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

Saturday, March 24, 2012

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

[continued from earlier posting, recollections after first introduction to singing & song-making]:

 At first I'd forget the songs I made. Maybe somebody else would learn the songs, and when we'd get to these singing sessions, they'd kind of remind me of the songs that I had made up. At that time we didn't have no tape recorders or anything; we couldn't put it on tape, so I had to depend on somebody else to kind of remind me of the songs that I had made up.
            Even today when I start making up songs, I'll take it maybe one song at a time, or when lucky I can make up two songs at once. Then I wouldn't try.  to make a set (you know, six or seven songs) all at once, because it's easy to forget. That is why I never rush myself or try to make up a whole set in just that one night or just that one time. I'd rather, for my sake, try to make up one song maybe today and memorize it so I know just what it sounds like, and maybe two or three days later, make up another one. In that way maybe it takes me a week before I can make up a whole set.
            It seems to me that the songs have come easier to me now than they did when I first started that first song. I still don't know how a song comes out, but sometimes it's when you're thinking about one of the old songs ... this has happened to me. You know, I'm working off by myself on the end of the line up there in the shop, and all these late songs that I've made up have been made up right there in the shop, cause I'm all by myself on the end of the line and sometimes I think of the old songs - you know, just humming or whistling or whichever way I'm thinking about these old songs. Then pretty soon I try to make, up a new one. That's how I get my songs. Most of my songs. I call them my shop songs, because where they were mostly made up is right there in the shop when I'm working.
            Then it all depends too how the man is feeling, what kind of a mood he's in. Sometimes I make up three or four songs and still remember them: a lot of times that has happened. If you're kind of happy, why you come right ahead and sing out a good song, but if you're kind of moody-like, you have a rough time trying to make a song out of it: you can't get it. This usually happens a lot of times with me when I start making up a new song. Sometimes it will just come right to my mind and I can sing it right off; then another time I try to make up a song and it takes three, four or five days before I can get it straightened out. There's some of the songs that we've made up that is, to my experience - there are some where the words kind of get jambled up amongst themselves and they can't straighten them out.
            Well, if there's a little word or a sound that doesn't sound just right in the music, we try to cut it off or add a few words to it. Another thing that usually happens, when we do have a "new song," when we get down to the Singing Society where everybody else is along, maybe a lot of times the song will straighten itself out there, because whoever's there (maybe six or seven of us singing at the same time at this one meeting) could straighten it out for you.  A lot of times it has happened with me. I'd start a new song, then I can't get it just right. Well, at the next meeting we have, I try to sing this song, and the rest of the group will help and straighten the song out for me. A lot of times this has happened. Maybe I just get the introductory part to it and then I can't get the middle part, then the rest of the society would try to straighten it out, and pretty soon we've got a new song.
            Or getting back to sets again, if you make two songs or three songs that sound almost alike, you can easily lose your first song to your own mind cause you've already made up two or three others that sound almost alike and it gets complicated. If you're trying to teach these songs to the rest of the singing group, it's kind of hard. Lots of times it has happened, we thought we knew all the songs and we started singing the songs: we got through with one and the head drummer started to sing another one that sounded almost just like it, and by the time we got to the halfway mark of the song, everybody was singing something else, and that kind of made us sound silly. That's why I say if you're going to make up some songs, try to make a variety of them, with different pitches to the songs" not just make up one song and then pattern six or seven right after it.
            My grandfather Chauncey, when he was teaching us to sing, he'd always say when we start off with a song, if it's any kind of dance, he always said start off your singing real slow and then work up to the right tempo. He says always go according to how the dancers are doing: if they start dancing good, then he says that's where you're going to keep your speed. Like you start with this slow tempo and then work up to where the dancers are really enjoying themselves. He said never try to do it your own way, go according to how the dancers are doing, let them set your tempo. You can always notice when they start having a good time, when they start enjoying themselves, doing whatever dance you are singing to them: you know that that's just where you are going to keep your beat.
