Ethnomusicologist and active musician Kristina Jacobsen talks about the music and authenticity of Native Americans

"Music for all cultures gives us the ability to express pain, joy, hopes and desires. But is also gives us the ability to express subtler emotions including irony, satire, double entendre, and it allows us to imitate and distance ourselves from musical messages, too, while performing."

Kristina Jacobsen: Honky Tonk Nation

New Mexico based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Kristina Jacobsen combines elements of honky tonk, western, Americana and roots music to create soulful, place-based songs. Inspired by time spent in Norway, Italy and the Navajo Nation, she performs on both acoustic and lapsteel guitars, joining expansive, yodeling melodies to lyrics delving into the beauty and pain of human experience. Drawing favorable comparisons to Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams and Patty Loveless, Kristina’s songs are equal parts honest, playful and open-hearted. Kristina also fronts the all-girl honky tonk band, the Merlettes. Kristina Jacobsen is an Assistant Professor of Music and Anthropology (Ethnology) at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She co-directs the newly created Masters in Musicology at the University of New Mexico, and is also the faculty sponsor for the newly created Honky Tonk Ensemble (country music of the '60s, '70s and '80s) at UNM. Kristina earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology (2012) at Duke University, the MPhil in Ethnomusicology at Columbia University (2005) and an M.A. in Ethnomusicology at Arizona State University (2003).                 Photo © by Kent Corley

Her teaching, research, and scholarship focus on music and language, anthropology of the voice, politics of authenticity, indigeneity and belonging, music of Native North America and the Appalachian mountains, race and musical genre, indigenous language revitalization and working class expressive cultures. Recent articles include “Radmilla’s Voice: Music Genre, Blood Quantum and Belonging on the Navajo Nation” (Cultural Anthropology, 2014) and “Rita(hhh): Placemaking and Country Music on the Navajo Nation” (Ethnomusicology, 2009). Based on 2 ½ years of singing and playing with Navajo county western bands, her forthcoming book, ​The Sound of Navajo Country: Country Music and the Politics of Language and Diné Belonging (forthcoming March 2017), examines ideas of authenticity, nostalgia and cultural intimacy as they circulate in and through live performances of classic country music on today’s Navajo (Diné) Nation. Kristina Jacobsen’s first album, Three Roses (2015), proves that she is a certified country singer/songwriter who couldn’t be more authentic if she had been born backstage at the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, a program that she celebrates in a song of the same name. She delivers her 11 originals in a yodeling alto that can warm your heart, bite off a searing denunciation, or celebrate good times with equal fervor. The songs revolve, for the most part, around family, both blood and chosen, and she is especially adept at portraits.

Interview by Michael Limnios            Special Thanks: Rob Amberg

What touched (emotionally) you from Anthropology and Ethnomusicology? How do you think you have changed most as an individual?

Doing fieldwork for 2 ½ years on the Navajo Nation, where I sang and played lap steel guitar with Navajo country western bands, was a very powerful and transformative experience. I’ve been learning the Navajo language for almost twenty years, so this work was in many ways the culmination of much of that linguistic and cultural work I’d done before that. I also was a sheep/goat herder for three months during that time, and lived in a traditional Navajo “hooghan” or roundhouse with an east-facing door. So, that stint of fieldwork for me made me really feel like an “anthropologist” for the first time. At it best, fieldwork, or deep “hanging out,” and the ethnographic writing that results from fieldwork, humanizes our interlocutors and allows us to take the subjectivity seriously of other people/communities that we otherwise might dismiss or know only through stereotypes. Entering the Navajo community deeply has therefore changed the way I see art, politics, social class and power.

In ethnomusicology, the methodology of “participant observation” takes on new meaning, as to participate in a musical context often means participating musically or performing with the groups or musicians you are learning about. I played with the musicians I wrote about in my book, The Sound of Navajo Country: Music, Language and Diné Belonging (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), and making music with fellow musicians became a fantastic method not only for breaking the ice and building trust with your interlocutors, but also gave me the ability to go much more deeply into the musical style and social worlds I wanted to learn about.                 (Photo © by Rob Amberg, 2016)

"Living on Navajo Nation has also influenced me as a songwriter. Writing songs about the Navajo Nation and then performing them on Navajo soil for Navajo audiences forces me to hear my songs through other ears, and to really consider the social work my songs are doing."

