Sympathy for the Temple
My task in Buffalo was straightforward enough: three days at the downtown public library to research part of a book I was writing about American music, specifically the life and times of my great-uncle Carmelo, a Sicilian immigrant who made archtop guitars in that city between 1934 and his death in 1946.
Something of a visionary, Carmelo patented a guitar with strings set at each end of a modular neck that was designed to slide in and out of the acoustic body in a single piece. His goal was a sturdier, less expensive instrument that kept the pull of the strings from eventually bending the neck away from the body without using an interior bracing rod, standard in other high-end guitars.
The writing of The Guitar and the New World had already taken several turns by the time I got to Buffalo. You’ll find in the history of Carmelo’s native Sicily that mix of Roman and Arabic cultures which produced what’s now called the Classical guitar, that that instrument was a product of southern Italy as well as Spain; and that our guitar took modern form after the first voyages to America, with a fifth string added for bass notes. The instrument was now meant to be strummed loudly to accompany the new folk dances that soldiers and sailors brought back from overseas: sexy versions of the Native American dances they saw over here.
It was after grasping this that what became the book’s central premise came to me: that the roots of American music—of what we now call Old Time Country and the Blues—are in fact in the tonic-sevenths, vocal traditions, and heartbeat rhythms of Native American music. It wasn’t that hard to find evidence of this in a variety of written sources and phonograph records. The greater mystery was why no one thought of it before.
Of course, the answer to that rests in the long, deeply sad and conveniently forgotten history of how three cultures, Native, African, and European, lived in conflict and accord, as captives and captors, in sometimes intimate circumstances in the great wilderness east of the Mississippi in the 250 years before the Civil War. Grim history is easy to forget. What remains however is a broad citizenry of fantastically mixed, and mainly hidden identities, along with a collection of old recordings made by country people, songs of heedless joy and of dark menace, or the feelings that lie between both; an aural history you can listen to without knowing exactly what it is you’re hearing.
All this was already on my mind when I got to the microfilm room at the Buffalo library. But while reading turn-of-the-20th-Century news stories of Italian immigrant life in the city, I was soon enough distracted by the 1901 Buffalo World’s Fair, as it was reported each day by the city’s four newspapers. With growing feelings of fascination and dismay I soon realized the book required another chapter. Every one of its themes was present in the stories from the fair: the transmission of craft across a mix of cultures, the advent of immigrants and the indelible presence of Native peoples, all acting in a vivid and violent lost history.
Oh, and music, which was there everywhere; it was nothing less than the fraught American Experience performed on a gaudy stage.
Now completely forgotten except by former western New York schoolchildren, The 1901 Buffalo Pan-American Exposition, as it was officially titled, was a showcase of foreign cultures and new industry (chief among the latter being the electrification of businesses and homes) presented to an entranced middle class citizenry. The so-called Pan was a lot of things, both symbolic and concrete; it’s baroque pavilions were painted bright colors, decorated in Native and Classical allegory, and illuminated with new-fangled electric spotlights and light bulbs. These encrusted the larger buildings and their glow gave the grounds at night a mysterious, stupendous quality no one had experienced before; something we moderns might recognize now as the physical lure of new technology.
The Pan’s theme, judging by its fulsome promotion trumpeted in the newspapers, was along the lines of frivolity and empire. It celebrated America’s new colonies, wrested by war from the grip of old Spain, and promoted racial glorification in the design and decoration of its monuments, a sort of Nordic-peoples’ apotheosis over the darker “races” which the new technology was making possible.
That the architect of the Spanish-American War, the very popular President William McKinley, was shot and mortally wounded while visiting the fair that September certainly had a lot to do with why the Pan, which also ended up a financial failure, slipped fully down the old memory hole. That the president was gunned down at a place called the Temple of Music, a lavish venue at the center of the grounds, probably strikes most people as a very minor detail.
The Temple symbolized an integral element of the Pan’s spectacle, proclaiming the superiority of European orchestral music in the midst of other, less “advanced”, styles: mainly what we now call World Music. Besides the classical ensembles and military style brass bands that gave daily recitals in and around the Temple, a series of “foreign village” venues along the fair’s mile-long midway offered their own idiomatic sounds. There was a Mexican marimba band, West African drumming, German polkas (and yodeling), Japanese shamisen players, spirituals and cakewalks at the “Old Plantation”, and Neapolitan bel canto. A Hawaiian string band, with its ukuleles and slack key slide guitars, was very popular. There were also songs and dances of Native Americans, performed three times daily at something called the Indian Congress.
Meant to be an elegiac farewell to the “vanishing Redman”, the Congress brought together dozens of different Indigenous nations and bands from across the lower 48 and was, given its exploitive premise, remarkably respectful of Native American culture. Stars of the show were two old men: the great Sioux chief Red Cloud, and Geronimo himself, officially a federal prisoner for the past 15 years.
There was also, debuting a week before McKinley’s arrival, Peta the Electrified Indian, a performer who each night at 9 walked a charged high wire above the Congress enclosure of tipis, and, being electrically ungrounded, conducted power to large light bulbs hanging from his balancing pole; an amazing sight for all. In the excitement, none of the whites apparently noticed that, in channeling electricity, Peta became the living avatar of a Thunder Being, familiar to all the attending plains people as the great protecting spirit who vents death with lightning and brings the rain of rebirth.
Though history records that McKinley was shot by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz on September 9, 1901, and died in Buffalo five days later, it rarely mentions that Geronimo attended McKinley’s memorial service in the city and issued his own eulogy to the Great White Chief, a statement of loss which reads far more ambiguously today as was taken then.
History leaves no trace of who Peta was, or what became of him; but it has shown that the “Redman” did not vanish. In fact, the Electrified Indian stands at the beginning of a Native American cultural revival, which grew from this, and wider performance experiences. Annual pow-wows greatly resemble the daily parade ceremonies at the Buffalo Congress, and are all part of something now called, interestingly enough, the Pan Indian movement.
The 1901 fair, quickly forgotten, entered the cultural bloodstream. Coney Island’s amusement parks were rebuilt in its brightly lit image; the German yodeling heard there went first to vaudeville, then, thanks to Jimmie Rodgers, to singing cowboys. Hawaiian music became a real fad, and the Buffalo band went on national tour when the fair ended; the guitar slide itself became integral to an evolving style of southern country guitar playing and singing now named the Blues.