Recalling the legacy of Louis Ballard, father of Native American music

More and more Native Americans are finding a place in the world of classical composition, including successful creators such as Brent Michael Davids, Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate and R. Carlos Nakai. But nothing signals how far this once-marginalized community has progressed than the awarding of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Music to Raven Chacon, a Diné (or Navajo) composer.

Blazing a path for these successful composers was Louis W. Ballard (1931-2007), who is regarded as the father of Native American composition. “Within Indian country, I don’t know what the influence was. To me, it [Ballard] was big and other native composers, too,” said Davids, who was friends with Ballard for nearly three decades. 

Following Ballard’s death, Davids was commissioned to finish his Indiana Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with permission of the composer’s family. Davids completed and orchestrated the first movement, which was almost entirely sketched out, and then he wrote two additional movements as a tribute to Ballard. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra premiered the work in 2008.

Born near Miami, Okla., Ballard was the son of a Cherokee father and Quapaw mother. He learned to play piano and pursued music as an undergraduate at several institutions, graduating from the University of Tulsa with degrees in music theory and music education. After working as a music teacher and church music director in different parts of Oklahoma, he returned to the University of Tulsa, becoming the first Native American to receive a graduate degree in music composition in 1962. He went on to take private lessons with esteemed composers Darius Milhaud and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.

Ballard taught percussion at the famed Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado from 1957 through 1972 and served as music director of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., from 1962 through 1968. He went on to serve as national curriculum specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, and he wrote and published American Indian Music Curriculum for the Classroom, a teaching guide with accompanying recordings. 

“For me, it was the fact that he existed at all. I was studying all these different composers from everywhere and all different periods of history, and here’s Louis.” — Brent Michael Davids on his mentor Louis Ballard

While holding these posts, Ballard was equally active as a composer, writing for a wide assortment of instrumental and vocal combinations. If asked, the composer would deny that his works were influenced by traditional Native American music. “He always said, ‘My music is 100 percent Louis Ballard music.’ But in his music, you do hear some native influences, looking at it from the outside,” Davids said. Traditional native songs, for example, tend to change meter frequently, with a succession of shifting time signatures, 4/4, 3/8, 4/4, 2/4, 4/4 and 3/8. “His music tended to be that way, too,” Davids said.

At the same time, Ballard drew from a range of other musical sources as well, including 12-tone or serialist music, which dominated the classical-music world for much of the 20th century. “He used a lot of things,” Davids said, referring to the older composer’s assorted stylistic elements, “but he didn’t use them strictly. He would adapt and mold and blend.” The result was works that were more melodic and others less so.

Among Ballard’s compositions is a cantata titled Portrait of Will Rogers, a salute to the popular humorist who was of Cherokee descent and a fellow Oklahoman. The piece was premiered by the Kansas City Philharmonic in 1976 with Will Rogers Jr. as narrator. Another major work is Incident at Wounded Knee, a musical commemoration of the famous 1973 stand-off at Wounded Knee, S.D., between federal officers and about 200 members of American Indian Movement and the Oglala Sioux Nation. The piece was commissioned by Dennis Russell Davies, who led the St. Paul (Minn.) Chamber Orchestra premiere in 1974, and it was performed in 1999 at an American Composers Orchestra program at New York’s Carnegie Hall titled Protest. 

While Davids absorbed and understood Ballard’s style, the elder composer was more important as a role model. “For me, it was the fact that he existed at all,” he said. “I was studying all these different composers from everywhere and all different periods of history, and here’s Louis. I could hear his style and pick it up.” 

A member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians in Wisconsin, Davids learned the basics of music theory in high school and started composing in 1976. He went on to major in music education at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. While there, he studied composition with Paul Steg, who had Davids study a different composer each week and then write a work in his or her style. Steg suggested Davids reach out to Ballard, and in 1979, he wrote the elder composer, who responded and was encouraging. 

“He said, ‘Keep writing,’” Davids said. “We became friends after that and I went out and stayed with him and met his whole family. We just knew each other as colleagues thereafter.”

Ballard was the first Native American composer the young Davids had ever heard of, let alone met. “He spoke a few languages,” he said of his mentor. “He was really brilliant and a warm and generous person. Kind of quiet, dry wit. He’ll tell you something and look at you and kind of smirk to see if you got the joke. Very gentle.” 

Davids went on earn his master’s degree at Arizona State University, studying primarily with Chinary Ung, who in 1988 became the first American to win the prestigious University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Musical Composition.

Like Ballard, Davids has sought to bolster Native American participation in classical music, co-founding the Native American Composers Apprentice Project in 2001 under the auspices of Arizona’s Grand Canyon Music Festival and serving as composer-in-residence during the first two years. In this program, he said, students on the Hopi and Navajo reservations have gone from not being able to read music to writing a string quartet in five weeks. Current composers-in-residence include Chacon, the Pulitzer Prize winner, and Michael Begay, a Diné composer who is himself a graduate of the program.

Because of programs like the apprentice project and the classical world’s increased attention to diversity with the rise of the movement Black Lives Matter, more Native American composers are emerging and gaining attention than ever before. But in no way is Ballard forgotten. “He is the oldest and most established among us, even if he is not here,” Davids said. “He did so much.”