Chronicle: Interview with a Seneca songman, Richard Johnny John (Part Three)

Richard Johnny John, with Jerome Rothenberg & Ian Tyson, Three Songs from Shakin
Richard Johnny John, with Jerome Rothenberg & Ian Tyson, Three Songs from Shaking the Pumpkin

[Continued from previous blogger & Jacket2 postings.  The Kinzua Dam construction referred to by Johnny John was a federal & state project that drove many of the Allegany Senecas from their traditional homes, to be “compensated” by new buildings but with losses still keenly felt when we lived there.  Widespread protests in the 1950s had failed to halt the dam’s construction. (J.R.)]


            Mostly these new songs that we make up are for entertainment – like those gatherings we have,  just to pass the time away, most of it. But there are a few, especially those that have got words in them, that are more serious.  Like ever since they've started this Kinzua Dam, I guess everybody has tried to make up songs about it and how it was going to affect the Indian and everything, wondering where we were going to go after the Kinzua Dam really got up to where it's supposed to be, up to where our old houses used to be, where the water's all covered over now. Well, my brother Art's got one song that's got quite a bit to say about that, and I've got one that's a little more, I wouldn't say more criticizing the white people as Art's is, but maybe I've got a little more meaning to it, I guess I would say.

            I don't know if I can remember just how that song did come to be. I guess one night, it was down at the longhouse at the Singing Society, we had the singing there at the longhouse one evening, and while we were singing at the middle of the council house there - we had the singers' benches out and quite a few of us sitting there and singing - pretty soon Harry Watt come up to me. I was sitting at the end of the bench, and he says could you make up a song  that would say something like what was going to happen after the Kinzua Dam was in, and have a word or two saying just let the Indians go back to heaven or something like that. It took me quite a while before I finally did come up with one, and it has something about the Kinzua Dam and about the Indians going back to heaven on account of the white people taking our land away from us and putting water there where we used to live. What I'm going to do is give you the idea of these two songs that's been made up between my brother and me, and show you the older, original song I used in making up mine. My brother made up the first song, and after Harry heard this one, I think that's where he got the idea that he wanted to have something with more meaning to it. Anyway, this is the way Art's song goes :


they're going to do us dirt
they're going to do us dirt
when they come & build a dam
at allegany
we won't know where to go
we won't know where to go
when they come & build a dam
at allegany

Now, the way I made up mine, I got it from an old melody. This Canadian got married to one of the girls on our reservation, and he used to sing this at our singing gatherings and practice sessions, and this is the way it goes:


now ain't that something!
say the singers of
all them pretty girls
not one was dancing
yahweyho yahweyho yahweyho
heyhono noheyo
of all them pretty girls
not one was dancing

 Well, afterwards Harry asked me to make up the Kinzua song, and here's the way I finally made it out:


now ain't that something!
say the singers the
dirt we're being done
by our white brothers
the way we see it is
let's all get up & go
back to the sky let's
get on back!

So, in this one I'd just say the original idea was from that Canadian song and that it took me quite a long while, maybe three, four weeks before I could really get it to where I wanted it. I started off with the first introductory part, the first few words there, then I couldn't put the rest of it together. I'd get just so far and then I'd get stuck. If I just started off and tried to sing it, it didn't sound right to me, so I had an awful time before I could get it straight: the melody change in the second part and the way I wanted to word it.

            In non-word songs you can get that quicker than you would the word songs. Like the word songs do have quite a lot of meaning into them : like that one there, it's just more or less to remind us what has happened to us.  My idea of it was to save the song as long as we can, and maybe in a few years some of the younger generation will learn it, and like everybody else they ask questions about the song. But the songs without words are just more or less for amusement, I guess. To make up non-word songs like that, just change one sound to another and combine and rearrange them some other different ways, and try to make a new song out of them.  There's no limit to the number of sounds that you use: you can use as many as you can. The whole idea of it is to try to combine and rearrange different sounds and see how many you can make up that way. There may be some odd sound that maybe you heard it by somebody saying something at one time or another, and you can try to get that certain sound into a song.

            Like you're just talking with somebody, and maybe he'd say some odd little thing like "hey yar" or something like that, and maybe say " I don't know," and then You say "No hey yoh see." That's how you change it. Maybe he's talking along, and maybe he'll say quite a few such words as that: then after you've talked with him, you sit around and think of what he has said and pretty soon you can almost get a song out of it. It's not every song that's made up that way, but mostly when you combine sounds and melody, you have to think what sounds should go into the melody you're trying to follow. You have to follow a pattern. You can almost make up the words as you go along just as it comes to your mind, I guess, and then try to pull them together and make a good song out of it.  Maybe sometimes it does come out all right and sounds pretty good, and sometimes it's just the opposite. You get the melody in and then you can't get the sounds together to make it sound right. You can say it gets kind of muddled up there for a while and then takes quite a while to get it straightened out.

            Some of the sounds that we use are more or less fixed. Like most of the woman's dance songs start out before the introductory part with "heya" and "yo-oh-ho" or something like that. (Some of the other dance songs, they just start out without having them sounds with it.) Then I think most of the songs, even the different dances, use a lot of the "0" in them: "ho," "yo" and "0" I guess are the most popular in all these different dance songs. I believe in all these different dances they hav'e got a lot of that in there. Like  going into the middle of the song, you use a lot of that.

