Sound Matters: The SEM Blog

The official blog by the Society for Ethnomusicology


Matthew Harp Allen – Interview with David Park McAllester

McAllester 2005

David McAllester in 2005

(Photo courtesy of Alan R. Burdette)

Editor’s note: In 2004 the Society for Ethnomusicology’s Board of Directors asked Matthew Allen to interview his friend and former teacher David P. McAllester, Professor Emeritus of Music at Wesleyan University, on the occasion of the latter’s award of an Honorary Membership in the Society. They met in McAllester’s home in Monterey, Massachusetts, on 10 January 2005. A short excerpt from the interview appeared in the SEM Newsletter at that time; thanks to the efforts of Professor Allen, the full interview appears below (Allen’s interpolations are in square brackets). The text has much to offer to those interested in the history of ethnomusicology and to those who—like myself—had the honor and pleasure of knowing Professor McAllester personally.

Matthew Allen [MA]: David, we’re here, it’s January 2005 at your lovely home in the Berkshires with you and Beryl. I’ve made this trip to speak with you about your role in the founding of the Society, your impressions of what it was like to work with those colleagues, and what they were like, those founding fathers and at least one founding mother I found on the list of those early convenors of the Society. And I figured we could take it from there.

Fine. Very good. Well, I met Willard Rhodes. He was a Professor of Music at Columbia, teaching in the opera school, and conducting operas, but his daughter worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and she made arrangements for him to go and travel around the country recording Native American music from tribe to tribe. And he did it summer after summer. And you’re probably familiar with the Library of Congress series of records that was produced from those recordings. He visited a good many tribes, and he got more and more ethnomusicological as he did it. He was a very friendly, open kind of guy.

So when I began to take some of George Herzog’s courses, Willard Rhodes was there and George introduced him to me as a fellow enthusiast of Indian music. So he and I were at one of the anthropology meetings in the early 1950s, and Willard said “you’ve got to meet this man Alan Merriam” who he had met recently. They both had an interest in Africa, and so he took me to lunch with Alan Merriam. And Alan immediately began proposing that we organize an American society of ethnomusicology. What there was then was the sister to the Vergleichende Musikwissenschaft.

MA: And I gather that was fairly moribund after World War II.

It was. It was in Berlin, and a lot of the members were Jewish and had fled the country. And so this Society for Comparative Musicology had some beginnings here [in the USA] with Curt Sachs, and George Herzog, and Mieczysław Kolinski. And so there was also then after that, well, the Vergleichende did sort of collapse. And Helen Roberts, that was the founding mother, I would say; she was at Yale, or lived in New Haven, and she had done several studies herself. And she was I think sort of a secretary of this Society for Comparative Musicology, and it, everything kind of came to a halt during World War II, and after the war, the European group regrouped and got organized with the help of the United Nations and became the, what was it, if I remember, I’ve forgotten now what its title was [the International Council for Traditional Music]. It’s still going but it wasn’t as scholarly as Alan Merriam wanted.

MA: Was it called the European Seminar?

That’s what it became, I think, but it had another name…I haven’t thought of it for a long time, but it’s in all the literature. They would have festivals rather than scholarly meetings. And they would get together a whole lot of performers. And they’d all sit there and would enjoy it. And they didn’t read scholarly papers, but kind of appreciations. And some of them were scholars, and a lot of them were not. Anyway, Alan had this idea to collect reviews, for one thing, and to do bibliography. And he wanted to start a newsletter which would have a good solid bibliography, properly done. Jaap Kunst had produced something that he was calling Ethno-musicology, with a hyphen, that had some bibliography that were not…they were a bit casual. And Alan thought we could do better than that. And not only have bibliographies, but articles. So it began as that newsletter. And the idea was to get together whoever we could find who was interested in the United States and abroad, which really meant mostly Europe. And start with a newlsetter and go on to a journal. And all of that I guess is right in that issue [issue #1 of the SEM Newsletter].

