By bringing classical music techniques to what is largely regarded as a folk instrument, Mary Youngblood has revolutionized Native American flute playing. The first female Native flute player to achieve national acclaim, Youngblood's music is crafted to embrace atmospheric spirituality and allow a healing of both mind and spirit. The result has been a series of award-winning discs that have garnered strong favorable response from afficionados of New Age and Native American music.
Initially Played Folk Rock
Born on June 24, 1958, in Seattle, Washington, the half-Aleut/half-Seminole child was adopted by Dr. Bob and Leah Edwards, both educators. She began picking out songs on the piano heard on the radio when she was four years old. "We were at a friend's house when I first did that," Youngblood recalled, "and they said to my parents, ‘You should get her piano lessons.’ I was picking out ‘Downtown’ by Petula Clark. So, they inquired about piano lessons, but they couldn't find a teacher who would teach a child that young. So, I had to wait until I was five to take lessons and my first recital was when I was six years old."
When Mary Edwards moved with her parents to Tucson, she was keen to join the school band. Having arrived in mid-semester, the only instrument left was the classical flute. Her mother warned her that it was a difficult instrument to master. "I didn't care what instrument was left," Youngblood chuckled, "I wanted to be in the band. So, in their attempt to get me caught up, I started taking private classical flute lessons from a master's student at [University of Arizona]."
In addition to classical flute, Youngblood eventually mastered guitar, piano, synthesizer, marimba, and slit drum. During high school, when she wasn't playing flute in their concert band, pep band, and marching band, she honed her singing voice in church choirs. Despite this rigorous musical training, the college-bound student had her eyes on a different profession. "By the time I reached college, I wanted to be an art therapist," she recalled. "I was actually going to go to Fresno State University—they have the best occupational therapy program—but music just stole my soul away at that time."
She began playing local bars and high schools around Sacramento, California, with a folk-rock contingent called American Trucking Company. Their playlist was largely filled with covers of songs by James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkle, Chicago, the Doobie Brothers, and Youngblood's own favorite, Joan Baez.
Rediscovered her Native American Heritage
Similar to many adopted children, the young woman known as Mary Edwards felt a strong desire to find her biological parents. When she finally met her birth mother, Nadine Matsen, the experience changed her life. "I was 26 when I found her," explained Youngblood, "and I became really interested in my culture and my community." Asked if her adoptive parents supported her quest, the artist responded: "Oh yeah! It was hard at first, I think. But, once I met my birth mother, I came back to them and said, ‘Thank you for the way you raised me. I'm grateful.’ I've walked in both worlds. It hasn't always been easy but they were very supportive. … I've since lost my birth mother, but it was a really good experience, and I think [my adoptive parents are] glad that they let go and let that process just happen."
Married and divorced twice, she eventually took her birth father's surname, Youngblood, and began working in retail, selling high end Native America art, blankets, and pottery. "I ended up being on the Board of Directors for the Sacramento Urban Indian Health Project, which is our Indian clinic here for ten years," she recalled. "I got a really good education working that way too."
Although an accomplished musician, Youngblood didn't pick up the instrument she is best-known for playing until her early 30s. "It felt so natural." she reminisced. "I picked it up and played it and thought, ‘This is cool.’ I had no idea what I was doing. I had never heard Native American flute music before. Melodies just came to me immediately. It was like there was a magic connection between me and this instrument. It told me how to play it, if you will. That's a very Native way of thinking about it too."
Asked if the Native flute is substantially different than the classical instrument, Youngblood answered in the affirmative. "The classical flute of course is played transversely to the side. The Native American flute is played in the front. It has five to six holes, whereas the classical flute has keys and is chromatic. The Native flute is pretty much stuck in a certain key and you have six to fourteen notes—depending upon whether or not you half-hole the notes. It's a very simple instrument…it's made out of wood, traditionally cedar or redwood, that's what makes the sound so haunting."
Unaware that recordings by Native flute players even existed, Youngblood drew on her own training in classical flute to master the instrument, adding embellishments as she learned. Remarkably, she played her first gig a mere 30 days after she first picked up the instrument. "I just sat there and played my flute while some Native people walked into the store where I was working," she recalled. "Once my professional career kind of started … I'd get hired to play little gigs around town."
For a year she played with a flute that was out of pitch. As her musical career grew, she began to request that flute makers craft instruments for her that were up to classical specifications. She explained, "The instruments have really moved and morphed over the years and now flute-makers are really trying to make these instruments really, really well, so people like me can play them with a classical symphony or at least play with other musicians more easily."
For the Record …
Born on June 24, 1958, in Seattle, WA; adoptive parents: Dr. Bob and Leah Edwards (educators); birth mother named Nadine Matsen, biological father named Youngblood; Married twice; children: Benjamin, Elizabeth, Joseph, and Christopher.
Singer-songwriter, concert artist, motivational speaker, Native American flute player; took classical flute lessons at age six; spent early music career playing folk-rock in bar bands; took up the Native flute; composed and played soundtrack for documentary film The Spirit of Sacajawea, 2007; recorded for Silver Wave Records, 1998-;
Awards: Native American Music Award, Flutist of the Year, for The Offering, 1999; Native American Music Award, Flutist of the Year, for Heart of the World, 2000; The Association for Independent Music Award, Best Native American Recording and the New Age Voice Award, for Heart of the World, 2000; Grammy Award, Flutist of the Year, Native American Music category, for Beneath the Raven Moon, 2003; Grammy Award, Best Native American Music Album, for Dance with the Wind, 2007.
