Instruments and Music of Arizona’s Pioneers

January 16, 2015


by Paul Cooley

On the evening of January 8th, one week after Sedona was blanketed with a beautiful snowfall of from 6 to 8 inches, the Sedona Westerners, at their monthly meeting, were engulfed in a web of music magic and Arizona history by Dr. Jay Cravath. Dr. Cravath has taught, presented and originated music in Arizona since 1979, when he was a junior high school music teacher on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

Dr. Cravath introduced a wide variety of drum, woodwind, and string instruments to the Sedona Westerners. He not only gave an oral history of each one relating to their beginnings in Arizona, but treated the audience to renditions on each instrument from early Hopi and Anasazi flute songs. He included renditions of cowboy pioneer tunes, which dealt with Arizona's sometimes raunchy mining history in such places as Tucson and Tombstone, to Chicago Blues style music.

Dr. Cravath's presentation titled "The Instruments and Music of Arizona's Pioneers" is a part of the statewide Arizona Humanities Counsel Speakers Bureau program that presents engaging, informative and stimulating humanities presentations. Dr. Cravath has been involved in Native American education and the arts for many years. His publications include North American Indian Music, The Mohave Book for Little Ones, and The Chemehuevi Book for Little Ones. Among his documentary work includes "1000 Years of Song: the Apache." He presently serves, among several other capacities, as Director of Culture for the Chemehuevi Native American tribe.

While playing the banjo, Dr. Cravath had the Westerns singing along and tapping their feet to "Shorten' Bread". He stated that the banjo had its origins from African slaves in early America, who were prohibited by their owners from playing the drum, so they added a neck and strings onto a drum and hence the banjo. He had the audience reciprocating verbally to his banjo playing cords on "Dueling Banjos" from the movie 1970s classic "Deliverance". In addition to the banjo, he masterfully played the flute, Athabascan water drum, Apache crown dance rattles, Spanish guitar, Jew's harp, dulcimer, harmonica, lap harp and mandolin.

Dr. Cravath demonstrated various methods of playing the harmonica, giving a rendition of his first simplistic "song" of few notes played by him on a plastic harmonica as a child. He played his versions of a Western style "O Suzanna", as would have been played by pioneers coming west to California and Oregon. He then demonstrated a "Blues Harp" technique developed by African Americans which was carried out to towns like Chandler where they plied their trade involving cotton production, blending a tone to represent crying and moaning.

Dr. Jay Cravath playing the Lap Harp

He related that in early Western Europe the guitar was not widely known or used and that Fernando Sor, from Spain, introduced it to the great composer Beethoven in Paris, who was quoted saying “it sounds like a miniature orchestra”. Beethoven went on to write several compositions specifically for the guitar. It was later introduced to Mexico and became a staple of mariachi bands that were formed to entertain rich Mexican ranchers on their cattle spreads. Dr. Cravath then performed a rendition of Jimmy Reed's classic recording of “You Got Me Running” to demonstrate the introduction of the Chicago blues style guitar into Arizona in the 1960s.

The presentation was brought to a close by a Dr. Cravath’s selection of an original song called “Trail of Tears”, that was a love song with an underlying Native American forced relocation theme. He explained to the Sedona Westerners the musical concept of “vocables” where vocal syllables are sung, with no actual meaning, such as “do wop”, and are used as a part of the rendition of the song. He asked the Sedona Westerners to join in with the singing of the vocable portion of the song, and they did in an admirable fashion.

Whether as a Sedona Westerner you attended this presentation as a music fan or a history buff, or both, you were captivated and entertained by this one person show of musical skill and historical knowledge.

If you are interested in joining the club, please go to our website at or just come to one of our monthly meetings. The next one will be on Thursday, February 12, 2015 at 7 pm at the Sedona Elks Club, 110 Airport Road.