But to get to the personalities of the people; Oh, after we had that meeting, Willard and I—and Merriam—went to New Haven where the American Musicological Society was having a meeting, to talk to Charlie Seeger. Because he wrote their, their organizing, he did their constitution and all the ins and outs, and had talked about this idea. And thought it would be a good idea. So we hunted him down at that meeting and broached the idea to him. So we were the four, then. And it was really Willard and Merriam who knew the field, somewhat; knew the people in Europe as well. And I was just fresh out of graduate school (laughs), at Wesleyan. But I guess I had published Peyote music (1949), and that made me one of the few people who had published anything in the field at that time. So, we got organized and we asked …I guess it was, we didn’t have a president…We had…I forget what; Alan was the organizer, and I just was doing…body work with the newsletter and subscriptions. We charged $2 a year.

MA: The first Newsletter says “we don’t have any financial obligation at this time”, but by about Newsletter 6 it was $2.

Is that it? (laughs) Oh I see; so we let them in easy. And Charlie was his imperious self, giving off ideas, and really organizing it. And Willard was the genial, friend of everybody. And Alan was the scientist. As he wrote in his Anthropology of music, ethnomusicology was going to be sciencing about a humanity. I always chuckled over that phrase (laughs). To call music “a humanity”. But, he had the American anthropologist [journal] sort of as his model, I think, in his mind. I remember on the way up Willard and I started singing some Indian songs; we’d hooked a ride with somebody who was going to those meetings, from Philadelphia, I think. Wherever it was, we drove to New Haven. And as we drove along, Willard and I started singing some Indian songs that we both knew, and Alan said, “Oh, do you have to sing?” (laughs) We were threatening his scientific stance. Though he studied drumming himself, but I don’t think he did African drumming in public. He was a very good jazz player, much interested in jazz, went to a lot of jazz concerts, wrote about jazz in his books.

MA: While we’re on the subject of Merriam’s scientific emphasis, I was struck in the reports from the field in the first Newsletter, how consistently the things that were reported on were, well, this person has been in this place for this long, and they’ve brought back this many reels of this kind of tape, taken on that kind of tape recorder (David laughs). That seemed to be the real stuff, right? They never announced it but the implicit assumption seems to be that, now they’ve brought it back to the laboratory and they’ll get to work on analyzing it. Is that an impression that that’s really the emphasis that was in people’s minds at that time?

Well it was in Alan’s, certainly. But Willard and I both loved the music, and I think Charlie Seeger was more literary, perhaps, than scientific. But Alan used to say there are different kinds of interpretations. One is the folk interpretation, and that’s what the people who make the music think it’s about, then there’s the scientific interpretation, that’s the scientific view of what the music really is. So he gave us a good impetus on being factual, and he and his students did, but many of them were jazz performers and had a special interest in Africa. He and Richard Waterman were both at Northwestern. They were students of Melville Herskovits. Herskovits, I don’t know what his musical background was, but he certainly did encourage musical study. He had been a student of Franz Boas, and Boas was the first anthropologist to sort of realize that music too is a part of culture.

At Harvard, where I did my undergraduate work, it was not a part of ethnology. They knew that I was singing Indian songs that I’d gotten out of books, and that I had an interest in Indian music, but it never occurred to anybody there that I might make a career studying American Indian music. Alice Fletcher worked out of the Peabody Museum collecting…Pawnee, was it? The Hocko…yes I think it was. Anyway, there were these well-to-do Boston ladies who took an interest in Indians and helped them, represented them in Congress at hearings on Indian land claims and things like that. So they were active there, but it was not a thing for anthropologists, not at Harvard.

MA: If you might back up just a little bit there, how did it come to be that you ended up singing Indian songs out of books? Where did your own interest come from?

Oh well—I am part Naragansett. That is, my grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother was a Naragansett, according to our family tradition. And I have a grand-niece who has found the name of that woman, just lately, with the advantages of the Internet. We knew what the relationship was, but we didn’t know anything more about her except that my grandmother, at her grandmother’s house, saw an oil painting of this woman—her grandmother’s grandmother. But that got me interested in Indians. And then I read the books of Ernest Thompson Seton. Is that anyone you ever heard of?

MA: No.