Addresses: Record company—Silver Wave Records, P.O. Box 7943, Boulder, CO 80306, phone: 303-433-5617. Booking—Yulunga Arts, P.O. Box 14604, Tucson, AZ 85732, phone: 520-325-2443. Website—Official Mary Youngblood Website: http://www.maryyoungblood.com, e-mail: [email protected]
Between gifts from friends and the cultivation of various flute-makers—whom she now gratefully acknowledges in the liner notes of every disc—Youngblood has accrued over 250 Native flutes. "All different keys" she explained. "I have maybe fifteen of them in F-sharp, thirty in the key of A-minor. They're all different, but I would say, only twenty are in pitch. … That's how hard it is to make these instruments perfect."
Grammy Winning Recording Artist
Youngblood's first big break as a recording artist came in 1998 when a producer at the PBS station in Sacramento asked her to contribute to a special titled American Indian Circles of Wisdom. The music she composed and recorded was put on cassette and sold as part of a fund-raising package during pledge break. Youngblood took copies of the cassette and began sending it around to labels that packaged Native American music, including Soil Records, Canyon Records, Sunshine Records, and Silver Wave. "I got bites from all of them," she recalled. "At this time, only men were playing the instrument, and it was traditionally played by men in most Native cultures. And, I was highly criticized in the Indian community at first for playing the instrument. But because of the melody and the different kind of sound I was getting from the instrument … I became someone of interest."
Youngblood signed with Silver Wave Records, and working with producer/musician Tom Wasinger, she created the haunting solo flute album The Offering, which was recorded inside the underground Moaning Caverns of California. Brimming with imagination and ethereal resonance, the disc garnered Youngblood her first ever Nammy, or Native American Music Award.
For her second album, Heart of the World, Youngblood began composing around a consistent theme that moved or inspired her, in this case the U'wa people of the rainforest. Using Wasinger's New Age production style, featuring guitar, bass, drums, dulcimer, and eagle bone whistle, the Heart of the World showcased Youngblood's playing on a variety of flutes, to great effect. The result won awards as both a Native American disc and a New Age album.
As a songwriter/composer, Youngblood has viewed each song as a gift from her instrument. She works up the hook of a melody by playing it on flute, piano or guitar. Once the idea is fleshed out, she records it onto a small tape recorder, and plays it for her producer, who might then add guitar or dulcimer accompaniment, though the flute remains the primary instrument.
The flutist's trust in Wasinger has made their partnership both unique and profitable. However, Youngblood has always looked to stretch the boundaries of her art, including adding vocals to a song. She explained, "I was a songwriter and singer before I ever picked up the Native American flute. So, I knew I had these other things to share. And, I like doing that. On each album I'll play piano on something, or classical flute."
Beneath the Raven Moon proved her point. In addition to incorporating elements of blues and classical, the album showcased her voice working in harmony with her vivid flute creations. Each song highlighted a line of the artist's poetry as a mood setter. The resultant album won Youngblood her first Grammy Award for Best Native American Music Album.
Emboldened by the success of Beneath the Raven Moon, Youngblood raised the stakes on her next album, Feed the Fire. Boasting guest appearances from Ian Anderson, Native American guitarist/songwriter Bill Miller, and Joanne Shenandoah, the album also featured two original songs sung by Youngblood. The album, which also showcased her work on piano and alto flute, garnered a 2005 Grammy nomination.
With so much critical success on her side, in 2006 Youngblood finally got the chance to do the album she had envisioned all along, Dance with the Wind, an album that proved therapeutic for her. "I think it's helped me grow," she explains, "because I don't dwell on those negative things."
With its uplifting hooks, tender vocals, and smart musicianship, Dance with the Wind won the 2007 Grammy for Best Native American Music Album. Despite the much-appreciated artistic acclaim, being a Grammy-winning artist has not put much money in Youngblood's pockets. As a result, when she isn't playing Community Arts functions or Pow Wows, she is often teaching others how to play the Native American flute. Moreover, she has written two instructional books on the instrument, with an instructional video in the works.
Monetary concerns aside, Youngblood still derives a lot of satisfaction from the catharsis her music creates for her listeners. "For me, my music is really about healing," she sums up. "I want to touch people's lives and help them feel something positive and good that maybe they didn't feel before. I get people coming up to me after concerts and just throwing their arms around me and weeping. And that's just wonderful! They'll say, ‘Oh my god, this touched my heart. I can't tell you how, but I just know some healing has taken place.’ I live for that."
The Offering, Silver Wave, 1998.
Heart of the World, Silver Wave, 1999.
Beneath the Raven Moon, Silver Wave, 2002.
Feed the Fire, Silver Wave, 2004.
Dance with the Wind, Silver Wave, 2006.
Grammy.com, http://www.grammy.com/GRAMMY_Awards/49th_Show/list.aspx (February 12, 2007).
"Mary Youngblood," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (July 6, 2007).
"Mary Youngblood," Internet Movie Database,http://www.imdb.com (September 16, 2007).
Silver Wave Records,http://www.silverwave.com (September 15, 2007).
Yulunga Arts,http://www.yulungaarts.com/MaryYoungblood/more.html (September 15, 2006).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a September 10, 2007, phone interview with the artist.
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