THE HISTORY OF THE LOVE FLUTE
By David Osborn
Introduction: The Complexity of Our Subject
When attempting to study the history of the Native American Flute, one is immediately struck by the sheer complexity of the subject. Not only is Native American culture and tradition extremely diverse and complex, but, prior to the introduction of European ideas of civilization, the Native Americans primarily had an oral culture, with systems of writing and documentation being either very primitive or non-existent. In addition, with the intense interaction of Native and Anglo or Eurocentric cultures, this cultural and musical landscape was constantly shifting and changing, and all too often to the detriment of Native cultures and traditions, which had to face the challenges of oppression, degradation and assimilation by the white man. By the time that the modern disciplines of anthropology and ethnography got into full swing in the mid-nineteenth century and beyond, this process of degradation and assimilation of Native culture and music was already well advanced. And so, the ethnographer is constantly wondering how true and representative his or her samplings are, and there remain nagging “rabbit hole questions” that may never have a satisfactory answer, as Clint Goss, author of the scholarly website Flutopedia.com puts it in his page entitled, “The Development of Flutes in North America”. Archeological artifacts of old flutes probably constitute our most solid evidence, with a lot of interpretation and conjecture to fill in the blanks.
Aside from the process of oppression, subjugation and degradation of Native American culture and traditions by the conquering dominant culture, a process of assimilation and syncretism was also going on. In other words, musical elements and forms of the conquering European culture were being assimilated by the Native American tribes, and were modified and adapted to blend in with pre-existing forms. Perhaps the most obvious and striking resemblance that the Native American Love Flute has to a European musical instrument is to the Block Flute, or Recorder. But the Native Americans didn’t adopt the Recorder as is, but modified it to make it distinctly Native American in character by combining it with indigenous, pre-existing flute forms to create a new instrument. Others speculate that organ pipes from the churches of the white man served as the first prototypes for the Native American Flute, but with the Recorder, the similarities are much clearer and more complete. This syncretistic process of adaptation, modification and hybridization didn’t occur all at once, but in stages, and is still ongoing and evolving. For example, the early flutes we have from the plains Indian cultures of the nineteenth century were not so precise in their dimensions and specifications, nor in the scales and tuning of their “stops”, or finger holes, but since then, a general refinement process has occurred as European notions of tuning and music theory were overlaid onto the Love Flute.
The Position and Significance of the Flute in Native American Culture
When one looks at the vertically blown Native American Flute, or any flute, for that matter, one is immediately struck by its phallic form and appearance. And so, the flute has popularly been associated with male virility and fertility – a tendency that appears in the Old World as well as the new. This is apparent from the origin myth for the Love Flute, which was related in the introductory page on the Love Flute, which finds expression in its traditional use as an instrument of courtship. The totem animals most commonly associated with the Love Flute are the Elk, which has the magic, or medicine, of masculine grace, charm and virility; the Woodpecker, which industriously bores out the holes and hollows out the interior; and the Eagle, as well as the Hawk, which soar freely on the wind and sing out their loud, screeching cries far and wide. The flute is a magical, mystical instrument for the Native American, and a great way to connect with Spirit, and with Nature.
Ancient Antecedents: A Multiplicity of Flute Forms and Materials
Wherever we go around the world, we find that flutes, as well as drums and other percussion instruments are of extreme antiquity, and are our oldest musical instruments. And the Americas were no exception to this rule. Archeologists have encountered primitive whistles and proto-flutes made of materials like clay and condor bones that date back to five to seven thousand years before the Common Era. These flutes, or their medieval descendants, were then encountered by the first European conquerors and settlers amongst the Inca, the Maya, the Aztecs and other tribes of Central and South America. Naturally, they used the terms and forms of European flute forms that they were familiar with to describe these indigenous flute forms. Amongst these terms, and the flute forms they encountered, were the following:
Flageolet: A medieval European vertical duct flute quite similar to the Recorder, but commonly having a wider bore diameter. This flute form would probably come closest to a general description of the Native American Flute that we have today.
Ocarina: A globular flute having multiple finger holes, usually made out of clay. Whereas most flutes are relatively long and thin, being in a pipe format, an Ocarina is round and fat, with the enclosed vibrating body of air being in globular, not tubular, form.