Well, a lot of people knew about him in the days of my youth. And he brought out something called the Birch Bark Library, and he was a naturalist. But he collected a lot of…he didn’t record Indian music himself, but in his books he included the songs that Alice Fletcher and Frances Densmore had collected, and some others too. He had something called the Wood Crafters League, which was a rival of the Boy Scouts of America at that time. And then when World War I came along, Seton protested getting into the war, and became very unpopular. And Baden Powell in England who was starting up the Boy Scouts, was very much for the war and gave the Boy Scouts the sort of semi-militaristic qualities that some aspects of scouting have retained.

So these [Seton’s works] were very appreciative of what Indians knew, how much knowledge they really had about their world. And one whole section was on philosophy, the philosophy of the red man. All of these things I ate up. And so I discovered that a lot of people came into anthropology having had a boyhood experience of Ernest Thompson Seton. I was at a gathering of anthropologists at Yale after I came to Wesleyan. And one of the Yale anthropologists said he had been at a meeting, where somebody raised the question, how many of you people have read Ernest Thompson Seton? And most of them had, and he had. It’s kind of interesting. I don’t think he ever gets mentioned in our ethnomusicology these days. Because he just printed the work of other people as far as Indians went.

MA: So he published some of the translations of Frances Densmore, for example?

Yes. So I learned some of those; those are what I was singing. I really got started on some pretty good people, actually.

And Frances Densmore became our honorary president when we organized as a society, about 1953. Willard knew her and called her up. We were at some anthropology meetings at Boston at that time. And after, she would be preisident, she said. She said as long as she didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything, she didn’t mind being an honorary president (laughs). So those were the personalities that we had, and… have you seen the book by Ann Pescatello, Charles Seeger: A life in American music? She’s a historian, and she and Bonnie Wade knew Charlie very well, visited him every year, and knew the rest of the family too, but it was Charlie they were interested in. And Ann wrote this history which is a very interesting thing, about the whole Seeger family, but particularly Charlie, the influences that made the man. I think he was a father figure to them, they saw him whenever they could.

So, in that group of four, Charlie was the great musicologist; Willard and I were almost bystanders; and Alan was the driving force in making the Journal the way it was in the beginning. And I remember further along in the years, Charlie Seeger said in one of his talks to the Society, “Of course Alan is our scientist, and what David brings is love!” (laughs)

I think he was referring to my Quakerism. I became a Quaker shortly before World War II because I knew I was going to be a conscientious objector and I had begun to attend the Friends Meeting in New York. I used to sing in St. George’s Episcopal church choir, across the street from the 15th Street Quaker Meeting, and I used to see the Quakers coming out of Quaker meeting as we came out of St. George’s church, and I wished I was there! Because the pronouncements I was seeing from them as World War II began to loom on the horizon were just what was in my mind. So I finally did quit the choir and became Quaker. It took a while. They were getting lots of people who wanted to be Quakers as they saw the war coming on. In the early years before the war, there were full-page ads by the American Friends Service Committee and other pacifist organizations, protesting the movement we were going in. There was a very strong pacifist movement.

There was an Oxford oath, started at Oxford University, where thousands of students swore that under no conditions would they engage in another World War. The First World War did not make the world safe for democracy or anybody else, and they could see the beginnings of it. There was a movement, what was it called—The Veterans of Future Wars, among students at at Harvard. One of my classmates at Harvard was Rolf Kaltenborn, whose father was a well-known commentator on the radio. As the war clouds were gathering, he had a lot to say about international relations. Rolf was the commander of the Veterans of Future Wars. And he would begin his speeches with “Buddies!” and the females in the group were “Future gold star mothers!” And the Oxford oath was afloat at Harvard, and Susan and I joined it when it came. But many of our contemporaries after Pearl Harbor changed their minds, but we didn’t.

But to get back to personalities in the Society. I got to know Helen Roberts quite well. I would visit her when I came to Wesleyan, because she was just down the road in New Haven. She was a well-to-do lady, and she had a beautiful greenhouse full of orchids, which was one of her primary interests. And she had lots of memories of George, I think George Herzog may have…let’s see; he knew Edward Sapir, and Sapir was at Yale, and I think she knew of course Charlie Seeger in the Society for Comparative Musicology, and she was a little bitter that when that was disbanded, they left her with all the cleaning up after them.

