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Essential Song

Three Decades of Northern Cree Music

Lynn Whidden

Publication Year: 2007

Includes audio CD with over 50 Cree hunting songs

Essential Song: Three Decades of Northern Cree Music, a study of subarctic Cree hunting songs, is the first detailed ethnomusicology of the northern Cree of Quebec and Manitoba. The result of more than two decades spent in the North learning from the Cree, Lynn Whidden’s account discusses the tradition of the hunting songs, their meanings and origins, and their importance to the hunt. She also examines women’s songs, and traces the impact of social change—including the introduction of hymns, Gospel tunes, and country music—on the song traditions of these communities.

The book also explores the introduction of powwow song into the subarctic and the Crees struggle to maintain their Aboriginal heritage—to find a kind of song that, like the hunting songs, can serve as a spiritual guide and force.

Including profiles of the hunters and their songs and accompanied by an original audio CD of more than fifty Cree hunting songs, Essential Song makes an important contribution to ethnomusicology, social history, and Aboriginal studies.

Published by: Wilfrid Laurier University Press

Series: Indigenous Studies

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. iii-iv

Table of Figures

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pp. v

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pp. vii

As a valuable resource of musical heritage for the Cree Nation, this book offers an opportunity for all readers to gain an awareness of the struggle, strength, and wisdom of Indigenous people. It also supports the need to include, respect, and preserve Indigenous cultures as an integral part of...

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pp. ix

This book owes its existence to the Cree people to whom music means so much: the Cree hunters and their wives; my students from whom I continue to learn; and all the contemporary musicians who seek not just to be entertained, but to make life meaningful with music. I am particularly...

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Prologue: The Cree Come to Campus

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pp. xi-xvi

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was one thing that I could be certain of on the first day with a new class of northern Native students: no one would interrupt my lecture. I had taught Native student teachers from remote areas for over twenty years, and, while I noticed small changes over this time...

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pp. 1-12

As the title Essential Song suggests, in this book I strive to show the fundamental place of song in subarctic hunting life. The northern Cree exemplify the human need for song, which I define here as an oral expression carried primarily in the singer’s mind. Such songs are often learned from...

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1. Song and Ceremony

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pp. 13-30

This study describes some of the contexts for the performance of the old Cree songs. Although I discuss two groups from two different provinces, Manitoba and Quebec, fundamental similarities of climate and geography permit discussion of the northern Cree as an aggregate. They share an ancestral...

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2. Song and History

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pp. 31-45

This chapter focuses on the music relationship between the Cree and Europeans through four centuries and shows the challenges to the survival of old Cree song. Before beginning, it should be noted that other Native groups, particularly the Ojibwe, also influenced Cree song, and in the final chapter...

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3. Song and Survival

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pp. 47-74

In this chapter, we read about the hunting songs, their meaning, and their music as described by the six James Bay Cree elders profiled earlier. To understand the hunting songs, one must remember that obtaining enough food was a constant challenge for the Cree. Despite the large populations...

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4. Hymns and Hunting Songs

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pp. 75-89

In the early 1980s, when I asked northern Cree elders to sing an old song, several responded with either a hunting song or a Christian hymn in the Cree language. Now, in this twenty-first century, the hymns, as well as the hunting songs, have been largely supplanted by the driving rhythms of the...

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5. Country Music: How Can You Dance to Beethoven?

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pp. 91-100

When I asked a class of northern students in Thompson, Manitoba, why country music is so popular among Natives, a Cree student replied, “How can you dance to Beethoven?” Of course, country music is popular among non-Natives too, but its pervasiveness in Native society deserves investigation...

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6. Powwow in the Subarctic

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pp. 101-112

Thus far, we have seen how the Cree made both hymn and country music their own, and how hymns can, in both musical and spiritual ways, be argued to be a descendant of the hunting songs. Now we look at powwow, a musico-religious movement that proclaims Indian identity and that is...

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7. The Powwow: From the South to the Subarctic

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pp. 113-120

When I pointed out to a northern friend how different powwow songs are from the old hunting songs, he replied that the Cree have been trading with Plains people since time immemorial, and that powwow may not be an entirely new sound in Canada’s north. There is good evidence of a long-term...

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pp. 121-126

Remarkable in this history is the observable change in performed music, within three decades, from hunting songs to powwow music. Until the 1970s, for most northern Cree, music was hunting songs, hymns, and fiddle tunes, fashioned over the centuries from the rhythms of the subarctic...

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pp. 127-128

In Essential Song, Lynn Whidden has given us an example of indigenous music from the northeastern subarctic Cree community of Chisasibi, Quebec. Whidden describes and interprets the hunting songs she has collected and their importance in the spiritual, emotional, and psychological world...

Appendix I. Frequently Sung Hymns in Chisasibi, Quebec

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pp. 129-131

Appendix II. The Eighty-Six Songs, with Topics and Commentary, of the 1982 and 1984 Collections

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pp. 132-151


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pp. 153-156

List of Sources

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pp. 157-161


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pp. 163-170


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pp. 171-174

CD Track Listing

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pp. 176

E-ISBN-13: 9781554581443
Print-ISBN-13: 9780889204591
Print-ISBN-10: 0889204594

Page Count: 192
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Indigenous Studies