Ballard, Louis Wayne

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Louis Wayne Ballard

Louis W. Ballard (born 1931) is the most prominent Native American at work in the tradition of classical music. A noted music educator as well, he has been a pioneer in creating a place for the Native American musical heritage in the music curricula studied by children of various backgrounds.

Ballard's music has been performed at major concert halls in America and around the world, including Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York, The John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C., and venues in Argentina, Austria, England, China, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Russia, and Spain. He has written music in genres ranging from chamber works to symphonies, with special emphasis on vocal music and ballet. The author of three books about Native American music, he was at once a champion of Native American traditions and a believer in the possibility of blending them with the classical music of Europe and the United States. "I was living in two worlds," Ballard told Lynn Franey of the Kansas City Star, recalling a music school assignment in which he arranged an Indian round dance in the style of a European composer. "The world of my culture and the world of Western music."

Grew Up on Reservation

Ballard was exposed to both worlds early in his life. He was born in the Native American town of Devil's Promenade, near Quapaw, Oklahoma, on July 8, 1931. Ballard's background was Quapaw and French on his mother's side and Cherokee and Scottish on his father's, and both Cherokee and Quapaw chiefs were among his ancestors. He was raised in the ways of the Quapaw culture, learning to sing and lead dances in the tribal tradition by the time he was 12. He was given a Quapaw name, Honganózhe, meaning "Stands with Eagles." The European-American side of Ballard's early music education came through his mother Leona, who played the piano and composed music for children. Ballard's grandmother encouraged him to take up the piano himself, and he had some lessons at a local mission.

Ballard learned to read music, and soon he was writing down original ideas of his own in musical notation. Becoming a composer was an almost unheard-of option for a young Native American at the time, however, and it took him quite a few years of studying at various institutions before he could align his education with his musical ambitions. In the early 1950s he attended Bacone College, a missionary institution affiliated with the American Baptist Church, and Northeast Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College. Ballard financed his own education with a series of part-time jobs that included janitor, waiter, dishwasher, and ambulance driver. After taking classes at the University of Oklahoma he completed a music degree at the University of Tulsa in 1954 and then spent two years as director of vocal and instrumental music for the Negaloney (Oklahoma) Public Schools. In 1956 he became director of vocal music at Webster High School in Tulsa, remaining there until 1958. From 1959 to 1962 Ballard gave private music lessons while working toward his master's degree at the University of Tulsa.

Various American composers, including Edward MacDowell and Arthur Farwell, had tried to incorporate traditional Native American music into classical forms, but Ballard's principal inspiration came instead from a Hungarian composer, Béla Bartók, whom Ballard may have encountered at Tulsa through a Hungarian-born teacher, Bela Rozsa. Bartók was an ethnomusicological researcher who recorded traditional melodies of Eastern European folk cultures and incorporated them into his own music, and Ballard set out to do the same thing with the music he had known when he was growing up.

Composed School Anthem

Even before he received his master's degree at Tulsa in 1962, Ballard was writing music with a distinctive Native American consciousness. He was present around the time of the founding of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) Museum in Santa Fe, a pioneering institution in developing contemporary expressions of Native American culture. As recorded on the Indian Country website, "You came around and were making a song of the cottonwoods," Zuni Pueblo artist Tsabetsaye told Ballard as the two recalled the institution's early days. Ballard's song became the IAIA's anthem, and from 1962 to 1970 he served first as the school's director of music and then as director of performing arts.

In the 1960s, Ballard continued his musical education, taking composition lessons with a group of internationally known composers that included French-born Darius Milhaud and the Italian Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, earning a doctorate in music at the College of Santa Fe in 1973. It was during this period that Ballard's music began to be widely performed outside the Native American world. Two of his first major pieces were ballets; Koshare, based on Hopi legends, was performed in Spain in the early 1960s, inaugurating a long record of international interest in Ballard's works, and Jijogweh, the Witch-Water Gull was completed in 1962.