MA: What was there to clean up, David?

Well, to take care of the finances, and the records, and whatever there was left.

MA: The Newsletter said a couple of hundred dollars was left over, which was then used to start the new Society.

I guess so, and maybe we got that from her.

But one of the big financial aids in getting the Society started was Wesleyan University. Wesleyan had a financial advisor, who persuaded them to put most of their endowment into purchasing the American Educational Press [in 1949], that published things like My weekly reader. And that was bought by school children all over the country. And suddenly Wesleyan became quite wealthy. In fact we found that owning the American Educational Press was more than we could handle; it was the dog beginning to wag the tail of Wesleyan. Then Xerox bought that from us for something like 400,000 shares of Xerox stock, which was just beginning to skyrocket. So suddenly we were a very wealthy university. [Wesleyan] President Butterfield sent notes to the different departments, saying, “Can you think of unusual experimental areas of teaching and studying that we can undertake here that haven’t been thought of before—the more expensive the better?” (laughs) Almost in those words.

So, then [Wesleyan Music Professor] Dick Winslow had the vision to say the direction the Music Department could go in would be ethnomusicology, but we had better be prepared to turn into a very large hard-working enterprise. We’ll have a great many students. The music department at that time was a kind of ornament to the college at that time. And maybe once every few years, somebody would do an M.A. in it, but it was not…it was just making music and it was preparing young gentlemen to have a musical side to their background. And to get out there into the field and to get a world perspective was not what the department chairman at that time had in mind. And then he retired, and Dick took his place, and it is what Dick had in mind. So we went out to UCLA, and visited their program, and got a lot of great ideas and picked up Bob Brown who was there. That is, Dick met him, and liked him very much; and I don’t think he even realized though what a dynamo Bob Brown was, in his quiet way. But he couldn’t get Bob out of his mind and we made him an offer and that’s where he came. And he gave us an impetus that we’re still moving with.

MA: David, why couldn’t he get Bob out of his mind? Was Bob showing an entrepreneurial flair already, or sort of a program-building propensity?

No, I don’t think we saw that; what he saw was this quiet-spoken charming person, musical to his fingertips, who had already been in India learning to perform the music. I think it was the performing that attracted Dick. That of course was the big emphasis at UCLA anyway.

MA: When you went out there was that around the time T. Viswanathan was at UCLA, from 1958 to 60?

Hmm…I think he was Bob Brown’s friend already. I mean, Bob had met that family in Madras. I’m not sure about that. I know that they had Japanese music with Miss [Namino] Tori, and Indian music with Viswa and Ranga [flutist-vocalist T. Viswanathan and his brother, mṛdaṅgist T. Ranganathan], those were our first musics. And right away Bob had a bunch of students singing sa ri ga ma and performing, and one of the early ones was Jon Higgins, who was such a star in India, the Indians couldn’t believe it.

So, by these circumstances, we were the ones who took off in the East, and UCLA were the ones [in the West], and Mantle Hood studied with Jaap Kunst and brought back the idea of bimusicality. And Mantle, I don’t know why he wasn’t in on it from the beginning with us. Maybe it’s just so far away, or maybe because he had his own empire to build. But we quickly enlisted his aid, and we certainly knew about his program, and he was very generous to us and very receptive, and we attended some of the famous seminars that he and Charlie Seeger gave together. Mantle attached Charlie as a kind of local god (laughs) of the program at UCLA. They had a very happy relationship there developing their machine to do transcriptions [the melograph]. Accurate transcriptions were the big issue… and this was going to be a machine that did it without human failures.

MA: That’s interesting—now, was that picked up with enthusiasm at Wesleyan to the same extent?

No. I think maybe we received one of their outmoded models, but we didn’t have anybody there who picked up with it and got interested in it. But certainly, the performing emphasis was joyfully accepted at Wesleyan and still is there.

MA: And did Alan Merriam like the idea of this machine that could do these very scientific, supposedly scientific transcriptions? Or was that restricted to just UCLA?