            In composing songs too or in working them out, you always start off with a slow beat: in this way you can find out just where your mistakes are. Another thing is (I always said this, and that's just the way I was taught) not to sing too high. You don't go right up into a high pitch so you can't reach the right pitch to the song and the words that you have put into it, cause if you're going to teach it to the rest of the group, you have to sing it slow, so you can get the right pitch to the song and also get all the sounds in it. Now, if you start out real fast and sing high, the person you're teaching won't understand what you're trying to put over, while in this other way you take it real slow and they've got a better chance to understand what the song is, how it's going to sound, and the sounds that have been put into it.
            As to the songs themselves, the style of the songs hasn't changed at all, I don't think, from the old Singing Society to this one. I don't think that it's changed any at all, cause some of these songs that's being made up today are from the oldtimers' songs. They're based on the oldtimers' songs. Some of the songs that I've made up - I just can't say which group it is, but maybe the ones I made up in '66 - there's two or three songs in there that I've based on my grandfather's songs. What I do is take a few words or the introductory part, and put in a few words and just a few different sounds to it. Almost the same melody. But not exactly the same and it hasn't got the same sounds in it - in some places I've shortened it or added to it.
            Some of the songs that I've made up from the oldtimer' songs I used the introductory part, but in the second part to the song where the whole group is singing, then I've added different songs to it. Sometimes I've put together maybe two or three or four different old songs, just parts, and made it into one new song. Or I've added a few words to a song, or cut off some of it and put in new words to it and combined it with a different old song.
            I guess we "modern singers," as they call us now, the ones that are making up these new songs, really base our songs on the oldtime songs. I guess that's the whole basic idea, to try to revive some of the oldtime songs but still add on a few sounds yourself, just to keep the melody and the song kind of in remembrance, for memorial purposes more or less.
            Some of these "woman's dance" songs that were made up come from other social dances, like the "fish dance": there's some songs that's made up from the fish dance and turned into the woman's dance. Like I say, you can take a few words out of a song and still add some on to it and make it into a woman's song from the fish dance. Like the "war dance": there's quite a few songs were made up from the war dance, from the different songs, and put into the woman's dance and a few words added on, and the tempo fell right into the woman's dance songs.
            Then there's quite a few that's been from the sacred songs - like the Quiver Songs, the Changing Rib and the Death Chant - quite a few songs that's got just a little from these ceremonial dances put into the woman's dance. I don't know, these late years they just don't seem to care too much for being too strict on using these sacred dance songs, and they put it into the woman's dance songs. I guess they passed the stage where they were so strict against it - you know that years ago they didn't dare to use some of these songs and change it into a social dance.
            I've got quite a few songs that I've made up, I never even taught to the group because I figures it this way: it's got too much of the sacred songs into it and I'd rather not put it out to public, because I know there are some people that are really strict against having these sacred songs put into modern woman's dance songs. You'd get criticized why we have made up songs to have the public hear, so I usually try not to put any too much sacred songs into it. Maybe I do put in maybe a little sound here and there but just not too much.
            There's quite a few songs too that's been made up from hillbilly music you know, western hillbilly music. Sometimes you'll be listening to some of our old music, and then in just a little while you turn on your T.V. or put on a few recordings of western music - well then, sometimes you can get music combined from these, you can put the two ideas together and make one good song. From the western type of Indian music too: we have tried to make up a few songs from that.
            Nowadays in making up new songs I use the tape recorder quite a bit.  You know, I listen to these older songs, and that's where you get your new ideas from~ Tape recorders are an awful lot of help with that. Then maybe if you got an extra, empty tape, you can always put your new songs onto it. In that way you can't lose your original song that you have made up: like if you've made up a new song and try to remember it, oh maybe say two, three days after, and then try to sing it back, sometimes you lose it altogether. That has happened to me a good many times before I had the tape recorder. Then some of the other songmakers, you know, they take a notebook and write it down on notebooks. I've done that too, and I found that to be a lot of help.  That's for the words naturally, not the music. We've never had any way of writing down melodies, just go by ear, I guess, as to what it sounds like. Well, in school I did actually go into it a little bit but, you know, after I got out of school I forgot all about how to read notes from a paper. What little music that I do know of - white music - well, it's mostly hillbilly songs, like "coming around the mountain" and all that, or "hand me down my walking cane" and all that. So that was all taken up by ear: if they put it in front of me in writing, I would never know how to read it.

[to be continued]

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