Panpipes: An assortment or rafting together of different pipes of graduated lengths and pitches to form a musical scale, with no finger holes. To play different notes, the player moves from pipe to pipe, blowing over their open rims. Although the European panpipes were typically closed at their bottom ends, New World panpipes could be, and in many cases, still are, also open at their bottom ends.
Rim-Blown Flutes: One of the simplest of flute forms, the Rim-Blown Flute consists merely of a hollow tube or pipe into which finger holes have been drilled. The sound is produced by blowing directly over the rim of the pipe; this can be done either vertically, as in the ancient Anasazi Flute, or laterally / transversely, as in the Middle Eastern Ney.
Whistles: A whistle is actually a very simple proto-flute, which consists mainly of the sound producing mechanism, which is virtually the same as in the Love Flute, and little else. The Love Flute is essentially a whistle, to which a tube with finger holes to produce the different notes has been added.
Of all the regions of the Americas, it seems like the Andes Mountains of South America has preserved and maintained the richest diversity of these original flute forms. For the development and evolution of the Native American Flute, the most pertinent and relevant of the above flute forms are the Flageolet, Rim-Blown Flutes, and Whistles.
The Recorder, the Flageolet and the Love Flute
To the ordinary observer, the Native American Love Flute bears the most resemblance to the European Recorder; to those with a bit more musicological knowledge, however, the Love Flute bears the most resemblance to a Flageolet, which was a medieval European vertically blown flute that was very similar to the Recorder, but with a wider bore, like the Love Flute. Although there is no solid evidence to back up the theory that the European Recorder, or Flageolet, was “Indianized” to morph into the Love Flute, this theory does indeed seem quite reasonable and probable. Just think – early Anglo and European settlers and explorers brought their Recorders and Flageolets with them into the wilderness, which then provided the inspiration for the Native American Love Flute, which was an adaptation of these European flutes to fit the overall nature and spirit of Native American spirituality and culture.
Even for Europeans, the Recorder had a number of undesirable traits or drawbacks. First, and most importantly, its overall tone and dynamics fell short – thin, reedy and totally lacking in power and sound output. These defects could be easily remedied by giving the flute a much wider bore diameter in relation to its length, and by making the bore cylindrical, for a much wider and more open tone, that was not so thin and veiled. The totem, fetish or bird could be seen as a distinctly Native American cultural adaptation, since totem animals and a closeness to Nature were so important to Native culture and spirituality. Another distinctly Native American modification or adaptation would be the Slow Air Chamber, or vestibule / antechamber of air that preceded the Flue, the True Sound Window, and the rest of the sound production mechanism. Some players of the Love Flute maintain that this antechamber makes possible all kinds of special breath effects that just aren’t possible on an ordinary Recorder.
So, whether or not the European Recorder or Flageolet really did morph into the Love Flute, it helps to keep in mind the basic morphological similarities between these flutes, which vastly outweigh their differences. All three instruments are vertically blown block flutes or whistle flutes. And in spite of their numerous similarities, however, the distinctive sound and character of the Native American Love Flute can be attributed to the distinctive differences in design and acoustical proportions that distinguish the Love Flute from its European counterparts.
The Evolution and Development of the Love Flute
Although it may seem quite obvious to the European that the Native Americans, in creating the Love Flute, must have been influenced heavily by the Recorder, the exact evidence and documentation of exactly how this may have happened is lacking, and must therefore remain merely a matter of speculation and conjecture. It is nevertheless quite possible that early European settlers and colonists may have brought Recorders over with them from Europe, which were then emulated by the Native Americans in creating the Love Flute. However, evidence seems to be much more solid that indigenous flute forms definitely had their part to play in contributing to the eventual development of the Love Flute. If one wants to reduce this chain of evolution or development of the Love Flute down to its bare essentials, the process seems to be one of starting with Rim-Blown Flutes, which are notoriously difficult to play, and then introducing subsequent developments and modifications that made it easier to play. And the most natural indigenous material to facilitate this process would have been River Cane, or the bamboo species Arundinaria gigantea.
