to sing some of these oldtimers' songs, and they're really, I wouldn't be afraid to say that there may be some of the songs that we do sing today that are over a hundred years old; I wouldn't be afraid to bet that they are older than a hundred years old, some of them. Among the social dances too -like the old Moccasin Dance we have, that's a real oldtimer, I don't know how long back that has started up. Some of these dances and some of the songs that they do today have been danced from way back when the Caiwiyo first came to Handsome Lake. We used to have all of these different social dances, and some of the songs are still sung as we remember them.
            In the old times, you know, when all these oldtimers used to get together, they'd pick out a spot, they'd go to somebody's house. In them days they didn't do like we do now: sometimes we go right to the longhouse and sing at the longhouse, have the singing group come to the longhouse; but in them days there was so many of them, that sometimes on both ends of the reservation there was singing. There'd be maybe a group down in Quaker Bridge, and then there would be another group singing in Cold Spring, all on the same night, there was that many of us singers in the old days.
            Now we're so far apart and there's so few that really can sing, but in the olden days they would mostly go on foot to these houses, they were so close together. They all lived, I guess, in one big circle right around Cold Spring and Quaker Bridge; that was right in the middle of the reservation, and most of the longhouse believers were right in that circle. It was more or less handy for them to pick out a place where they could meet and sing on this one night, and then sometimes maybe if there wasn't any singing in Cold Spring, some of the Cold Spring people would come down to Quaker Bridge. The two groups would come together then: then you could really hear some good music.
            They went to different houses too. They didn't have a certain night where they were going to sing, but anybody could say well, tonight we'll sing maybe at my place, and then maybe the followirlg night they'll say well, we'll go down to Quaker Bridge and visit some of our friends down there. This was a spur of the moment as I would say it. It wasn't like anything today. Today now, you're lucky if you can get three or four singers together, cause everybody else here is riding in cars, and there's so many things going on. Especially in the summertime: you can't get the singing group together in the summertime too much. It's more or less fall, winter and spring, I would say.
            I've belonged to the Singing Society ever since I was 14 or 15 years old; that was in Cold Spring where we used to live. Old Lindsey Dowdey was our president at that time, and that's been a good many years ago, pretty close to, I wouldn't be afraid to say that was a good forty years ago when I first started to pay any attention to these singers.
            I remember I used to sit over on the side. There was quite a few of us at that time that was about my age: some were a little younger and some just a few years older. They used to have us sit over on the side and listen to the older men sing. I guess we were just a bunch of listeners for the first time, the first three or four meetings we attended, and then pretty soon they started to ask us to come and join the older men, and that's how they told us what to do, how to play the rattle and the drum and everything. They started teaching us how to keep the beat with the drummer. And one thing that they didn't really appreciate was anybody fooling around when we were trying to learn. They always told us to take it serious when we got there and to try to learn as quick as we can.
            We all started on the rattle, I guess. They taught us how to hold the rattle and how to beat it and how to keep time. For my part it didn't take me too long to learn it, because in myoid homestead where my grandfather used to stay, my grandfather was always si nging something; you know, practicing some of those society songs that they have, the ceremonial societies, different ones. He was always trying to have us two - that's my brother and I - try to sing along with him. A good many nights, especially in the winter, we used to sit and sing some of the ceremonial songs that he used to sing. But at that time I didn't pay much attention, so today I guess that's my misfortune. I never did pay much attention to what he was singing; now I really am sorry that I never did learn all that he used to sing.
            I guess about two or three years after I started going to these meetings, there was someone I forget who it is) that asked if I knew the songs my grandfather Howard used to sing. I said maybe I could remember. Well, at that time they put me in amongst the older men and, well, I got kind of nervous the first time: I was so used to the rattle that I tried to tell them that I would rather use the rattle, and they said, no, you have to use the drum. They said you can never be a singer, not unless you can play the drum right. So, there I had to, I just had to learn.
            They were playing the woman's dance songs. That's what those singing societies were always singing when they ever got together; they tried to outsing each other, I guess, in making up these woman's dance songs. So, they finally gave me the drum and they said to sit here; they said well, we want to hear some of your grandfather's songs if you can remember them all. They said at least one set anyway.
            I was pretty nervous at first, and when I started singing, my voice kind of got shaky and I didn't know which way to go, or start crying or laughing.  But after the first song, it was all right, and then the older folks kind of encouraged me to keep on and not to ... well, in the first place they said not to be bashful. They said, we can’t have you as a singer and you might as well forget it if you're going to be bashful or anything in that way. And well, after they gave me the drum, like I say, the first song I didn't know which way to go, either start bawling or go on and laugh with them. Well, I started it off and I pulled through pretty good.
            It wasn't until, oh maybe when I was in my twenties, I guess, when I ever started trying to make my own songs up. And after I made up one and took it into the first meeting that we had and sang it, the old folks said that was pretty good. They liked the song, and they said to keep it up and just to keep on trying to fix up songs and make up songs; and that's how.  I happened to keep on going, to keep making up songs. Some of the older men started passing away, and they wanted some new songs made up, and that's the way I happened to: right up till today, I can make up some of my own songs without any help from anybody else.

[to be continued]


AML said...

Where is the continuation I want to know what happened next. have you finish writing the song? want to know more please upload the continuations.

Ed Baker said...

Jer :

This is .... priceless ....

I yet "heel-toe, toe-heel "it"
into my (own) paintings & poems...

Also (to me) The Ear/Mind hears "Song" = s

Psalm = s poem = s Community

"Well, I started it off and I pulled through pretty good>"


" (...), and that's the way I happened to: right up till today, I
can make up some of MY OWN songs without any help from
anybody else."

... & Grandfathers' Grandfathers' Great-Grandfathers'
continued Singing Songs of

the women doing their Round Dance....

( drums and rattles dance and song :

the Center of Community ?