How do you describe your sound and songbook? What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past?

I think of my sound as “honky tonk Americana.” I’ve been strongly influenced by honky tonk music—older American country of the 50s, 60s and 70s—and by the sound of Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells in particular. I also imbibed the folk music influences of my father, who’s also a singer and songwriter, and raised us singing Norwegian and British folk songs from a young age. So, folk and roots music also form an important part of my sound.

My own songbook—my repertoire—consists of slow, cry-in-your-beer ballads, and up-tempo, sassy songs that speak truth to power. My material draws from my time spent living in Italy, Norway, the Navajo Nation and in other rural parts of the U.S., including Appalachia. My songs are English but I also sing in Navajo, Norwegian, Spanish in Italian, languages I also speak. I’ll often close with an original, Cajun-inspired song that involves audience participation, and I love interacting with my audience when I perform. When playing with my all-girl honky tonk band, Merlettes, we do about 2/3rd cover songs—classic honky tonk tunes by Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Tammy Wynette, but also country songs by Aboriginal Australian and indigenous Hawaiian artists—and my up-tempo originals.

I think what I miss most right now about music of the past—that is, the music I grew up with—is making music in small, intimate settings where the emphasis is less on performance and skill and more on connecting with other people through making music, on communicating the story line of a good song, or on simply listening while we sit in our living room on a Friday or Saturday night. I liked the unpretentiousness of it, and the sense of ease it brought to performer and listener. I also find the idea of playing to/for a higher spiritual power very powerful, and getting out of our own way when we perform. I experienced this performing in small, Baptist churches in the Appalachian mountains in deeply religious communities, and It was very powerful as a performer to really have the music de-emphasized and the spiritual purpose of it made primary.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Honky Tonk with the Blues, Rock n’ Roll, Folk and indigenizing music?

Honky Tonk is connected to other American music genres—including blues, rock ‘n roll and folk—in all sorts of ways. Really great honky tonk singers tend to bend their notes a lot, and also slide between notes. This is of course a common feature of blues singing style as well, and originated in the blues and was then brought to early country music—for example, as heard in the singing style of Jimmie Rodgers in the 1927 Bristol Sessions—and became part of country’s iconic stylistic toolkit. Country originated from American folk music and music of the Appalachian mountains, as heard most clearly in the songs of the Carter Family, who also are considered founding figures of American country music and also recorded at the famous Ralph Peer Bristol Sessions in Bristol Tennessee/Virginia in 1927 (you can also hear the influence of Tin Pan Alley songs on their repertoire). Beginning in the 1690s, Scotch, Irish and English immigrants began migrating to the Appalachian mountains (where I am living right now) in the U.S., and brought their music—instrumental tunes and mournful, solo ballads—with them. These songs morphed to reflect new surroundings and environments, and eventually solidified into a new genre of music that became the foundation for American country music.

"One of my hopes for the Navajo Nation is for outsiders to really know it through experience and contact with this beautiful place." (Photo © by Rob Amberg, 2016)

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Over the last five years, I’ve had to opportunity to meet and work with some amazing singer/songwriters and country artists, including Mary Gauthier, Terri Hendrix, Steve Seskin and Allen Chamblin. Each of them has given me some really key advice which has helped to push me forward and grow as an artist. Mary Gauthier encouraged me to simply keep putting in the work and play at least 1000 solo shows before worrying about money, recognition or broader circulation as an artist. She also encouraged me to keep pushing for my own original voice, tirelessly, and not settle for anything less in my songs. Other great advice I’ve been given from fellow singer/songwriters and performers including Meredith Wilder (U.S.), Sonya Heller (U.S./France) and Annette Bjergfeldt (Denmark) include owning the stage and making it my own “living room” for the time I’m up there, not apologizing for myself, my art or any imperfections I see in myself as an artist or musician, and feeling free/giving myself permission to exude the sense of joy and spontaneity I often feel while performing on stage.