There is an old photograph taken in a studio in San Francisco, California, sometime between 1870 and 1912 by Isaiah West Taber entitled simply, “Yuma Musician, Arizona”. It shows a young Indian man playing a transverse Rim-Blown Flute made out of River Cane. It is now in the Library of Congress. River Cane was also used by the Papago Indians of southern Arizona to create the next evolutionary step towards the Love Flute; a Papago Indian playing it was photographed in 1919. Utilizing a node in the cane as a natural partition, and carving a narrow indentation or channel for the player’s breath to flow through, the Papago Indian is pictured with the fingers of one hand covering the top of this duct or channel to direct the air over a blowing edge, with the fingers of his other hand fingering three different finger holes to produce different notes. From there, it was just a short step to tie a flat piece of wood or cane over the flue or duct in order to free up the player’s other hand for fingering even more notes. This is how the Totem, Fetish or Bird originated. And the rest, as they say, is history.
There are a number of different nineteenth century paintings of Indians with their flutes, as well as a number of actual flute specimens from that period, which show the Love Flute pretty much in its final form, albeit in a cruder and less refined state than today’s beautiful instruments. The earliest graphic depiction of an Indian man with a flute dates to 1795 – 1796, and is a simple line drawing entitled, “The Man Who Owns the Flute Was Killed by the Cheyennes”. The oldest available specimen of the Love Flute is the Beltrami Flute, which was acquired by the Italian explorer Giacomo Constantino Beltrami while on a journey through present day Minnesota in the year 1823. It is made of wood. Other old flute specimens include the Hutter Winnebago Flute (1825 – 1826); the George Catlin Pawnee Flute (1830); and the Von Roenne Flute (1839) which now sits in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, Germany. I have even listened to video recordings of old heirloom instruments being played on YouTube.
The Love Flute: A Living, Growing Tradition
The Native American Flute, or Love Flute, is not merely a relic of the past, or of a bygone era; it is also a living musical tradition that continues to grow and evolve. Neither is it the exclusive cultural property of the red man anymore, as making and playing the instrument, and enjoying its music, is now open to those of all races, nationalities and ethnicities. The fact that the Love Flute is not something static, but is constantly growing and changing, is most evident when one starts to poke around in the antique shops of Albuquerque, where I live, to find the occasional antique flute that may be there on the shelves. Even a casual glance at them will reveal a number of notable differences between their simple, homespun craftsmanship and the finest flutes of today. And in addition to differences in the craftsmanship and construction of these old flutes with the flutes of today, one also finds superior musicality and performance in the flutes made by today’s top makers. The flute makers of today are constantly innovating and improving their art.
In the old days, they say, a flute was not such a precision thing as it is today. The measurements and specifications for the old frontier flutes were often taken from various parts of the maker’s body – its length was the distance from fingertip to armpit, for example, and the distance between the finger holes was often the distance between the two middle knuckles of his index finger. Now, European technical standards have been imposed on it, both in the specifications of its construction as well as its tuning and intonation in a kind of refining or civilizing process. These are, after all, the prevailing standards and norms of the dominant culture, which even Native American musicians are adhering to these days. Instead of locally available materials like Pine, Cedar and River Cane, Native American Style Flutes are now being made from exotic, imported hardwoods and materials from all over the globe. And innovations and improvements in its craftsmanship and construction continue to be made. Legally speaking, only registered members of an Indian tribe are entitled to call their instruments Native American Flutes – all others must call them Native American Style Flutes – but the fact remains that anyone, Indian or otherwise, is free to make innovations and improvements as he or she sees fit.
A Renaissance and a Transformation for the Love Flute
The middle to late years of the twentieth century saw a great explosion of interest in the Native American Flute – so much so, that it has come to be called a Renaissance. But this was not merely a simple renaissance; it also saw a transformation of the Native American Flute from the relatively simple and homespun instrument of the Native Americans into an instrument that was not only more sophisticated and refined in the craftsmanship and technology of its construction, but also more diverse and eclectic culturally. Definitely, a process of cross-cultural assimilation and syncretism was going on, as this beautiful flute form grew and evolved, and opened itself up to the world. Legally, only registered members of a Native American tribe are allowed to call the flutes they make Native American Flutes, and all others must call their flutes Native American Style Flutes. But culturally, even Native American tribal flute makers themselves have assimilated these cross-cultural influences, and have incorporated them into their craft.