            Like I say, you have to follow a pattern. There are even some sounds we have that you may say rhyme or repeat themselves. Like the sounds in the introductory part. You use the whole introductory, and then in the middle and end parts you rhyme it back or repeat it. A lot of woman's dance songs are made up that way. The oldtimers used to try to make it that way, but now there's so many different songs and sounds that you hear, we've kind of worked away from it a little bit, like us combining three, four different songs at once, so in that way you can't very well rhyme with the first part. Anyway, it's all according to how the song is started out. If you can get the beginning part, the introductory, from there you can go on to try to combine other sounds with it. Then you have to get the pitch of the song to it. I guess all composers have the same trouble as we do, even some of these great composers, the modern-day composers of English songs. Sometimes they have the words there, they have the lyrics there, and still they don't, they won't, they can't be satisfied with how it's going to sound like in the melody part. Maybe the sound is there and you want to use it, and still in your melody that you're trying to think of at the same time, it won't fit in. Or maybe the sound that you're thinking of is too long to go into the melody, and then sometimes maybe it's too short: then you have to add on a few other sounds to go with it and then fit that into the melody. Sometimes I come to see it that the sound and melody kind of contradict each other, and that sometimes gets real complicated that way; It's not, as you would say, that it makes a song better. It just takes a little more thinking to that: sometimes it turns out to be a big joke after a while.

            With these social dances at the longhouse, we're there just to have a lot of fun anyway, while with the sacred dances we're thinking more serious of what is going on. You think that these sacred songs will help the person, whoever is sponsoring them, whatever the doings are; and I guess, to my opinion, it has helped a lot of people - the sacred dances, that is. But even there, the attitude all depends on how the person sponsoring the doings is feeling. Like if the speaker tells us that the person who is sponsoring the doings is feeling all right, well, he notifies us right away that we can have a little fun.  That's why we get into all these comical acts that we put on when we're dancing these pumpkin songs, for instance, just to have the sponsor have a little fun with us. Sometimes that does happen: sometimes he clowns more than the rest of the group does, so that's a good indication that the song does help him quite a bit.

            All of this has been brought down from the time the Gaiwiio came on the earth. They had been dancing all these songs before, and now the Prophet of the Senecas had tried to stop it at that time; but later on this little girl got sick, and they tried to get the Prophet to tell her fortune. It took him a long time before he consented to tell the fortune of this little girl, and that's what he found: it was a song that was bothering this little girl! It was one of those society songs - you know, like the Dark Dance and the Quivering and Changing-a-Rib and the Death Chant - and, well, at that time the Four Beings had told him that people should cut out all the dance songs that were on this earth. But later on the Beings came back again, and they told him that if it couldn't be stopped, then it was to continue. Before the Gaiwiio came on earth, you know, they used to have hard drinks at all these doings; but after they had come back, they told him that if the dancing or the songs couldn't be stopped that one time, that they could have the berry juice, like what we use now in the Dark Dance ceremony. And they told him at that time that there was just going to be just that once, but after they did have this once for this little girl, everybody else started to get sick about something, so from then on, they started to do all these different songs and dances that they had before the Gaiwiyo came to earth. Nowadays, with most of the dances that we do, we think this is the way it should have been done years ago. but I know- we have lost quite a bit from what the oldtimers used to do and what they believed in. Today it's just, / guess, to keep it up as far as we can go with it.

            The sacred songs, like I've said before, are already in a set group : their letting has never changed. A long time ago people were traveling in the woods -there was a lot of traveling in the woods then - and they kind of heard these songs in a way. Like the Dark Dance there: this one night, this young lad was sleeping out: pretty soon he heard all these voices, and he didn't know where they were coming from . So he kind of crept around in the dark, and pretty soon he found a little group. There was a little group there, all in a cave, and it was awful dark, and they were singing these songs. That's why they call it the Dark Dance.

            Then later on, as the story goes, this other little boy was picked up and was taken way up on the high ledges of these mountains, and when these birds brought him up there (he didn't know what they were at the time), but when the birds took him up on this high cliff (they had a nest there), well, as they landed he seen these little birds kind of fluttering around, going through all different motions, and one of the young birds was kind of squawking away and making it into a song like. Well, the little boy stayed there maybe ten or twelve days with these birds, and he kept feeding them; and one night, one evening where you can still see late in the afternoon, the older birds got together and they were doing this Eagle Dance, and they were Singing these songs, and that's how he happened to learn the Eagle Dance songs. Up till today, the way they dance is the imitation of the Eagle going after a piece of meat on the ground: that's why you can see them go down something like a bird pecking at a piece of meat. And that's how the Eagle Dance come to be.

            But that way of getting songs and dances, I guess that's way past our stage. I guess we're too civilized nowadays, cause at that time, see, they practically lived right with the animals and out in the woods all the time.  They didn't have no automobiles or airplanes flying around or anything of that sort, and they were so close to nature, I guess that's how they probably got to get some of these songs together. A lot of stories, different stories, has been told of how these songs originated, and all of it starts with them coming from the different animals that were roaming the big forest at that time. And in the mountains and places like that, along the rivers, you can hear all these different kind of songs that was made up. Then as it came along, these persons that had heard these songs had started handing them down to the younger generation, up till today. Like me learning these songs: I learnt that from me going to all these different dances when I was a young lad, just a young kid at that time, just a little boy. Well, I started dancing the Eagle Dance when I was just about eight or nine years old. So now you can see how we carry our religion and traditions and all that. Most of us that had lived right along where the longhouse is, still believe in this religion, and we try to keep up the traditions as our older folks had done years before, and I think that's just the way it's been handed down all down through the years, from generation to generation, as far as I know of.