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The Songs of Mermaids and Other Untutored Savages

Three unhappy listeners describe music from other cultures.

“It is perhaps all we could expect from untutored savages, but there is nothing about it which has ever struck me as either interesting or amusing.”

“the howls, yells, hoots and whoops, the snuffling, wheezing, bubbling, groveling and stamping—they form a concert to whose savagery we cannot attempt to do justice”

“the most horrible noise, a loud and screechy wailing, filled the room”

The first quote is from Henry Schoolcraft’s Narrative Journal of Travels from Detroit, published in 1821 and describing Indigenous music from that area (now called Michigan and Ontario)

The second is a review of a London program featuring Zulu musicians and dancers from southern Africa, published by The Spectator in 1853.

The third account is Harry Potter’s reaction when he first hears Mermaid music in “The Goblet of Fire” (p365 - all Rowling quotes and page numbers from the Scholastic edition, 2000)

It is not surprising to hear 19th Century white guys trashing other Peoples’ music making. One of the arrogant justifications for the great colonial adventure was the assumed cultural superiority of all things European and White. But Harry Potter? Hero Harry Potter? Surely Harry shouldn’t be lumped in with racist imperialists.

Well, Harry gets a pass on this one. When he first hears this music, he is unaware that it is music. Forget cultural context, he is hearing a recording of the song stored in an artificial egg. Also, he is hearing it through the wrong medium. The sound is traveling to his ears through air when it is meant to be heard underwater. And he doesn’t even know yet that Merpeople are real beings.

But Harry really needs to understand these sounds. Grab your copy of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”. This is the year that Hogwarts hosts the Triwizard Tournament. The first task for the Champions is to steal a golden artificial egg from a dragon. We will leave aside the potential trauma this might cause to a nesting dragon. The Champions are told to keep the egg because it will provide a clue that will help them complete the next task. Encouraged by his friends at the after-party, Harry opens the egg to see what is inside.

“It was hollow and completely empty - but the moment Harry opened it, the most horrible noise, a loud and screechy wailing filled the room.” (p365). His reaction to this “noise” tells us something important about Harry.

“The nearest thing to it Harry had ever heard was the ghost orchestra at Nearly Headless Nick’s deathday party, who had all been playing the musical saw.” (The deathday party is in Chapter 8 of “The Chamber of Secrets”). Because of his openness, attentiveness and past experiences, Harry understands that a sound can be a “horrible noise” to some and beautiful music to others.

Harry’s acceptance of other Beings and their ways of expression are a strength that comes to his aid repeatedly over the course of the series. By the beginning of “Goblet of Fire”, he counts among his friends a mixed blood Giant, a House Elf, a Centaur and a Werewolf. He has experienced the power of Phoenix song. And, of course, an orchestra of musical saws.

Still, Harry will need help to hear this new “noise” as “song” and to learn what he needs to know for the second task. His fellow Triwizard competitor Cedric Diggory suggests that taking the egg with him and relaxing in the Prefects’ bath might be helpful. Once there, a resident ghost, Moaning Myrtle, convinces Harry to open the egg underwater.

“Harry lowered the egg beneath the foamy surface and opened it…and this time it did not wail. A gurgling song was coming out of it, a song whose words he couldn’t distinguish through the water.” (p 462).

Myrtle shares the last necessary step. “‘You need to put your head under too’, said Myrtle….” (p462). Once Harry is underwater with the egg, he can hear the song through its proper medium.

“- and now, sitting on the marble bottom of the bubble-filled bath, he heard a chorus of eerie voices singing to him from the open egg in his hands:” (still page 462) He can understand the words they are singing and can begin to puzzle out the clue for the next challenging task. Part of the clue is learning who made the music - Merpeople, a People who offer their song of help to Harry before he even knows they exist.

There is music making that fully participates in our relentlessly aggressive consumer culture. Its main reason for existing is to make as much money as possible. It asks nothing from you but that you sit back, switch off and be entertained. It will dilute itself, repackage itself, use every cliché and gyrate before you naked if that is what it takes to get your attention just long enough for you to buy something.

