Powerful poetry from the past has found a contemporary audience with the release of “Poems to Songs: Hatchootucknee (Snapping Turtle).” Tulsa musician Scott Hutchisonin collaboration with vocalist Tanya Maksoodcreated the collection of songs from poems written by Choctaw Principal Chief Peter Pitchlynn nearly two centuries ago. The album is the realization of a dream for Hutchison, a Choctaw citizen who first encountered Pitchlynn’s poetry years ago in a 1972 biography.
Pitchlynn, who was born in 1806, spent much of his life working for the betterment of the Choctaw Nation. He founded a school for Choctaw boys and worked for years in Washington, DC, representing the interests of his people. The poems Hutchison chose for the album were written by Pitchlynn around the time of the Trail of Tears, a series of forced relocations of Native Americans from their homelands undertaken by the US government beginning in the 1830s. An estimated 100,000 Indigenous people were displaced from their homes, and thousands died on the journey to resettlement on lands west of the Mississippi (including Oklahoma).
Catching up with the history of what the nation went through on the Trail of Tears deeply impacted Hutchison. “Jawbone (Walk I Say),,” written in 1831, describes the hardships of the trail and indicts many of the US leaders involved, including Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay† The music by Hutchison and Maksood, vocals from Maksood and Hutchison’s daughter Norahand flute and drums from award-winning Native American musician Gareth LaffelyPitchlynn’s words come to life once again, with immediacy and relevance.
This poetry is almost 200 years old, but it still rings true because the words encompass a timeless wisdom.
“They related to nature so much as part of life. They took care of it when they moved, wanted it to be part of their life. This is where they were,” Hutchison says. “It wasn’t like they wanted to build the city over all of nature, and a lot of those lyrics say stuff that was ahead of its time.”
Creating the album has given Hutchison an opportunity to grow his relationship with other Choctaw citizens. After he shared his ideas for the songs with Durant-based Choctaw artist Jane Semple-Umstedshe contributed some of her artwork for the CD, which Hutchison says gave him a deeper connection to the tribe.
As the project progressed, Hutchison also consulted with Charles Shadlea citizen of the Choctaw Nation and a senior lecturer in composition and theory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Music and Theater Arts Department.
“I think setting Pitchlynn’s poems in a style that evokes modern folk and country styles is right, especially as these styles harken back to the very sort of music that Pitchlynn and his people would have had in their ears,” Shadle says. “It is remarkable and wonderful that (Hutchison has) been able to give voice to our ancestors.”
“Poems to Songs” is being played in the Choctaw museum, cultural center, as well as the nation’s headquarters, and Hutchison has plans for a broader release and some public performances this spring.