Seneca Songs From Coldspring Longhouse

Sung by Chauncey Johnny John and Albert Jones
Recorded and edited by William N. Fenton, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution with comment on the music by Martha Champion Huot, Columbia University
Folk Music of the United States Issued from the Collections of the Archives of American Folk Song L17
This selection from the song bag of the Senecas, recorded at Cold Spring, N. Y., on the Allegheny River and issued as a second album from the Iroquois Indians of the Northeast, presents the voices of two singers who are well known the length of the Iroquois Longhouse, from Syracuse, N.Y., to Brantford, Canada, for the roles that they perform in the ceremonies of the Handsome Lake Religion. This album, with the exception of one record (5-A), was collected on a single field trip in November 1945, for the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution on a grant-in-aid of research from the Viking Fund. We recorded at the Friends Indian School at Tunessassa (Quaker Bridge, N.Y. in 1941, at Clifford Crouse's home near Coldspring Longhouse in 1945, both places on the Allegany Reservation of the Seneca Nation.

What we have said of the people of the longhouse in the program notes to Songs from the Iroquois Longhouse (Smithsonian Institution, Publication 3691, 1942; Folk Music of the United States, vol. 6) holds a background for this album, which is localized to one community and somewhat more specialized in content. In particular, we are asking listeners to open their ears to hear out two rituals, as sung by two singers, almost in their entirety.

Of these, the Drum Dance, or Thanksgiving Dance, is one of the Four Sacred Rituals that is addressed to the Creator, and therefore belongs in the same class with the Great Feather Dance (album VI, record 1A).

Quavering-Changing-a-rib is a women's rite of curing, and its songs recount the courtship of a reluctant bachelor and a frog-woman, but the Seneca men love to sing these songs in the spring and early summer for their sheer musical qualities. It was Jesse Cornplanter and the Tonawanda Seneca singers who introduced me to it in 1934.

Bear Society Dance is also a curing rite, but of the shamanistic variety which accepts its member through dreams and also by possession. Its celebration is familiar as part of the Midwinter Festival, and Cringan (1898, p. 148) published a transcription of a Seneca Bear Dance song from Six Nations, Canada.

Fish Dance is the favorite Iroquois diversion and is offered as pure dessert. Indian young people still like to dance it as much as when Morgan first described it (L. H. Morgan, The League of the Hodenosaunee or Iroquois (1851) 2 vols., N.Y., 1901: 1, p. 273). Cringan (1898, p. 151) transcribed a Fish Dance song.

There is little to add to what I wrote (1942) about collecting songs among the Iroquois. I merely arrived at Allegany on the way home from Canada in the Recording Laboratory sound truck, picked up Chauncey Johnny John, stopped for Albert Jones, who had a good drum and rattles, and drove into Clifford Crouse's, where there is 60-cycle current, announcing that we had come to sing, and we went to work setting up the recorder on the dining-room table and the microphone in the living room. In two days we had made more than enough records for this album, including Fish Dance, which I had taken at the First Conference on Iroquois Research at Red House a month earlier, and Bear Dance, selected from the 1941 collection.

Chauncey Johnny John sang Great Feather Dance for album VI, and he received extended notice in the program notes. Albert Jones had recorded for me on wax cylinders in 1933, when he led the Coldspring Singers and Mutual Aid Society. As an official of the Snipe clan, his name "Ha'nodyenen's," is frequently announced for leading roles in the ceremonies in Coldspring Longhouse. He has a fine speaking and singing voice, he enunciates clearly, and he is an earnest preacher. But he prefers second parts to first, protesting, "I do not have the head for songs, and long speeches;" but leading singers seek Albert as a helper "to prop up the songs." On the other hand, Hau'no'on, "treads the swamp," as Chauncey says his name means now, although I understood it to mean "cold voice" in 1941, has always taken leading roles, which have been limited to song leader and ritualistic because Turtle clan matrons have identified his mother with the "Cayuga" in Canada, although his relatives there are considered "Senecas"; but now he likes to hear the ladies of his clan greet him, "Hai ha'nowagen'hji'," greetings, oldest Turtle man. His star reached the rim of heaven last summer (1946) when they came after him to serve as "professor" at the Summer Linguistics Institute at the University of Michigan. So now he has done everything.

