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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


In the time before recorded history American Indians used songs and instrumentation to preserve identity and history. Contemporary Oklahoma Indians continue to build a cultural foundation upon these ancient music traditions. Music and dance form the core of ceremonial and social activities among Indian nations with origins in southeastern North America. Members of southeastern Indian tribal towns maintain an agriculturally based ceremonial cycle that has the stomp dance tradition at its core. Stomp dance songs are call and response, and instrumentation is provided by the dance rattles or shackles worn upon the legs of the women. Other southeastern nations have their own complexes of sacred and social songs, including those for animal dances and friendship dances, and songs that accompany stickball games.

Central to the music of the southern Plains Indians is the drum, which has been called the heartbeat of Plains Indian music. Most of that genre can be traced back to activities of hunting and warfare, upon which plains culture was based. During the reservation period, when the movement and activities of Plains Indians were severely restricted, the people used music to relieve the boredom of inactivity. They invited their neighbors to participate with them, exchanged songs and dances, and created new songs together. In this exchange are found the seeds of the modern intertribal powwow.

Another means of expression among American Indians is the courting flute. Traditionally, it was used by young men to serenade and court young women. There has been a revival in interest in the courting flute since the 1970s, and many young men rediscovered the beauty of its music. In addition, Protestant church songs, some based upon European hymns and others of tribal aspect, are common among most American Indian communities.

African American music in Oklahoma represents a strong and complex tradition that developed out of the hardships born of enslavement and the successes of freedom. Sacred music, both a capella and instrumentally accompanied, is at the heart of the tradition. Early spirituals framed Christian beliefs within native practices and were heavily influenced by the music and rhythms of Africa. Primarily based upon the call-and-response pattern of chants used as devices of communication, spirituals are probably the oldest form of African American music in Oklahoma.

Gospel, which developed after the Civil War (1861–65), relied on biblical text for much of its direction, and the use of metaphors and imagery was common. Gospel is a "joyful noise," sometimes accompanied by instrumentation and almost always punctuated by hand clapping, toe tapping, and body movement.

Shape-note or sacred harp singing developed in the early nineteenth century as a way for itinerant singing instructors to teach church songs in rural communities. They taught using song books in which musical notations of tones were represented by geometric shapes that were designed to associate a shape with its pitch. Sacred harp singing became popular in many Oklahoma rural communities, regardless of ethnicity.

The blues tradition evolved from the rural black experience and reflected the hardships of poverty and prejudice. Most blues musicians received their musical training in the church. Therefore, there are many stylistic parallels between the blues and sacred music.

If the blues grew out of the slave experience and the spiritual tradition, jazz was the music of a liberated and affluent people. Born of a blend of ragtime, gospel, and blues, Oklahoma jazz erupted in the musical crossroads that the state had become by the beginning of the twentieth century. Prominent jazz artists who later gained international fame for their creativity and innovation began their musical careers in the Second Street area of Oklahoma City, known locally as "Deep Deuce," and Tulsa's Greenwood section.

Anglo-Scots-Irish music traditions gained a place in Oklahoma after the Land Run of 1889. Because it was small and portable, the fiddle was the core of early Oklahoma Anglo music, but other instruments such as the guitar, mandolin, banjo, and steel guitar were added later. Various Oklahoma music traditions trace their roots to the British Isles, including cowboy ballads, Western swing, and contemporary country and western.

Mexican immigrants began to reach Oklahoma in the 1870s, bringing beautiful canciones and corridos—love songs, waltzes, and ballads—along with them. As in American Indian communities, each rite of passage in Hispanic communities is accompanied by traditional music. The acoustic guitar, string bass, and violin provide the basic instrumentation for Mexican music, with maracas, flute, horns, and sometimes accordions filling out the sound.

Europeans began to settle in Oklahoma in the late nineteenth century. Bohemians (later called Czechs) and Germans formed strong communities. Social activities were centered on community halls where local musicians played polkas and waltzes on the accordion, piano, and brass instruments.

Asian immigrants have also contributed to the Oklahoma folk-music mix. Ancient music and dance traditions from the temples and courts of China, India, and Indonesia are preserved in Asian communities throughout the state, and popular song genres are continually layered on to these classical music forms. Throughout Oklahoma, folk music continues to provide the framework around which traditional cultures and communities maintain identity and cohesion for future generations.

Dayna Bowker Lee


Ray Allen, "Shouting the Church: Narrative and Vocal Improvisation in African American Gospel Quartet Performance," Journal of American Folk-lore 104 (Summer 1991).

J. Justin Castro, "Amazing Grace: The Influence of Christianity in Nineteenth-Century Oklahoma Ozark Music and Society," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 86 (Winter 2008–09).

Dayna Bowker Lee, ed., Remaining Ourselves: Music and Tribal Memory (Oklahoma City: State Arts Council of Oklahoma, 1995).

Dana L. Morrow and Cynthia Taylor, eds., A Celebration of Tradition: Retrospective, 1991–1993 (Oklahoma City, Okla.: Metropolitan Library System Outreach Services, 1993).

William W. Savage, Jr., Singing Cowboys and All That Jazz: A Short History of Popular Music in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983).

Willie Smyth, ed., Juneteenth on Greenwood: A Celebration of Oklahoma's Black Music Traditions (Oklahoma City: State Arts Council of Oklahoma, 1989).

Gloria A. Young, "Powwow Power: Perspectives on Historic and Contemporary Intertribalism" (Ph.D. diss., University of Indiana, 1981).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Dayna Bowker Lee, “Folk Music,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=FO010.

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