The Groundwork is Laid for the Love Flute Renaissance
The renaissance and transformation of a musical instrument like the Love Flute does not happen in a vacuum, but rather against a backdrop of larger movements and currents that are occurring within the larger framework of society and culture. Let us now turn our attention to the particular social, cultural and technological developments that supported the renaissance and transformation of the Love Flute.
The later years of the nineteenth century saw the development of the modern sciences of anthropology, ethnography and ethnomusicology, or the study of world music. One of the first ethnomusicologists who was active in fieldwork with the Native Americans was Frances Densmore. This ethnomusicological fieldwork was greatly aided by the advent of modern technology, namely the invention of the early phonograph by Thomas Alva Edison, which utilized fragile wax cylinders. In March of 1890, the first piece of Native American music was recorded by Jesse Walter Fewkes – the piece was the Passamaquoddy Snake Song. There are about 20,000 original Native American fieldwork recordings on these fragile wax cylinders in museums around the world.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a great resurgence of nationalist themes and tendencies in classical music, as composers around the world sought to incorporate the indigenous folk melodies and themes of their native lands into their music. Perhaps the best known of these nationalist composers was Bela Bartok. In the United States, this resurgence of nationalism in classical music saw fruition in the Indianist Movement, in the compositions of Charles Wakefield Cadman, Arthur Farwell, Charles Sanford Skilton, Arthur Nevin, and others. As an ironic counterpoint to this patronage of Native American culture in classical music, assimilation and oppression were the guiding themes in US government policy towards the Native Americans with the infamous motto, “kill the Indian, but save the man”. Native American children were herded off into boarding schools; Native American religious practices, such as the Sundance, were systematically banned and outlawed. Interestingly enough, this official suppression led to an underground, grass roots effort on the part of the tribal members themselves to preserve the very aspects of their culture and heritage that were threatened. According to R. Carlos Nakai:
When our Amerind world “turned upside down” with the dissolution and dislocation of tribal communities by colonial expansionism, many songs, stories and family histories contained within the lyrical message of traditional music – and many forms of material culture as well – were cast aside or forgotten in the struggle for survival.
Still, throughout the reservation period, certain individuals and families from tribal communities all over North America encouraged an underground railroad of the mythic and sacred ceremonies and chants of the First / Original People, enabling remnants of the Old Culture to be passed on to each succeeding generation of Indigenes.
- from the liner notes of (Nevaquaya 2004)
During this period, euphemistically named the “Progressive Era” in US government policy towards the Native Americans, the Native American Flute almost disappeared. In the face of systematic attempts to eradicate Native music and other expressions of indigenous Native culture, it was up to the performers themselves to create their own opportunities to resist and manipulate these repressive official government policies. During the 1940’s, however, these repressive assimilation policies softened, allowing Native flute traditions to make a resurgence. Players and makers of the Native American Flute played a supporting role in this overall rebirth of Native American music and culture. Subsequent decades saw an even more liberal spirit trending through society, with various cultural movements and phenomena aiding and supporting a rebirth of interest in the Love Flute. These included the hippie counterculture, which was very admiring of the Native Americans, as well as the New Age movement, which warmly embraced the meditative, haunting melodies of the Native American Flute.
Advances in commerce and technology also played their role as well. The invention and popularization of machine tools like the drill press, the belt sander, the lathe and the router made the production and crafting of the Love Flute more reliable and efficient, which then enabled many Native Flute craftsmen to turn to making flutes as a livelihood. The advent of digital and MIDI recording technology enabled virtually anyone to transform their garage or den into a recording studio, which greatly aided the dissemination and popularization of Native Flute music in a wide variety of styles and genres by enterprising musicians. Advances in world trade and commerce enabled flutes to be made from increasingly rare and exotic varieties of wood from around the globe, which also opened up the Love Flute to new musical and tonal possibilities of expression.
Love Flute Pioneers and the Ongoing Evolution of the Native American Style Flute
One of the first pioneers of the Love Flute was the Kiowa Indian Belo Cozad (1854 – 1950), who exerted a tremendous influence on Native American music through his 1941 recordings for the Library of Congress. He concluded this series of recordings with his “Kiowa Story of the Flute”, in which he plays a song that he says was passed on to him from an ancestor who learned it from a spirit. As one of the first great pioneers of the Native American Flute, Belo Cozad influenced musicians of many generations, from the American composer Aaron Copeland to the San Francisco psychedelic rock group Jefferson Airplane.