If you could change one thing in the Native American history and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Settler colonialism, and the ongoing ways in which indigenous peoples are subjected to a process of social, cultural, linguistic and political marginalization by surrounding nation-states such as the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. People in the U.S. tend to think of the “Indian Wars” as something of the past, a tragic event that we can now lament as a wrong of the past. In my teaching and from my time spent living on the Navajo Nation, I emphasize the fact that colonialism is an ongoing process not an event, and very much continues into the present. It’s not a neat and tidy event from the past that we can lament over as we drink our coffee and sip our wine. So, I encourage well-meaning non-Natives to eliminate the phrase “what we did to the Indians was so terrible” and replace it with specifics—which “Indians”? where? When?—and then engage with those communities, learn about them and the ways they are vital, and alive, and succeeding as sovereign nations, today. “White guilt” is completely unproductive and actually becomes a way to not engage with real people, issues and Native peoples, and I refuse to let people dwell in that space if I have any control over it.

What is the impact of music to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications of Native American people?

Music for all cultures gives us the ability to express pain, joy, hopes and desires. But is also gives us the ability to express subtler emotions including irony, satire, double entendre, and it allows us to imitate and distance ourselves from musical messages, too, while performing. This is also true on Navajo Nation and for Navajo musicians. Many of the country musicians I’ve worked with see themselves as the original ranchers in the southwest, and see country music—and loving country music—as a logical extension of that lifestyle. So, it’s not uncommon to meet people with names like “Garth Brooks Yazzie,” “George Strait Begay” and “Shelby Lynn Henry,” all names of famous country singers appended to traditional Diné last names. Rather than imitating a “white” genre of popular music, Navajo musicians embrace, reinterpret and make country music their own, emplacing it in a new landscape—the Navajo Nation of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah—in the process.

"Honky Tonk is connected to other American music genres—including blues, rock ‘n roll and folk—in all sorts of ways. Really great honky tonk singers tend to bend their notes a lot, and also slide between notes." (Photo © by Rob Amberg, 2016)

How has the culture and life of Native Americans influenced your views of the world and the journey you’ve taken?

Well, I can’t really speak to other Native communities, so I’ll speak only to my experience with Navajo (Diné) communities, here. I’ve ranched and lived on the Navajo Nation without running water for five years on the Navajo Nation, and it taught me a huge amount about independence, self-reliance, and learning how to “make do” when the nearest store is 2 ½ hours away from where you’re living. And I re-developed a keen appreciation for working with livestock—horses, cattle, sheep and goats in particular—and learned how satisfying animal husbandry and taking really good care of your animals and being in touch with their needs can be.

Navajo communities are incredibly diverse—as diverse as the U.S. nation that surrounds them—so Navajos are ranchers, sheepherders, welders and construction workers, but also doctors, lawyers, professional golfers and noted scholars. In my own scholarship I’m interested in showing the internal diversity of the Navajo Nation and also to show the social hierarchies—based on class, language abilities, place of residence, and musical taste—that exist on today’s Navajo Nation.

Living on Navajo Nation has also influenced me as a songwriter. Writing songs about the Navajo Nation and then performing them on Navajo soil for Navajo audiences forces me to hear my songs through other ears, and to really consider the social work my songs are doing. The same is true if I write a song about Appalachia, or Norway, and then perform the song on that soil. All songs happen somewhere, and songs are fundamentally tied to place, directly and indirectly.

What is the biggest revolution which can be realized today? What do you think the major changes will be in near or far future of the world? What are your hopes and fears for the future of Navajo Nation?

One of my hopes for the Navajo Nation is for outsiders to really know it through experience and contact with this beautiful place. Rather than through pat generalizations, stereotype and news media, I’m passionate about people coming to Navajo Nation, eating mutton stew at a flea market, hiking in Canyon De Chelly national monument, helping with a family cattle branding, attending a country western dance and learning to two-step, learning how to weave, or learning a word or two of Navajo. It’s for this exact reason and to have some of these experiences that I offer a weeklong songwriting retreat and cultural immersion experience at a ranch on Navajo Nation every summer, hosted by a Navajo family.

Kristina Jacobsen - Official website

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