I think maybe one or two places that tried to use it, but it never was really operable. It was a prelude to what can now be done with computers. But it was…And it showed certain things people were quite excited about, such as in some singing, you have a certain pattern drawn by the little pen on the cylinder moving around, and you’d see the vibrato, and then you’d see in some singing, some vibrato on that one, and that explained why it sounded the way it did, and kind of gave you a mechanical glimpse of something that was happening, that was an exciting idea.

MA: Well David, I’ve known you to be a little deferential about the founding of the Society and your own role, but I wonder if could you talk a little bit about what were your own ideas at Wesleyan, what were your passions? How did you want to see the Wesleyan program develop? What was really important to you?

Well, I’m trying to remember those times…Because it was Bob Brown who was bringing visiting artists. He had an insatiable hunger for more visiting artists of more musics. And for quite a while, Wesleyan was able to go right along with it, and the program got very large very quickly. I was…had started [in] the Anthropology Department about this time. And I visited the Music Department, as it were, and some of my anthropology students became ethnomusicology students, but I didn’t really…resign from anthropology until the Society was organized, I guess. Then I really did move, well, when we built the new music building, I moved out of the anthropology building altogether. But for a long time the archive of the music program was in the basement of that little building on the corner of Wyllys Avenue and High Street.

MA: I remember one vacation when you were going away, when I emptied the dehumidifiers for you. It was in bad shape…

It was terrible. Yeah. (laughs) Well, then it moved into the new building. But in the old building, in a bad rainstorm, there’d be puddles on the floor in that room that we had. It was nicely fitted up, except it was in the basement of an old building. The Outing Club used to be in that basement. And they had it all fitted up with slab siding so it looked like the inside of a log cabin. (laughs)

MA: I was just reading an article on the web about you—this is where your essay on Coyote Song was published. It mentions that the collecting you did amounted to the largest collection of Navajo ceremonials and music in the country, evidently, and I guess that’s now housed at Wesleyan.

Well, there was a recording of—George Herzog and a number of other people were hired by Mary Wheelwright, who started the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art in Santa Fe. She was a Boston blueblood: Mary Cabot Wheelwright. And she bought a hacienda on the Rio Grande, and she got to know a particular medicine man, and she recorded nearly all of his songs. And she hired artists to make watercolor reproductions of his sand paintings. And I think it was something like 5,000 recordings that she made of a number of different ceremonies. And they were on wax cylinders. That’s what was available at that time. But George [Herzog] was one of the people who was supposed to be transcribing those, and never got around to it. But several Athabascan language experts worked with her, and they transcribed the texts into a proper phonetic alphabet.

Much of that is duplicated at Wesleyan. And all of that…where else did it go? I think maybe to Indiana, too. And the reproductions of sand paintings all went back to the Navajo tribe in due course. But I think that maybe is the biggest collection, on those wax cylinders. And Edward Sapir the linguist recorded a lot too. And I got into Navajo studies transcribing some of those wax cylinders. I worked for Harvard, with a lab assistant to transfer them from wax cylinders to tape. And I began transcribing them myself, and those transcriptions are at Wesleyan. And then she asked me to do some other recording. She was trying to get those published in some form or other. And I thought the wax cylinders weren’t really publishable, for lack of technical perfection, full of all kinds of incidental noises.

So I took one of the earliest—the earliest tape machine that was available to the public, called a Soundmirror—out there, and re-recorded quite a bit of material for her, and for me, to work with. But she certainly needs to be mentioned as far as—and she is—as far as Navajo studies go. Her Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art is now called the Wheelwright Museum; and much of it has been transferred to the the Navajo Tribe, to their Cultural Center in Tsaile, Arizona. She was interested in similarities between the art of the mandalas in Tibet and the Navajo sand paintings. She went to Tibet several times. And she recorded hundreds of sand paintings with various artists, bringing medicine men to her museum. And the particular [Navajo] medicine man she worked with is buried there; she kind of adopted him. A man named Hastiin Klah, which means Mr. Left Handed. And a good many of his recordings have been transcribed.

There was a man named Father Bernard Haile, a Franciscan friar, who went out from Cincinnati to the reservation and essentially became a Navajo. He learned, really, to speak Navajo, and he became a friend of Navajos, and I think he became a Navajo himself. He learned to think like a Navajo. He was right there at Chinle where…and he worked with Frank Mitchell, the man that I studied with for ten years.