The water drum and horn rattle, which were described in previous notes (1942), provide the accompaniment to the songs.

Comment on the Music by

Although the Iroquois have known Western music for almost 300 years–the seventeenth century Jesuit missionaries taught church music to Huron and Iroquois, and choirs and instrumental bands flourished in the late nineteenth century–the quality of these Iroquois songs remains distinctly primitive and shows many of the characteristics typical of other North American Indian singing styles. Relatively short phrases, limited tonal range, and generally descending melodic line are features of wide distribution among primitive peoples.

In common with vocal music accompanied only by percussion instruments the rhythm tends to be less variable than the tonality. Much of the interesting strangeness is due to the Iroquois drum and rattle technique, which consists of an unbroken series of evenly spaced beats, a style of frequent occurrence in North America. This technique is sometimes varied with vibrato passages, such as occur during repeats of the Fish Dance and in introductory phrases elsewhere.

These songs cannot properly be considered either major or minor in tonality since not all of the tones of our diatonic scale are present, nor is the relationship of the intervals harmonically conceived. (Cringan noted the pentatonic scale in some songs.) Consequently, the best key to understanding the tonality is provided by tracing the melodic importance of the tones and intervals. The rhythms are for the most part simple and consistently duple, though triplets as an embellishment occur. The melodic units are phrases of between five and nine drum beats' duration and the simplest songs consist of but one phrase, repeated with minor and perhaps unintentional variations in tone and rhythm. The more involved songs consist of two, three or four phrases of varying length–there seems to be no drive toward making the phrases of equal duration–the repetition of such phrases in varying order resulting in an asymetrical type of balance.

Of the songs included in this album the prayer songs for the Drum Dance are the simplest. A single phrase elaborated rhythmically in repetition, is tonally limited to a monotone of a second, although the final examination at the close may be a fifth to an octave. [Cf. Baker, 1882, p. 37, on this point.]

The Drum Dance songs also are essentially simple; they have an increasingly wide tonal range, those in the beginning of the record have a range of an octave, or a ninth, late ones show an octave and a third or fourth, and three song have a range of an octave and a fifth. The fifth, fourth, second, and both major and minor thirds occur. The antiphonal response of a second singer and the singing in unison of the two singers make these the most interesting songs. Generally the response duplicates the original motif, but an occasional shift to a second higher or second lower adds variety as do the infrequent semitones and the minor rhythmical differences. The antiphonal response is reminiscent of Catholic church responses, but since the Iroquois employ similar antiphony in other songs, and it is used by some Indian tribes in the southeastern United States with whom the Iroquois have other cultural affiliations, antiphony well may be a native feature.

The Quavering-Changing-a-rib sequence illustrates the dramatic qualities of Iroquois ceremonial songs. Variety in tempo, rhythm, tonal range; repetitions, responses, variations, and embellishments by the two singers–all are factors in holding interest and attention. Musically, they present no new features except that the pentatonic scale is more prevalent and the slow songs, particularly, show, in my opinion, European influence.

The quaver is especially prominent in some of these songs, particularly the Bear Society songs. This vocal embellishment seems to be a particularly sophisticated and controlling feature of Iroquois singing, compared with a wide, loose vibrato tone found in Plains Indian's singing, for example.

The Fish Dance songs are lively rhythmically. They accentuate the importance of the major or minor third, although the fifth is by far the most stressed interval. Their range is limited to a sixth. One can well imagine the Indians dancing to such music.