Thankfully, there is still lots of music making around, in all styles and genres, that offers much more than mindless entertainment. Since this music making is offering unique experiences and meaningful sharing, it does not pander to us. It wants to be much more than a pleasant soundtrack for your life. Like Mermaid music, it asks that you immerse yourself. And like Harry, we will need to be open and attentive. We might need guidance from more experienced listeners. We might have to make the effort to hear the music in its best possible setting and through an appropriate medium. Harry was rewarded for his efforts. There is a good chance you will be, too.

And yes, this kind of music making also needs financial support. But it’s the difference between doing work just to make as much money as possible and needing to make enough money that important work can continue.

Henry Schoolcraft could not connect with Indigenous music making. As a racist, he could not see Indigenous musicians as anything other than “untutored savages”. Material gain in the form of land theft was of more interest to most Americans in the 1800s than having any kind of meaningful sharing with Indigenous Peoples. The continued struggles for Indigenous land sovereignty suggest these attitudes are still prevalent.

While The Spectator’s reviewer does not use derogatory terms to describe the Zulus performing on stage in London, an ethnocentric bias in favor of European music prevents them from hearing the music being shared as anything but rude noises to be ridiculed.

The attitudes of 19th Century colonizers and imperialists make easy targets. Let’s not pretend that these prejudices are all in the past. At one of the universities where I taught, my Music Department Chair told me that yes, I could have a space to teach Native Flute lessons to music students who were interested. But they would not get academic credit and I would not be paid. I should have expected this. After all, you can’t play “real” music like Beethoven on a Native Flute. I taught any and all who wanted lessons and provided most of them with flutes.

At another university where I taught, I was approached by a student lamenting that she had taken every American history course available and there was nothing included about Native Americans. When she challenged one of her history professors about this, she was told that Native Americans are “irrelevant” to American History.

I also wonder why we need time ghettos like “Native American Heritage Month” (November) and “Black History Month” (February) if the dominant culture has actually become more open to what we have to say. For a whole month we can share some sanitized bits of our remaining culture, then we disappear again until next November. Be nice or you won’t get invited back.

The reviewer for The Spectator was not the only writer taking in the Zulu program. Charles Dickens discusses it in his essay, “The Noble Savage”. In the same piece, he also writes about Ojibwe culture. The current apology for this essay is that it is a satirical critique of the concept of the Noble Savage, a common stereotype that is still around. It is very clear, though, that Dickens’ impatience with the Noble Savage idea has nothing to do with it being a demeaning and dehumanizing stereotype. His argument is that the notion of a Noble Savage is foolish, because there is nothing in Indigenous cultures that approaches nobility or is even worthwhile. Even by 19th Century standards, “The Noble Savage” essay is viciously racist. It is available as a free download in many places if you want to read it.

I shouldn’t just pick on Charles. Frank Baum, when not writing charming Children’s Classics like The Wizard of Oz, wrote editorials advocating the extermination of Native American Peoples. Walt Whitman, during his off days from being an LGBTQ+ icon, was pretty much a raving racist against all non-White people.

I am not going to advocate for the “cancelling” of Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman or Classical Music. The romantic stereotype of “The Noble Artist” also needs to be put aside. It’s entirely possible for real people with issues to make important art. Which is fortunate, because we all have issues. If people are still writing blogs fifty years from now, I am sure they will write snarky ones at our deserved expense. Besides, Cancel Culture is mostly an exercise in adolescent Puritanism. Predictable, whiny and boring.

Still, I do suspect that if Schoolcraft, Dickens, Whitman and many others, including some living among us today, could get hold of a powerful wand and if, with a well practiced “swish and flick” they could force all Indigenous Peoples to completely assimilate or simply disappear altogether - well, I don’t think they would hesitate for long. Makes me grateful for the Statute of Secrecy.

(See my blog “Fawkes and the Power of Song” for a deeper dive about Phoenix song.)

Photo Credits (all at Unsplash):

Mermaid Statue / Vasilina Sirotina

Merman Statue detail / Sandra Bittman

Drummer / Matthew Spiteri

Vintage Portrait of Indigenous Man / Boston Public Library

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