So…all these things come together, don’t they? She, Mary Wheelright, was a very powerful lady. She said she never married because she never found a man strong enough for her. And at one point she said she felt I was her spiritual son, and we certainly got along together, did a lot of work together.

My tutor at Harvard—the Harvard system is that you have a faculty member who is your tutor, and your particular advisor—was a man named Clyde Kluckhohn, who became Mr. Navajo Scholar of those days. Nowadays people don’t think much of his work, but in those days he was the new young person on the scene. He had studied with Freud, he had been to Vienna, he was a psychological anthropologist and a literary man as well. Something very different from the sort of explorer-anthropologists that we had at Harvard at that time. When he joined the Harvard faculty it was a moment of change, that he was…he kind of civilized the anthropology department. So he interested me in the Navajos, and pretty soon, we were…in his linguistics course, we had Navajo speakers, a family, so we could hear Navajo pronounced by father, mother, and children. And we began to be trained, and really quite good linguistic training for those days. Linguistics was just taking off as an important part of anthropology.

To go back to Charlie [Seeger], he was imperious as I mentioned. And somewhat arrogant. And he didn’t, what’s the word, he didn’t suffer fools (laughs). And he gave a pretty high tone to the Society and its development accordingly. I wonder if anybody quite understood him. Have you read much of his work?

MA: It’s difficult.

It is. Sometimes Tony [Anthony Seeger] has given some lectures and written some articles to explain what his grandfather was saying, and I’m not sure they were all that much more easily understood after Tony finished (laughs).

MA: I never saw him speak. I saw Buckminster Fuller speak, and sometimes I felt some similarities in the prose and the intentional use of language. I know that Fuller would make up words that would be just what he wanted to say, he totally would disregard as to whether they would be in common parlance. His idea was, well you come to me, I’m not coming to you.

He was at the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan. One time a student and I went to a jazz concert and walking across campus we met some friends of ours, the Rosenbaums, who were on their way to see a lecture by Buckminster Fuller. The jazz band concert was over two hours late, the jazz band was stuck on the road. Finally we had to leave, and as we did we met the Rosenbaums coming back from the Buckminster Fuller talk. They asked us how the jazz concert was and we said well it hasn’t begun yet. And we asked how Buckminster Fuller was, and they said, he hasn’t stopped yet. He didn’t show any signs of stopping, and they had to leave.

I showed him a picture of a teepee that I’d built with fibreglass and he got very excited. He said, “This is the basic structural form!” He loved ideas. When he came for that visit, he was staying with [classicist-philosopher] Norman O. Brown and his family and they said he never stopped talking the whole time he was in their house. He just gave off ideas. He was one of the first people I think who was hired by big corporations to come and just talk, because they knew there were wonderful ideas all through it that would be useful, even if they didn’t understand them.

But he often loved to say some basic things, like, you have to know how much a building weighs, the way you do when you make a ship. And he was saying how much safer it was to travel by air, because human beings don’t like to be off the ground. They build cars with very sloppy engineering, because it’s running on the ground. And cars are much more dangerous than ships are, and ships are nowhere near as safe as airplanes are. The further you get away from our original topography, the more careful we are, and the better our engineering is. He loved to make pronouncements, and made a dozen a minute.

MA: Can I ask you to talk about one more thing while we’ve got the tape rolling? When we talked on the phone the other night you were telling me you’ve really had a second career since you left teaching at Wesleyan. Other things are going on. I wonder, how does the whole trajectory of the Society look to you? What seems logical to you about how one evolves in their tenth or twentieth year as an ethnomusicologist? How do you make sense of the way the Society has grown and changed?

I’ve been mulling over some of these ideas, since I’m going to be on the panel in Atlanta [at the 50th SEM conference] this year. I was a product at the beginning of Herzog, and I was…he drilled and drilled me in making transcriptions. And I was trying to make good transcriptions. And I wasn’t seeing the music from a humanistic point of view, that is, that it was music of people. And my experience, once I got among the Navajos, caused me to drop out of anthropology. I dropped the scientific point of view to a large extent, and I became…um, an advocate of the Navajos, rather than an objective viewer. And I was certainly among those in ethnomusicology who began to value the… the views of the people who make the music, more than the value of the trained scholars who were studying it.

