For Indian House Records owner and recordist Tony Isaacs, it could easily be said that Native American music is a labor of love. His first exposure to Native music began in the 1950’s, when he first heard a 78 rpm record as part of a Boy Scout assignment.
“Early on when I was in Los Angeles, I wanted to learn singing,” said Isaacs. “For some reason, I was attracted to Kiowa singing. The main albums at that time were 78 or later LPs of the Soundchief recordings—Linn Pauahty’s recordings. I would get those recordings—me and a few other guys. We’d study them and play them back. I’d write out the vocables. That’s how I would learn them.”
From there, Isaacs eventually made his first field recording at a powwow in Flagstaff, Ariz. in 1954 of the Oglala Singers, one of whom was William Horn Cloud, an early recording artist for Canyon Records.
“I was excited to be out there,” Isaacs recalls of this first recording. “I was just wide-eyed and bushy tailed. I had the tape recorder, and this fellow knew these singers. He asked if I would record it.”
From that first field recording experience, the recording of Native music became a hobby. Isaacs was also influenced by the Soundchief recordings, which were owned and produced by a Kiowa man named Linn Pauahty. Pauahty's method was to bring in up to five of the best singers of a particular genre of Native music and record them in a studio with a practiced set of songs. In much later years, Isaacs would become licensed by the Pauahty family to manufacture and distribute the Soundchief recordings. But when Isaacs made his first trip to Anadarko, Oklahoma, in 1956, for the American Indian Exposition, he discovered that live Native music was much different from what he'd heard on his favorite records.
“I was surprised,” said Isaacs. “There was around 20 guys around two big bass drums, really singing at the top of their lungs outdoors. I had learned that studio style of singing. I thought, ‘Gee. I didn’t really learn what singing sounded like.’ Having been from Los Angeles and having never visited a real singing, I had never learned how they really sing.”
Eventually, Isaacs earned his bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of California-Los Angeles and eventually studied the Kiowa language as part of the Summer Institute of Linguistics. All the while, Isaacs continued to record songs throughout the western United States. He also married Ida Lujan, of the Taos and San Juan Pueblos, with whom he would eventually found Indian House Records in 1966.
“Ida really set the tone for the style of Indian House,” Isaacs said about Ida, who died in 1985. “I had some anthropology training, as did she. She is the one who kept it in an Indian perspective and maintained that. She was very encouraging all the time and very interested in not just one kind of music but all kinds.”
Ida’s influence included the album covers, where she wanted to show what the singers looked like and how the singers dressed at the time of the recording. In essence, she didn’t want old photographs or paintings depicting the past.
“‘I want to show that Indians are alive and well and singing today,” said Isaacs, quoting his wife. “‘We don’t have to be coming from yesteryear.’ That’s her input there.”
The Isaacs’ recording hobby morphed into a commercial business, and their first recordings were of Taos singers, particularly because of the popularity of the songs among Kiowa singers. But the couple wanted to record what hadn’t been done before, and wanted to start with the music of the Ponca. Much of the input, including the use of a camp crier, was suggested by the Ponca singers themselves. In one session, the Ponca singers recorded both volumes of War Dance Songs of the Ponca in 1967.
Isaacs' recording style can be traced back to his days at the American Indian Exposition when he decided to record Native singers exactly as they sounded in their particular context. Isaacs also said that he likes to feed the singers either before or after the recording. A key part of his methodology is to make contact with those who know who the best singers are. One example is when Isaacs wanted to record Comanche peyote songs in 1969, his key contact was his adopted Kiowa father, David Apekaum, who knew which singers to ask.
“My goal is, I like to show as much as possible what a performance really sounds like outdoors—a really good performance,” said Isaacs. “I don’t like the indoor sound. It’s sort of phony to me for traditional singing, unless it’s normally performed indoors—something like handgame. With Native American Church songs, the best sound is in the tipi. It’s most natural in there. That’s where I try to record where it would traditionally be performed, so I get that kind of acoustics.”
Although Isaacs does not record actual peyote meetings, he said he likes to record in a tipi because the water drum sound carries out, and the voices stay within the tipi, making for strong acoustics.
Isaacs also prefers to have input from the singers, who can tell within the liner notes the meaning and history of the songs, and who originally composed them.
One of the key people with whom Isaacs worked was Matthew “Mac” Whitehorse, who served as bustle keeper of the Kiowa O-Ho-Mah Lodge until his death last year at age 94. In 1975 and starting again in the 1990’s, Isaacs recorded many songs of O-Ho-Mah Lodge, including songs owned by individual members.
“I always thought a lot about Mac,” Isaacs said. “I really, really, really admired him. I’d been dancing [at their ceremonial] for 40 years. They always welcomed me. I was never a member, but I’d been dancing there since the ‘60s. They always welcomed me and made me feel at home. I felt good to be there. I liked that kind of dance where there’s no contest—it’s original stuff.”
Isaacs has seen the evolution from analog to digital recording, and he said that it is much easier to edit digitally than it is to slice a tape with a razor blade.
“At first, I was an analog guy,” said Isaacs. “I’m in favor of all the digital stuff now, especially if it’s good quality digital. When digital first came out, it wasn’t very good quality. A lot of the stuff sounded tinny. It didn’t sound very good. Now, the technology has been here for a number of years. You can get real good quality sound on the digital format.”
Isaacs’ current projects include editing music he has had on the shelf for up to the past 30 years, getting his music onto CD. Although Isaacs has given thought to retiring, he continues on with the support of his two sons.
“I’ll just keep going as long as I can,” Isaacs said.
Visit Indian House Records online at indianhouse.com.