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Plimoth Plantation Showcases Music Of Pilgrims And Native Americans

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We know some of the foods that people tasted at the very first Thanksgiving in 1621, but what did it sound like in Plymouth Colony when Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered together? Was there music? NPR's Neda Ulaby met some historical re-enactors who have explored that question.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: In the year of our Lord 2016, the Native Americans wore hawk feathers and soft brown deerskins. The pilgrims - plain white caps and homemade shoes. They came together on stage at Washington, D.C.'s, very modern National Museum of American History to sing their own holy music in counterpoint.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) High heart and fearfully (unintelligible) I boldly trust in this.

ULABY: Some of these singers are actual Mayflower descendants; others Wampanoag Indians. Their ancestors celebrated together at the first Thanksgiving. But did they sing or dance together?

RICHARD PICKERING: Not that I know of.

ULABY: Richard Pickering is deputy director of Plimoth Plantation. It's a living history museum in Massachusetts where re-enactors tell about the Pilgrims' original colony and the native people who lived there first. Pickering's used to talking about the original Thanksgiving.

PICKERING: During the course of the three days, they feasted, they played sports.

ULABY: But there's no record of people singing. The Pilgrims have a dour reputation, but Pickering says they loved music.

PICKERING: Loved music, it's very much a musical culture. Doesn't matter whether your voice was good or bad, everybody liked to sing.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Never weather-beaten sail.

ULABY: However, women could not sing in public alone, and harmonizing in church was seen as frivolous. Still, the first book published in North America was a book of hymns.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) And take my soul to rest.

ULABY: Some sounds from 1621 can be recreated. Others are beyond our reach.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Vocalizing).

ULABY: The language of the Wampanoag very nearly slipped away. About two-thirds of the tribe was killed, enslaved or died of illness or starvation during King Philip's war about 50 years after that first Thanksgiving. Darius Coombs, who's one of the native re-enactors, also works for the Wampanoag Indigenous Program.

DARIUS COOMBS: We still live here.

ULABY: Coombs told the audience he grew up on a Wampanoag reservation not too far from Boston, so his accent might sound familiar to fans of Car Talk.

D. COOMBS: As a nation, we date back over 12,000 years and are located in Massachusetts and parts of Rhode Island.

ULABY: Coombs' wife, Tootie, says performing with people dressed as Pilgrims is less awkward than you might expect.

TOOTIE COOMBS: Well, outside of it, we are so cool together.

ULABY: Inside it, they're telling the same story from different perspectives.

T. COOMBS: You know, the struggles, the happiness, the sadness, the religion, the growing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Vocalizing).

ULABY: The youngest performer at the National Museum of American History was 22-year-old Keon Jackson. He's part Cherokee, part African-American and part Wampanoag.

KEON JACKSON: I still live on our reservation in the town of Mashpee on Cape Cod.

ULABY: Where he says Thanksgiving is not really a big deal.

JACKSON: I celebrate it just like everybody else does. So I'm going to have turkey and things like that, but we're in time of mourning because that's when a lot of things changed for our people, downhill for the most part.

ULABY: During the days of the Pilgrims, there were around 100,000 Wampanoag. Now, the tribe numbers around 5,000 or 6,000.

JACKSON: A lot of people don't know it was my people from Thanksgiving because a lot of people always teach about the Pilgrims and the Indians, not really the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. And that's what Thanksgiving's about to me is that we're still here.

ULABY: This is a holiday that makes us think about who counts as Americans, he says, and who gets to sit at the table today. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 30, 2016 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous headline and Web introduction incorrectly spelled the name of the Plimoth Plantation as Plymouth.