I also respected the Navajo apprehension of having their material misued, because they consider their music has a life of its own, and it’s vulnerable too to misuse, it could lose its power. It’s something…it’s religious, it has a function. And I began to get answers to my questions that reorganized my thinking. And so I’ve never written THE BOOK on Navajo music, for instance. Merriam, who wrote Ethnomusicology of the Flathead Indians, asked me one day, “McAllester, when is that book on Navajo music coming out?” (laughs) So I’ve written little articles about this song or that song, but I haven’t felt that I ever knew enough to write Navajo music.

In fact I had my eyes opened at the University of Sydney in Australia where I was a Fulbright professor for a while. I gave a talk in the anthropology department, and they said “Why do you use the word music to describe what the Navajos do? Isn’t it really prayer? Or magic? Or something other than…Does our word ‘music’ describe it at all?” And I just hadn’t thought of that. And their word is not…they don’t have a word. So if I wanted…

I had [prepared] a questionaire in the early days: “How do you feel when you hear music?” You know, I wanted to get into what their feelings were. And the question came out in Navajo like, “Well you know there’s drumming, and there’s shaking a rattle, and there’s singing ceremonial chants, and there’s singing squaw dance music—squaw dance songs, and how do all those different things affect you? How do you feel when you hear them?” And the Navajos said to me, you maybe have heard me tell this before, they said, “I’m alright! There’s nothing wrong with me!” It was a completely different answer to a question that I didn’t know I had asked, which was, “Are you affected by witchcraft? Are you being bewitched?” I got right into a subject that I didn’t want to discuss at all, which is at the core of music…or much of what we call their music. Because it’s healing, it’s dealing with witchcraft, it’s dealing with strong forces of disharmony that have to be controlled somehow. And, yet when I see a book about Navajo witchcraft and sorcery and things like that, it upsets me because we have such different attitudes towards those things. Those words themselves are pejorative and condescending.

And so I just got more and more aware of how little I knew, and how much I did not want to be discussing things like that in our forums. So there’s where I began to, as some anthropologists would say, I opted out of my profession. And I wasn’t doing my duty (laughs). I was a traitor to my training. So you could say I got Navajo-ized, which I think I did up to a point, to the extent what I learned was valuable. But as I say, I resigned from the American Anthropological Association and published very cautiously, and kept out of some areas altogether.

So I guess maybe I found that I couldn’t be a scholar of this material. I could be an admirer, and I could, well for instance I made kind of a career of the work of Carlos Nakai, the flute player. Because that was a kind of Navajo music that didn’t have all this in it, and yet it was Navajo music. And at first I just thought it was ridiculous, and then I began to see how it was Navajo music. And so that was one of my secondary careers. And I didn’t see that I had any need to see all and tell all. That comes up every now and then among anthropologists; how much do you tell of what they’ve trusted you with?

MA: As someone who’s just received tenure and who’s enjoying very much for the first time the latitude to choose my next project, when and how I desire to do so, as you speak I’m thinking of the young scholars in the field who are of course driven by the need to publish for professional survival.


MA: What does one say to them in the light of how…you gained a certain reticence? I wonder what words you have for the young people in the Society.

(laughs) Pick your area. I remember once I was on a panel on field work; and Bill Malm was one of the people. And Bill was listening to me and some other people who worked in cultures where there’s great sensitivity about exposing their music and religion to the general world. And he said, “I work in radio studios!” (laughs) He said “If I had to go and work with shamans, where there’s all this secrecy, and danger, real danger, danger that you can…” [end of tape].

Matthew Harp Allen

Wheaton College


McAllester, David P.

1949           Peyote music. New York: Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology, no. 13.

Merriam, Alan P.

1967             Ethnomusicology of the Flathead Indians. Chicago: Aldine Press..

Pescatello, Ann

1992              Charles Seeger: A life in American music. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.