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Country Music in Native America

I am currently reading Putting a Song on Top of It: Expression and Identity on the San Carlos Apache Reservation (Arizona, 2004) by David Samuels, and thoroughly enjoying it. It is terrific ethnography … part linguistic anthropology and part ethnomusicology … describing the role of popular music and bands (mainly old country music) for Apache people on the San Carlos Reservation. It is revealing of contemporary life in ways that are truly meaningful to Apaches themselves and in this it is mindful of issues surrounding Apache identity and the authenticity of culture. Do ‘real’ Apaches really prefer the music of Merle Haggard and George Jones?

The people I work with in northern British Columbia also love old country and bluegrass. Along with George Jones and Merle Haggard, I learned all the hits by singers like Waylon Jennings, Jimmie Rogers, Johnny Cash, and Jimmy Martin. Many of them are also in bands which play these songs. I quickly grew to love the music — it was completely new to this city boy — and I associate it intimately with my friends in the north and my fieldwork.

But, until reading Samuels, I have never had any real way of thinking carefully about why this music is important and enduring in these communities. Samuels is helping a lot, but I am curious to know if any of you have similar experiences or could point me towards additional readings. I am aware of Real Country: Music and Language in Working-Class Culture (Aaron A. Fox, Duke Press, 2004), but that’s it. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

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11 Comments

  1. Rex wrote:

    Perhaps Alex Dent?
    http://home.uchicago.edu/~asdent/

    He claims to be “integrating the analysis of cultural texts with the analysis of society” but iirc pretty much he studies country music. Just in Brazil is all.

    Saturday, May 21, 2005 at 6:52 pm | Permalink
  2. Administrator wrote:

    I’ll check it out … thank you.

    Saturday, May 21, 2005 at 7:38 pm | Permalink
  3. Nancy wrote:

    Several Cree youth in James Bay, where I did my M.A. fieldwork, were also very much into country/Western music. On my first weekend there, I remember getting into a bootlegger’s van and they were listening to it very loudly, to my surprise. Of course, many of them listened to 80s rock and metal as well (this was in 1998), to which I could relate to a larger extent. What is interesting is that, although I would have previously seen these things as elements of Western culture that they had adopted because of diffusion, I came to realise that, to them, this music was as much a part of their culture as it was a part of mine. Interesting stuff, for sure; I hadn’t realised that a love of country music was a fairly widespread phenomenon among Native communities. By the way, the Cree are also very much into square dancing.

    Tuesday, May 24, 2005 at 10:30 pm | Permalink
  4. Administrator wrote:

    Thank you for the response, Nancy. You experience sounds very similar to mine, where everyone loved country and bluegrass, but young people also loved AC/DC and Metalica as much. Several teenagers had a heavy-metal band and played electric guitars but just as likely they would be seen at dances playing acoustic instruments and singing CCR or Johnny Cash. I agree with your statement (as would David Samuels, I think) that this music is theirs and they make it their own in interesting ways.

    (No square dancing in northwestern BC as far as I can see.)

    Wednesday, May 25, 2005 at 6:04 am | Permalink
  5. Nancy wrote:

    AC/DC! Wow, one of the ways that I managed to become friends with Cree youths (I was 25 at the time) was shared interest in rock music, namely AC/DC. In one of the ethnographic chapters of my thesis, I discuss how a guy who would barely look at me became hyper-enthusiastic and friendly when he found out that we had been to the same AC/DC show.

    Wednesday, May 25, 2005 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  6. Administrator wrote:

    I love it! That’s a great story … your dissertation sounds really interesting.

    Wednesday, May 25, 2005 at 4:36 pm | Permalink
  7. Aaron Fox wrote:

    Thanks for the plug for my book. Alex Dent’s work is indeed interesting on the subject. I have many references and contacts for those of you interested in country as indigenous music. There’s a lot of new work out there on the subject. Shoot me an email and I’ll be happy to share. Meanwhile, Dave Samuels’ book is indeed an amazing piece of work.

    Thursday, May 26, 2005 at 9:01 am | Permalink
  8. Crystal wrote:

    Hello! I’m a cree and ojibwe from winnipeg, manitoba. Im also currently researching the phenonmenom of native people’s love for country music, for a documentary. I will be checking out the Dave Samuels and Aaron A. Fox…thanks for the tips. Anyone else know of any other sources I could look at?

    If anyone is curious about manitoba….its a hotbed of numerous emerging and established aboriginal country artists. NCI fm, native communications incorporated is manitoba’s #1 country station, and airs all over manitoba. There is an NCI Jam every fall, where contestants sing covers of mostly country songs or perform their own written songs. In Winnipeg there are a few country bars with mostly aboriginal clientele, and aboriginal bands playing country and rock.

    Tuesday, February 13, 2007 at 5:11 pm | Permalink
  9. Crystal wrote:

    if you can direct me to any other published sources I would greatly appreciate it.

    Tuesday, February 13, 2007 at 5:14 pm | Permalink
  10. David Samuels is the place to start. Check his bibliography. As for Canada, you might check Robin Ridington’s new book When You Sing It Now, Just Like New.

    Wednesday, February 14, 2007 at 12:35 pm | Permalink
  11. waylon wrote:

    Hey ya all well country is not country anymore…..I still sing hank songs where ever I go and most ppl consider that country and so do I without a doubt. For native ppl, its crazy in manitoba but hard to find a good band that will play that stuff….that music is dying and I hope to be around for a long time..check out youtube.com and search “such lonely nights and days”…thats me!!!

    Monday, October 29, 2007 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

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