Play song


Performed by


Native Words



1A Bear Dance
Drum Dance
1A and 1B

The Iroquois have two grand religious dances which they say "our maker left for us to enjoy on earth and which are danced in heaven"–Great Feather Dance (album VI) an Drum Dance. Drum Dance takes its name from the water drum with head of woodchuck hide or buckskin and its name and shape suggest that the present drum keg aborigianally was a clay pot. Twice a year the longhouse officials appoint two men from opposite divisions of the community to sing this ritual. Its celebration falls on the third day of the Green Corn Festival and twice during the Midwinter Festival–on the fifth day the ceremony goes from house to house in the long-house district when the singers and dancers led by an appointed speaker go out from the longhouse and make the circuit singing two songs to a house, but the eight day is the big celebration when the Drum Dance proper follows the rite of individual chants that attends the tobacco-burning invocation in summer and the winter white Dog Sacrifice (album VI; Fenton, 1942, pp. 16-20). Thus it is one of the Creator's Four Sacred Ceremonies, and it is also called Thanksgiving Dance because, after some 30 songs, intoned prayers intersperse short, antiphonal songs (1B). A certain song calls for the speaker to interrupt the singers and return thanks of the Creator on behalf of the assembly for each of the stations in the pantheon going from earth up to the sky-world. These songs are called wa'donh'gwayen'–"for speaking."

The drum and carved beater and a horn rattle for the second singer are laid out on the bench in the middle of the longhouse. The drum is inverted to keep the head wet. The singers take opposite places astride the bench. As the song opens an appointed warrior whoops twice before each of the first three introductory songs. The war cry warns the Creator (and incidentally the dancers) that the dance is about to begin. The dancers are recruited from the most agile warriors, for it takes unusual stamina to go the whole course of the dance, which may run over an hour, but a few old men who like to dance carry on in their seventies. Another feature links the Drum Dance to the style of war dances that are interrupted by striking a post to boast valorous deeds; at Coldspring the dance leader carries a small bow with the arrow hitched into the bowstring–a miniature of the old Iroquois straight hunting bow of a size hardly adequate for a boy–but they say this age-darkened relic symbolizes the tradition that the speaker of the Four Persons who appeared to Handsome Lake, the prophet, carried such a bow and arrow which he said was to remind the latter day Indians who would work at the white man's occupations of their heritage as hunters and warriors, and also that the Creator, hearing the whoops and looking down may the more easily spot the dance leader.

As in Great Feather Dance, women join the dance forming an inner, more slowly moving circle, and between songs the dancers walk and relax. They whoop whenever the singers delay.

When the singers reach the short, antiphonal songs, the speaker steps out of the dance; taking the bow from the leader, and dancing beside the singers' bench facing the rising sun, he stoops and cries "Gwih!"; and the singers, stopping, answer "Yeah!". Then he intones the first of some 13 or more short addresses, speaking every other song. With the conclusion of these prayers, the priest returns the bow and arrow to the dance leader, and the singers, swapping roles, exchange drum and rattle, and the songs, recommencing, rapidly continue without further interruption to the end.
Now it is going; now its going.
A woman is moving.
1B Short Songs And Thanksgiving TRANSLATIONS

1) So now all of you listen to the words of the people today, those of us who are already met here where we do customarily gather (in the longhouse). Therefore, everyone present pay strict attention to what we shall say this morning, in particular to the way we all do greet each other with thanks–those of us as survive today in this crowd.

2) Now today while we are fulfilling this ceremony properly let us return thanks for the place on which our feet rest, namely this earth which is still enduring from day to day just as Our Maker who gave it to us intended it should be forever more. And he intended that this should be the way, that in returning thanks we should employ one voice combining all the rest, including even the children."

3) And so today one word that we customarily mention each time that we return thanks, a thing that thou didst ordain just how there should be eternally there against the sky dome two luminaries (Sun and Moon), and also that there should be fixed points of light (Stars) for the purpose of reckoning time and direction (Moon and Pleiades). So with these few words we leave off (cease our thanks), down to the smallest child."