A rare interview with Doc Payne on the history of the Love Flute, with beautiful historical images.
Belo Cozad was followed by an Oklahoma City-based physician, Richard W. Payne, MD, lovingly known within the Native American Flute community as Doc Payne; he also has received a Native American name, “Toubat”. When Doc Payne began traveling to South and Central American countries with the armed forces to study the progression of disease, he became enchanted with the sounds of local flutes; from there, it was only natural that, upon his return, he turned his attention to the Native American Flute. Belo Cozad is said to have given Doc Payne his first Love Flute, which then became the first flute in what grew into the largest private collection of indigenous flutes in the world. Doc Payne also began to study the history of the Native American Flute directly from original sources, such as the Kiowa elder and flute maker Abel Big Bow and the Lakota maker Richard Foolbull. It was the former who gave Doc Payne his Native American name, which means “wind instrument”. Doc Payne also began making flutes, and he is even credited with saving the Native American Flute from extinction by returning flutes from his collection to Native Americans.
“Doc” Tate Nevaquaya was a Comanche painter who was introduced to the Love Flute in 1967 via a meeting with Doc Payne. The two soon settled on a trade: Doc Tate would give Doc Payne one of his paintings in exchange for one of his flutes. This encounter and artistic exchange led eventually to Doc Tate making a recording entitled Comanche Flute Music (Nevaquaya 1979). This recording has not only the flute music itself, but also spoken material explaining the meaning of the songs, and also giving other background information on what Doc Tate called The Plains Indian Courting Flute. Many subsequent recording artists, including R. Carlos Nakai, point to Doc Tate as their initial inspiration to take up the flute.
Another early flute aficionado was Dr. Oliver W. Jones, or O. W. Jones, as he is commonly known in the Native American Flute community. He fell in love with the Love Flute, and began a long path of learning how to make the instrument. O. W. Jones started with the early writings and recordings of Frances Desnmore and studied the flutes in the collections in famous museums, especially the Dayton C. Miller collection at the Smithsonian, and received advice and feedback on the flutes he made from Comanche flute makers like George “Woogie” Watchetaker and Doc Tate. In fact, a flute that Jones traded in Santa Fe was one of the first to wind up in the hands of R. Carlos Nakai.
If one listens carefully to the old recordings of Native American flute music, one will notice that there is no uniformity or standard of tuning in the instruments being played; although pentatonic scales predominate, the old flutes were tuned to different pentatonic scales. The man who changed all that, and introduced new tuning standards for the instrument, was Michael Graham Allen, who went by the name of Coyote Oldman as a flute maker. He developed a friendship with Doc Payne, and learned the basics of flute crafting from him. Michael was an experienced player of the Japanese end-blown flute, the Shakuhachi, a flute which I have also studied, made and played, and from his previous Shakuhachi connections tuned all his flutes to the same Minor Pentatonic scale that the Shakuhachi used. Michael’s flutes were very influential on other subsequent flute makers, who all adopted his style and standards of tuning for the Love Flute.
Lew Paxton Price published a series of books that instruct the reader on the craft of making Native American Style Flutes on a very detailed and technical level; his books were released in 1990. Perhaps the best known recording artist of the Native American Flute Renaissance is R. Carlos Nakai, whose first album appeared in 1983. Nakai originally trained as a cornetist or trumpet player, until an automobile accident left him unable to form the embouchure for playing the trumpet; he was then given a Native American Flute and given a challenge to master it, which he accepted. R. Carlos Nakai has released some 50 albums, and has received four Grammy awards. Nakai has also written a book on playing the Native American Flute, which was published in 1996. Nakai, a classically trained musician, is also credited with developing NAFTAB, or Native American Flute Tablature. Several other Native flutists have followed in the wake of Nakai’s original commercial success – artists like Mary Youngblood, Randy Grainger, Scott August, Rona Yellow Robe and many others.
Conclusion and Acknowledgements
For all the information and documentation for this article, I am greatly indebted to the website www.flutopedia.com , and refer others who are seeking further historical information on the Native American Love Flute to this site. The link to the page I used is as follows below: