Indian Melodies, by Thomas Commuck, was published in 1845 and is widely recognized as the first book of music published by a Native American author. Commuck was a member of the Narragansett tribe of Rhode Island. Indian Melodies contains 120 hymns to which Commuck assigned names of “noted Indian chiefs, Indian females, Indian names of place, &c [sic]. This has been done merely as a tribute of respect to the memory of some tribes that are now nearly if not quite extinct; also as a mark of courtesy to some tribes which whom the author is acquainted.” (Commuck, vi)
Commuck writes in the preface:
“The author of the following original tunes wished to get some person better educated than himself to write a preface or introduction to his little work; but on reflection it occurred to him that he could tell the public all about it as well as any one else… He is, however, fully aware of the difficulties attendant upon an attempt to appear successfully as an author before a scrutinizing and discerning public, especially when unaided by the influence of wealth, or a long list of influential friends… Add to this the circumstance of having been born, not only in obscurity, but being descended from that unfortunate and proscribed people, the Indians, with whose name a considerable portion of the enlightened American people are unwilling to associate even the shadow of anything like talent, virtue, or genius, and as being wholly incapable of any improvement, either moral, mental, or physical, and the wonder will cease to be a wonder. In view of all these disadvantages, it is not without great diffidence that he attempts to appear at the bar of public opinion, not knowing but JUDGE PREJUDICE may preside, and condemn his work to the deep and silent shades of everlasting oblivion, without even a hearing.” (Commuck, iii)
Commuck’s Indian Melodies can be viewed in the Archives & Special Collections on the 2nd floor of the Collins Memorial Library.
The Archives & Special Collections has drop-in hours on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM or is open by appointment.
By Laura Edgar, Assistant Archivist