Featuring Mary Youngblood
I am simply a vessel between Creator and this sacred instrument, the Native American Flute. The trees have given a voice to me, the voice that sings to you now. Listen with an open heart and you will hear the whispers of the ancient ones. May their timeless voices sooth your soul.
– Mary Youngblood
On the longest, darkest night of the year, I descended the stairs and went into my writing cave. I was in a mood, the weather gloomy and cold. The muse moved in me. Memories stirred. It was that night in 2003 when I penned the poem Winter Blood on Winter Solstice. Then I recited it into my portable field recorder long before owning a cell phone with a recording app. Nine months later, in September 2004, I transferred that audio file to my multi-track recording studio and added Native American flute. And not just any flute track.
When I learned that Mary Youngblood was coming to Rose Creek Ranch in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, where I live, I called her manager. Mary is a Native American flute player and 2x Native American Grammy winner. Her record label needed to approve my request to have her play on two of my Native American-inspired songs (Two Roads and Stealing Beauty), and her fee was substantial. But when she learned of my connection to the Seminole tribe, we connected on another level. Mary is equal parts Aleut (Alaskan) and Seminole (Florida). She agreed to play on the two songs for My Mother’s Garden CD, and her record label approved the request.
Mary lived in California and was on her way to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, when she stopped off in North Carolina to do a workshop at Rose Creek. She carried with her an assortment of Native flutes chosen to become part of the National Museum of the American Indian’s permanent collection. Mary also performed at the museum’s grand opening on September 21st. More than 80,000 spectators came to the National Mall to watch a procession of Native nations, represented by 25,000 Native peoples in full regalia.
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Four days before Mary was booked to record in my studio, the remnants of Hurricane Ivan blew through our small-town community in the Western North Carolina mountains. One toddler, and two adults, were killed, and another woman lost a leg and her seven-month fetus. Four people were reported missing. Three family members of a firefighter on duty that night trying to rescue others also lost their lives when the landslide wiped out his home. President Bush declared it a disaster.
That catastrophe washed out bridges, closed dozens of roads, buried cars, knocked homes off their foundations, and carried them down the valley. It also left us without electric power. The road Mary would need to travel up the mountain to get to us had been closed, and the bridge washed out. I quickly had to come up with an alternate plan. Come hell or high water, I wasn’t willing to lose an opportunity to work with Mary Youngblood.
Rose Creek Ranch still had power. So my husband and I broke down the studio, packed it in our truck, drove up and over the other side of the mountain, then down and around to Rose Creek Ranch, where we set up all the gear.
With folks from the workshop still hanging around, we had lots of help. The recording session became a lively event. Mary set up an altar, and Greg was there with his hand-painted pow-wow drum. I took a photo of it that landed on the back cover of the CD. Mary, however, thought that with all the flutes she had at her disposal, she should have one in the right key. I charted the songs for her, and she had rehearsed them, but the flute Mary had used in rehearsal remained in California. None of the flutes in her possession were in the right key. We looked at each other in shock. Again, I had to think fast and come up with another solution. I would not be defeated now.
When passing through portals and courting big medicine, there is always a test, an initiation, and this would be mine. I surrendered and asked my spirit guides for help. Then, I remembered Canadian rock musician Robbie Robertson’s story about recording the mesmerizing song Twisted Hair with the Red Road Ensemble for his album Music For The Native Americans.
Robertson is best known as one of the founders and primary songwriter for The Band (with Bob Dylan). My backup guitar player, Stuart Munro, had sent me a cassette tape in 1994 of a Canadian interview with Robertson telling the story of Twisted Hair (archived recording available to paid subscribers below).
The story goes that Robertson and his recording engineer slowed down a field recording of cricket sounds from which a choir of voices emerged. He did it by dropping the pitch of the track. Those crickets have since gone viral.
This was the way of it Let the story fires be lighted Let our circle be strong and full of medicine Hear me This is my dream song that I’m singing for you This is my power song that is taking me to the edge This is rock medicine The talking tree The singing water Listen I am dancing underneath you – Robbie Robertson, Twisted Hair, Music for the Native Americans
I figured if Robertson could drop the pitch of a track, then so could I. And so I did. It took a bit of software futzing, but in the end, I dropped the pitch of the songs to match the key of Youngblood’s flute. Then I brought them back to the original key and added the flute track from my song Two Roads as the background track for Winter Blood. Working with Mary is a joy. The result was stunning. And I am eternally grateful for my steadfast husband, who always has my back.
Following the session, Mary received my payment for her services with gratitude. The money exchange triggered something in her, and she opened up about her financial struggles, especially needing to put her daughter through college. “You would think that having won the Grammy Award twice, I wouldn’t be struggling like this,” she said. I understood. I, too, had been trying to make it in a rigged music business.
The Native American Grammy Award for best music album began after an expensive three-year lobbying effort by Ellen Bello, founder of the Native American Music Awards and the Native American Music Association. First presented in 2001, the Recording Academy of Arts and Sciences (which hosts the Grammys) eliminated the award category ten years later in 2011. Silencing Native voices is an old story. Grammy officials didn’t bother to explain. With Native American music no longer officially recognized at the Grammys, I wondered how that would reflect on the Academy, considering how much they pride themselves on diversity in the music industry. And how many more Native artists would continue to struggle? All of our support is needed.
Listen to Thea’s archived Canadian radio interview with Robbie Robertson telling stories about Music for the Native Americans (1994), including the cricket story behind Twisted Hair.
Words to Winter Blood and additional photos included.
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