Encyclopedia of Appalachia
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Cherokee Music

Cherokee music, like other Cherokee art forms, was and continues to be an integral part of special ceremonies as well as of daily life. In the past, Cherokee melodic instruments included panpipes, flutes, and whistles, while percussion instruments were either drums or rattles. Both men and women sang, often for the purpose of leading dancing. Over the past three centuries, Cherokee music not only adopted European American and African American traditions (fiddling, shape-note hymn singing, banjo playing, and string-band music), but influenced these traditions in return.

Archaeological sites have yielded various Cherokee melodic instruments, including panpipes estimated at one thousand years old. Flutes, made of river cane or the leg bones of deer, were played to accompany processions of chiefs, to greet visitors, and to encourage success in stickball games. Whistles, made from the leg bones of birds, were sometimes blown by warriors to produce their war call (often, a male wild turkey gobble).

Percussion instruments—drums and rattles—primarily accompanied dancing. Most commonly used by the Cherokee, as well as by neighboring tribes, was the water drum, which could be tuned and which was made from a section of hollowed log partially filled with water and covered by tightly drawn hide. Many rattles were made from gourds containing beans, corn kernels, or pebbles. These gourds were attached to wooden handles and decorated with feathers or rattlesnake rattles. Other rattles were made from turtle shells. Such rattles, after being attached to leather strips, were worn by women during dances. Tied just below the knee, the rattles created a rhythmic accompaniment to keep time with the drumming and singing as the women danced.

Cherokee men sang to lead dances (the Bear Dance, the Eagle Dance, the Quail Dance, and the Horse Dance) in various traditional ceremonies. Their songs, often pentatonic and major keyed, frequently were made up of short sections comprised of phrases sung four or seven times, the sacred numbers of the Cherokee. During dances, songs might begin and end with a shout or a whoop. Some dance songs followed a call-and-response pattern, with one person leading the song and dance and the rest of the group answering in short musical phrases.

Other traditional uses of song included the singing of prayer formulas. In the late nineteenth century, ethnologist James Mooney documented medicine formulas sung by shamans in healing rituals. Songs documented by Mooney were also associated with the going-to-water and sweat lodge ceremonies.

In the eighteenth century, new instruments were incorporated into Cherokee music. At the height of the deerskin trade, Scottish and English traders introduced fiddle playing to the Cherokee. By the early nineteenth century, tribe members were learning Christian hymns from Moravian, Presbyterian, and Baptist missionaries. Following the introduction of Sequoyah’s syllabary in 1821, one of the first books printed in Cherokee language and orthography was a hymnbook. During the Trail of Tears in 1838–39, the Cherokee sang Christian hymns—"Amazing Grace" and "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah"—in their native language while incarcerated in the stockades and while being marched westward. Cherokee people still sing these songs to acknowledge the experiences of their ancestors during the Trail of Tears. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (the descendents of those who remained in the mountains of western North Carolina) kept alive traditions of instrumental fiddle music, of hymns in both the Cherokee and English languages, and of older, traditional Cherokee songs and dance music. In the early twentieth century, Cherokee fiddle playing (via such Cherokee fiddlers as Manco Sneed) influenced nearby white Appalachian fiddle traditions. Hymns in English and Cherokee, often from the shape-note tradition, are heard in the churches of the Cherokee, and those hymns are often performed by gospel quartets (a cappella or accompanied by guitar and bass). Walker Calhoun and others continue to preserve Cherokee songs and dances. Meanwhile, Cherokee carvers carry on the making of river-cane flutes and carved wooden flutes that are still played within the tribal community and in public performances.

Contemporary Cherokee musicians also play a variety of musics other than those of the Cherokee, including powwowstyle singing and drumming (a tradition incorporating music from several Plains tribes), as well as old-time music, bluegrass, country, blues, and rock ’n’ roll. See also: CALHOUN, WALKER; CHEROKEE (RACE, ETHNICITY, AND IDENTITY); CHEROKEE RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS (RELIGION).

—Barbara R. Duncan, Museum of the Cherokee Indian Charles M. Hudson, The Southeastern Indians (1976); James Mooney, History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee (1992); Frank G. Speck and Leonard Broom, with Will West Long, Cherokee Dance and Drama (1951).

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