Choctaw Music

Today’s Mississippi Choctaw listen both to the popular music repertoires common throughout the rural South—thus various forms of rock music, especially classic rock, and quite a bit of country and western—and also certain repertoires that are either specific to the tribe or in more general circulation among native peoples. The most specifically Choctaw of their musical genres are those connected with Choctaw social dance.

When wide-ranging collector of native music Frances Densmore stopped briefly in Mississippi in 1933, she collected sixty-five performances of songs from just a few men. Most of these were the songs accompanying social dances much like those of the Cherokee and other southeastern tribes. A majority of these are what the Choctaw call animal dances, such as the Duck, Tick, Snake, Bear, Terrapin, Quail, Turkey, Chicken, Rabbit in the Garden, Dog Chases Raccoon, and similar dances. Other Choctaw social dance songs—some of which Densmore collected, and most of which are known in various versions throughout the Southeast—include the Stomp Dance, Walk Dance, Stealing Partners Dance, War Dance, and Wedding Dance. Densmore found and recorded few singers because Choctaw secular expressive culture was then in decline, in part because the Baptist Church had become a unifying social force for the Mississippi Choctaw. By the 1960s little Choctaw music was performed publicly. But an Anglo-American schoolteacher, Minnie Hand, encouraged and facilitated the recording of songs from Choctaw elders. She then helped Choctaw social dance and its music to become part of the regular school curriculum.

Today, troupes of young dancers based in more than a dozen schools represent their communities at the annual Choctaw Fair, at powwows (in sets of a half dozen social dances inserted between the usual powwow dances), and so on. One or two young men in each ensemble sing with clear, relaxed voices, performing pentatonic or diatonic melodies composed of nonlexical syllables. The young men and women, wearing outfits that join older rural Anglo-American clothing styles with Native American decoration, dance in long lines, in parallel lines, or as couples, generally with restrained movements but in some dances featuring one couple at a time running around and happily shrieking.

In recent decades, the Mississippi Choctaw have joined with most of the Native American world in welcoming the powwow complex of arts and culture. On Veterans Day, for example, local Indians join with visitors from other states to put on powwows lasting several days. Choctaw and a few visiting Indians dance into a consecrated dance circle during the Grand Entry in a prescribed order, led by veterans carrying flags. While the music is the same for most dances, regalia (dance outfits) and linked dance types vary, with the men and boys divided into men’s traditional dancers (among them dancers imitating hunting), fancy dancers, and grass dancers; the women and girls may be traditional dancers, fancy shawl dancers, or jingle dress dancers. Songs after the first few many be “intertribals,” during which all dancers in regalia and perhaps nonoutfitted dancers dance, or may be specific to the dance type and perhaps also the age of a group of dancers. Most of the music is performed by “drums,” ensembles of approximately five to twelve men who sing while playing a single large, horizontal drum. The men sing in approximate unison with tight, nasal voices and a very wide vibrato. Melodies start high, descend in terraced contours, return to near the beginning, then fall as before. This whole contour is repeated several times within a song, with each song lasting three to four minutes. The ensembles are of two types, northern (relatively high) and southern (somewhat lower), with reinforcement at the upper octave by women standing behind the drummers. The Mississippi Choctaw community includes members of both types of ensemble, and groups from elsewhere may also participate.

Further Reading

  • Frances Densmore, “Choctaw Music,” Anthropological Papers, No. 28, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin (1943)
  • Victoria Lindsay Levine, “Choctaw Indian Musical Cultures in the Twentieth Century” (PhD dissertation, University of Illinois, 1990)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Choctaw Music
  • Author
  • Keywords choctaw music
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date April 3, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 13, 2018