Ballard's reputation grew with such works as Why the Duck Has a Short Tail, for narrator and symphony orchestra, based on a Navajo story (and performed by the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra in 1969). Another ballet, The Four Moons, was used in celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the state of Oklahoma. Ballard's woodwind quintet Ritmo Indio won a major compositional honor, the Marion Nevins MacDowell Award, and the octet Desert Trilogy, which had its premiere in Lubbock, Texas, in 1971, did even better, earning the composer a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in music, perhaps the composition world's top honor. Nearly all of Ballard's music had Native American musical content or subject matter. Even the vocal cantata Portrait of Will Rogers could be classified according to those criteria, for the famed Oklahoma humorist sometimes remarked that his ancestors didn't come over on the Mayflower, but met the boat. Ballard's widely performed Music for the Earth and Sky mixed Native American and standard orchestral percussion. Some of the top symphony orchestras in the U.S., including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, performed his works in concert.

One of Ballard's most ambitious and important pieces was Incident at Wounded Knee, whose full title was Incident at Wounded Knee for chamber orchestra, dramatizing the rebellion of the Sioux Indians at the locality known as Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Ballard received the commission for the work in 1973 as a Federal Bureau of Investigation agents began a controversial occupation of the Pine Ridge reservation. The work was in four movements, with different sections inspired by Native American concepts of procession, prayer, blood, war, and ritual. Premiered in Warsaw, Poland, Incident at Wounded Knee continued to gain performances by American orchestras, including one at Carnegie Hall in 1999.

Became BIA Music Curriculum Director

Married twice, Ballard had three children. He continued to compose new music into the 1990s, including the opera Moontide (1994), which had its premiere in Germany. Many of his choral and vocal works incorporated texts in Native American languages. In 1970, however, Ballard embarked on a new phase of his professional career, becoming Director of Music Curriculum Programs for the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior. It was a challenging post, for the BIA was regarded with mistrust by many Native Americans as a result of decades of attempts to stamp out indigenous cultural expression in the Indian community. Ballard largely remade music education in Native American schools, introducing both traditional and modern Indian materials and encouraging the teaching of Indian instruments in an attempt to familiarize students with the musical systems of various tribes. Ballard modestly credited innovative supervisors with his freedom to incorporate Native American cultures into the formerly hostile BIA environment, but he is widely regarded as a pioneer in the use of ethnic materials in music education. Ballard made his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his second wife, Ruth, a concert pianist.

Ballard's work at the BIA fed into his work on a musiceducational publication, Native American Indian Songs. Published in 2004, it included two compact discs containing 28 songs from various Native American cultures, photographs, text translations, cultural background, and an accompany guidebook for music teachers with instructions on how to teach the songs to students. "This guidebook means a lot to me, and to Americans everywhere, including Native Americans," Ballard said in a 2004 press release. "This is America's cultural heritage. I want the tradition of our songs and our music to live on, and the best way to do that is to teach all teachers how to teach them. Simple as that." Ballard wrote two other books, My Music Reaches the Sky (1973) and Music of North American Indians (1975), as well as numerous articles.

Ballard expanded on his aims in a statement, reproduced on the website of his New Southwest Music Publishing company, that he called the Ballard Credo: "It is not enough to acknowledge that Native American Indian music is merely different from other music. What is needed in America is an awakening and reorienting of our total spiritual and cultural perspectives to embrace, understand, and learn from the Aboriginal American what motivates his musical and artistic impulses." Ballard put these ideas into practice whenever he could, even leading a group of Indian dancers and musicians in an all-Indian halftime show at a National Football League game in Washington, D.C.

Numerous forms of recognition came Ballard's way in the 1990s and 2000s. In 1991 he participated in the Meet the Composer program underwritten by the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Foundation. He was the first American composer to be honored with a program devoted entirely to his music at the Beethovenhalle concert hall in Bonn, Germany, and he notched another first when he became the only classical composer to attain membership in the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. The culmination of a series of honors he received from Native American cultural organizations was a Lifetime Music Achievement Award from the organization First Americans in the Arts. In 2000, Ballard served as distinguished visiting professor of music at William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, where he also received an honorary doctorate in 2001. "He is a rare man," local Indian center director Justin Orr told the Kansas City Star's Lynn Franey. "He has managed to capture the essence of Indian life and translate it into an artistic form, which takes great discipline." The comment might serve as a summary of a unique compositional career.


Notable Native Americans, Gale, 1995.


Kansas City Star, April 20, 2001.

PR Newswire, October 6, 2004.


"Biography," New Southwest Music Publishing Company, (January 4, 2006).

"Louis W. Ballard: Composer fuses world with Native sound," Indian Country Today, (January 4, 2006).

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Ballard, Louis Wayne

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