Essays on Native American Indian Music

A Brief Introduction to Plains Indian Singing

by Tony Isaacs, 1990.

Upon one's first visit to a Plains Indian powwow, all the songs by the different singing groups may "sound the same." While it's true that the compositional form of the songs is the same, and the singing styles of many groups are similar, the songs themselves are quite different. This introduction is designed to help the new listener get into the music, to better understand what the singers and dancers are doing, and enjoy the powwow that much more.

First, the most popular form of Plains powwow singing and dancing today is the war dance or grass dance. This form of song and its associated dance originated from a ceremonial men's warrior society in the Central Plains many years ago. Originally called Helushka or Hethoshka from the name of the society, this form of song and dance spread to other tribes throughout the Northern and Southern Plains over the past century, and more recently into the Southwest. Today it is most often described in English as war dance or grass dance.

Indian songs are not written, but are composed and learned orally from singer to singer, and in recent years from tape to singer. All war dance songs have a very definite compositional form which is recognized and accepted by all Plains singers and dancers, regardless of tribe. It is within this traditional framework that talented composers make new songs, sometimes creatively doing the unexpected for artistic surprise. Though usually not written, the traditional form of a typical war dance or grass dance song is shown here:

  Lead phrase by song leader starting the song,
Lead phrase repeated by a "second" or entire group,
2nd phrase in development of song,
3rd phrase in development of song,
4th phrase in development of song + he-e ye-e yoi
  2nd phrase in development of song,
3rd phrase in development of song,
4th phrase in development of song + he-e ye-e yo
    Lead phrase started
here by lead singer
to start song again.
Tail: 2nd phrase in development of song,
3rd phrase in development of song,
4th phrase in development of song + he-e ye-e yo
    Lead phrase (optional)  


Many Plains songs are composed entirely of vocables such as yo-he-yo, we-yo he-ye, etc. which have no linguistic meaning, but are composed into the song — they are not improvised. Within this "musical language" of vocables, a truly amazing number of songs and variety of musical expression has been and is still being created. There are literally hundreds of songs composed entirely of vocables, each with its own musical statement. Songs can express sadness, happiness, remembrance of long ago, pride in tradition – all kinds of feelings are expressed entirely with vocables.

This widespread use of vocable composition in Plains singing has enabled songs to be passed from one tribe to another throughout the Plains for hundreds of years, regardless of language. Today it is not uncommon for singers of different tribes and languages to sing together at the same drum, and for singers of one tribe to quickly learn songs from another.

Most Plains songs do not have formal names or titles. The song's identity, the nucleus of its melody, is usually contained in the lead phrase sung by the person starting the song. When the rest of the group hears the lead phrase, they recognize which song is being started, and then "second" the lead by repeating the phrase. This demonstrates support for the leader, and shows that they know the song, and are ready to sing it. Most lead phrases in Plains songs start high, an octave or so above the tonic or bottom tone, and the song gradually descends through the second, third, and fourth phrases to the bottom tone (tonic) which ends with the traditional he-e ye-e yoi in the middle of the song. The second half of the song is a repeat of the second, third, and fourth phrases, ending with he-e ye-e yo at the end. This five beat he-e ye-e yo is a "formula" ending phrase for the war dance and grass dance song form, and is recognized by all dancers young and old.

The observer at a powwow will soon notice that most of the dancers are careful to stop on the last beat of the song. In order to do this, they are listening to the song, and for the ending phrase. In dance contests, stopping on the last beat is essential, or the dancer can be disqualified. Songs are usually repeated from four to six or eight times through, but the number of repeats is not announced to the dancers. Instead, the lead singer will take up the lead phrase just a few beats before the group would have come to the end of the song. When the dancers hear the lead singer come in, they know the song will continue at least another time through. If they don't hear the lead singer come in, then they assume the song will end. Occasionally some lead singers will try to trick the dancers by waiting until the very last beat to take up the song, and many dancers will be tricked into stopping when the song continues.

There are some songs which are composed with "short endings," such as a three beat he-ye-yo. They do not follow the expected pattern, and are known as "trick" songs for this reason. Lead singers will intentionally come in a little earlier than usual on these songs in order to conceal the ending phrase from the dancers. Other songs are composed with breaks right in the middle of the song where it is not expected at all. Dancers must continually learn the new songs which have these breaks, and remember them in order to dance to them properly.

Traditionally, especially in Southern Plains singing, war dance songs are sung several times through, and then ended. After a slight pause, the second half of the song is sung once more, and ended again. This is called the "tail" of the song. About 1970 it became fashionable on the Northern Plains to start the song again "off the tail." This has now become a widespread practice in powwow singing, although it is rarely done in the older-style war dance singing.

Sometimes words are put into a song for a specific purpose such as an honor song, a memorial song, or a song commemorating a particular event. Since these songs are in the specific language of the composer, they are more difficult to learn by singers of another language who must learn to properly pronounce the words in the song. Word songs are often sung at powwow events to honor the flag, veterans, tribal leaders, elders, and for the old-style "traditional" dancers.

Experienced singers have hundreds of songs stored in their minds to draw from as the occasion requires. One of the merits of a good lead singer is the ability to quickly come up with the right song at the right time.

Drumming technique for Plains war dance and grass dance might sound deceptively simple to the novice listener. Actually it is a very difficult rhythmic style to master. In good Plains singing, the drum beat precedes the vocal beat of the song by a slight margin. Different tribes have different styles of drumming to a song – that is, a slightly different way the drum beat relates to the vocal beat of the song. Thus a group might be described as having a good grass dance beat, or a good war dance beat. When the drumming is not right, even the best song is difficult to dance to, but when the drumming is good, the song just floats, and the dancers can dance to it easily.

What is especially remarkable is the way a good singing group will vary the lead of the drum beat against the vocal beat during the song, thus varying the amount of rhythmic tension of drum against voice at different parts of the song. Since there are usually six to ten or more singers in a group, each with a drumstick on the same drum, all the singers must "lean together" when varying this rhythmic tension. This kind of "feel" is best learned by singing with experienced singers for some time.

Since there are two beats, drum and vocal, going on at the same time, it might well be asked which beat the dancers follow. In a way, both of them. Traditionally, the dancer moves to the beat of the song, the vocal beat, but is also supported and strengthened by the beat of the drum. Occasionally, to challenge the dancers' ability to dance to the song alone, the singing group will stop drumming while continuing to sing, letting the dancers move entirely to the rhythm of the song. From a traditional point of view, there is really only one beat — the song and the drum together.

When the singing starts, people's hearts and spirits are lifted, and they begin to feel good. We hope that you enjoy the powwow and the singing — it all goes together.

  Tony Isaacs
Taos, New Mexico
May, 1990


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