4) And so today there is one topic that we do mention, as a people we return thanks to the ones who come from toward the sunset, they of the rumbling voices (Thunders), for they have done their duty just as he ordained that they should make their voices reverberate occasionally. This is our manner of returning thanks, etc.

5) So these are the number of words for the matters that thou didst ordain that it would be decreed for all time that we people should continue to return thanks for the things that you release on earth for our benefit.
So this is how many words there are. Now once again it rests with the singers themselves to go on down to the end.

Here the singers exchange instruments, the head singers handing the drum to his helper taking the rattle.
2A Iyondatha (Quavering) These three disks present runs from one continuous cycle of nearly 160 songs that comprise the ritual of a woman's medicine society, for which Chauncy Johnny John sings 84 songs of Quavering (part 1), and about 73 for Changing-a-rib (part 2). The latter continues immediately out of the former in the hyphenated form of the ceremony here presented, but in some cases only one part is prescribed. The members are women for whom the rite has been sung, either to cure an illness or in response to a dream. General lassitude, lame joints and limbs, respiratory ailments, and vague complaints of a functional nature are thought to be the symptoms. The songs have helped more than one woman in Coldspring get up out of bed after a prolonged illness. "Maybe she needs a little dance," they say, and promptly consult a clairvoyant to learn which of several feasts to sponsor.

The ceremony of Quavering-Changing-a-rib requires a female chorus that sings an octave above the mail singers, a feature that was omitted in favor of capturing the texts and music of Chauncey's version.

At the end of Changing-a-rib (4B) comes a series of songs when they rest and the sponsor distributes gifts of cloth to the women singers, and then they in turn wind the patient in shares of cloth which they bring for the purpose. Informants do not connect reciprocal gift giving with "exchanging ribs", and the references to "winding" are by no means clear.

A round dance follows and the temp accelerates, the songs continuing one out of the other by substituting words to fit the incessant rhythm. A change in tempo signals a song which summons a woman to stir the feast kettle, another to ladle out portions, until the singer says, "Now it is all gone", when the women sing, "Let's go home right now, a baby is crying"; but the drummer replies,
"You go on home, for I am not sleepy;
"Go on home, it's your baby."
People never used to bring children to medicine society feasts.

Teasing between sexes, however, is most elaborately developed in Quavering (2B-3B). These songs are replete with the double entendre, a thing that bothers younger, unversed Senecas, and they regard with disfavor certain old men who give the songs a pornographic twist to tease the ladies. But evidently that is how the old people sang who knew the origin legend, which relates how a bachelor married a Frog-woman (Carl Carmer, from the editor's notes, in Listen for a Lonesome Drum (1936), pp. 98-99).

This happened years ago in early spring when the spring peepers (Hyla crucifer) come to the surface and start to sing around wet places. The old folks say there was a grown man who preferred living along to any of the local women whom his mother arranged for him to marry. One evening a beautiful girl came to live with him, asking to stop for the night. She was the most attractive woman he had ever seen, save for having no teeth, and he let her stay. Presently she suggested going on a visit to her village to meet her people. They traveled through a strange country of flowered fields, forest filled with game, new places, until they came toward sunset to a low lying village where people were gathering at one house where she led him. The community were having a dance at her parents' home. Soon one commenced singing and the rest joined, the women standing in chorus facing the men. The stranger learned all of the songs and the dance routine. Between periods of singing they mated.

This went on for several weeks. He followed his wife outside, one night as the weather grew warmer, for one version says that she told him she would leave to return the next year. Suddenly he found himself alone in a marsh surrounded by piping frogs. The village and all its inhabitants had vanished.

