Indians, especially the Nootkans were from the time of their first
contact with Europeans fascinated by white men's music. Members of
the Cook expedition which roamed the world between 1776 and 1780
reported that of all the native peoples they encountered, only the
Nootkans showed interest in trumpets, French horns and fiddles.
The others responded only to drums.
Vocal music, too, charmed the Nootkans, and their singing
impressed visitors. The Spanish composed an anthem for Maquina,
the paramount chief at Nootka Sound during the contact period. He
had it sung on ceremonial occasions. The words were no less
uninspiring than most paeans to potentates, "Maquina is
mighty. Mighty, mighty Maquina." But the chief didn't mind.
asked a Spanish scholar to translate some of the songs sung by
Spanish and English sailors. They were mostly drinking songs or
ballads about the charms of girls back home.
was shocked, "Do the white men sing only of intoxication and
fornication?" He asked. "We sing to God."
favorite story of the Nootkan fondness for music concerns the
visit to the Sound in 1786 of an expedition organized by James
C.S. Strange, a young Scot of good family who was gathering sea
otter skins for the Chinese market. Strange's journal of his
experiences, lost for a century and a half was discovered in
Indiana. In it, Strange describes one of the most harmonious
moments of the maritime fur trade.
"In one of my lucky
days, I was visited by several very large canoes filled with
strangers who from the style of their dress and from the number
of their attendants appeared to be men of a superior class to
the generality of those who were residents of the village.
before them a variety of goods, such as knives, chisels, axes,
swords, etc. I was greatly astonished at the seeming
indifference with which they were viewed by my visitors...
"I was now busied
thinking by what means I might strip my gentlemen of their
finery, for each had on two or three fine skins, when I observed
that their attention was called way by the singing of their
attendants to which they themselves kept time by beating two
shells together with great precision.
"I now recollected that
among the various articles which composed my trading goods there
was a considerable number of cymbals, which I thought would be
no bad substitute for their shells...I accordingly produced a
pair. The expression of rapture and delight which the first
clash of them excited in the breasts of all present is not to be
"In displaying the
effects of my music, I composed for the occasion a sort of ring
ting tune, which had the merit of drawing form my polite
audience such bursts of applause was sufficiently satisfactory
to me that I did not sing in vain. My song was encored again and
again; after I had sung it half a dozen times, I was joined in
it by a great majority of all present.
"The consequence of
this exhibition was that I stripped my gentlemen to the buff in
an hours time, each contending with the other who should be
first served. I got from some three and from others four skins,
for every pair of cymbals...
"I had next day a visit
from several of the same party, who had still something left
worthy of my attention. Having selected three or four skins, I
offered some articles of iron mongery for them being desirous of
reserving the remaining few pairs of cymbals I had left to some
other future interesting occasion. My iron mongery was utterly
"I then presented some
articles of copper which hitherto had been in great repute, but
that in like manner was refused. I was given to understand that
cymbals alone were wanted. These I at length reluctantly gave
but before they were received a song was required of me.
"Accordingly I sung the
first one that came into my head. That was not relished. I may
say I was hissed off the stage. I tried a second, a third, and a
fourth which all shared the same fate, each man, shaking his
head and telling me it was Claotra, that is, the other they
"I now perfectly
understood what they meant and that it was my yesterday's
composition that was required of me. But if all the sea otter
skins in Nootka had been the price of it, I could not recollect
a note. Nor was I much surprised at my failure, considering it
was the offspring of the moment and no less easily forgotten
"The case was far the
reverse with many of my visitors, on which it made a more
lasting impression. Some of them seeing my embarrassment struck
up my song, and with such precision as to time and tune as
infinitely astonished me. I now readily chimed in with them and
continued singing whilst there was anything left to sing for.
"It was a matter of
surprise to me, as well as to every one, to observe how soon my
song became fashionable and how quickly it was learned by all
ranks whatsoever.In short there was not a boy or girl in the
village who did not in the course of three days sing it as
correctly as I could. I seldom after this period bought a skin
without being first called upon to sing."
came the first singing commercial and first pop song in the
history of the Northwest Corner.