The disillusioned man returned home and told his adventure. The old people said that this had happened to him because he would not marry, that he had merely married a frog-woman without teeth. But he brought back the songs of Quavering and Changing-a-rib. And the old people say that in the spring the skówek are singing Quavering, and when they hear them they say that lonely man has gone to live with the frogs again.

The man who married the frog could not sleep: his song says (record 2B)–
"All night long I did not sleep
"All night long she quavered (trembled)."
But the frog-woman continued to torment the lonely man even after he went home. He really thought he liked her. As it grew warmer she slowed down and became less dependable. (At this, of course, the singers turn on each other, the men teasing the women and the reverse.) And so as he sits on the far rim of the earth, she continues to tease him, saying "Didn't you think it was nice (when you were here)?" But despite all her enticements and then her threats and claims when he does not come back–her evident happiness at the thought of his return–he sings triumphantly, "She could not make me go where she called me" (record 3A and 3B). She liked very much a certain man, who was the only one she could find, but she grew lazy, and he went back to his home on the great hill (a name of the Seneca people) far removed from the swamp. He sings: "Over there let them stay, I say; I didn't keep her" (3B). He knows she isn't a real woman, and the song warns for them not to stay together, although she keeps coming back in the spring. "It is coming back here," etc. The singer knows it is a frog and uses the non-human gender (3b). "But, nevertheless, she likes me because, I guess, I am not dependable, not faithful." The sexes reverse this observation on one another with a good deal of amusement. Moderns deplore this, but Fanny Stevens and old John Jimmerson supported the love theme.

Likewise it is implied in Changing-a-rib that a man and a woman who have mated have become part of each other. So was it with the frog-woman and the man. In this way she thought she could take him home, but although she got his ribs and he hers, she could not persuade him to go back with her. This how it was long ago.
2B Quavering (continued) Seneca
3A Quavering (continued) Seneca
3B Quavering (continued) Seneca
4A Deswadenyon Exchanging Ribs Seneca
4B Changing-a-rib (continued) Seneca
5A Bear Song

In devoting a society to persons who have dreamed of the Bear or have been cured by the society's ritual, the Iroquois share bear veneration that is characteristic of circumpolar peoples (A. I. Hallowell, Bear ceremonialism in the northern hemisphere, Am. Anthropologist, 1926). The Iroquois distinguish definite symptoms of bear sickness. Occasionally a woman became possessed of a bear when the society appeared publicly at the Midwinter Festival, or at some family rite. Victims manifest great strength that two men have difficulty with-straining, and they grunt and snort between closed teeth. A dose of berry juice or the same sprayed at the patient brings release. There is a famous case of a little woman of scarcely 100 pounds who in possession clamped her teeth on a tin spoon, collapsing the bowl completely.

Berry juice, native tobacco to invoke the Bear-spirit, mush, and the water drum are the only properties The lone singer straddles the bench which also holds a pail of mashed huckleberries or blackberries. The dancers chug around the bench, and as the single column passes the conductor each dancer takes a puff from a short pipe which he holds out. Then they go for the juice to drink and spray the principal, during which rough house prevails. None but members take part, although a whole lineage may celebrate the rite together, such rites coming thick and fast at Midwinter. Participants receive a share of mush to eat or take home.

Recordings of Bear Dance from Onondaga of Six Nations have Seneca words. The Seneca ascribe its origin to the adventure of an unwanted stepson intentionally lost on a hunting trip who was abducted buy a she-bear. In 4 years' residence he discovered that bears speak Seneca, they live in maternal families, and the mother-bear brought him hominy and berry juice from feasts attended in the boy's village. Discovered by hunters and rescued, the hero returned home to his mother, the wicked stepfather having died, and related his adventure. Mother-bear subsequently appeared to him in a dream, instructing him to hold Bear Dance annually.
5B Fish Dance Albert Jones (Drummer) and Chauncey Johnny John (rattle) Recorded at the First Conference on Iroquois Research, Red House, N.Y., October, 1945. Each singer has his own songs. Seneca