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How Are Songs Used in Seminole Legends?

James E. Billie
James E. Billie (Seminole Tribune)

Legends of the Seminole Tribe of Florida have been passed down orally from one person to the next. Sometimes these stories include songs. Seminole legends have traditionally been retold in two languages, i:laponki (Mikasuki) and Muscogee (Creek). They usually have a moral point or explain the origin of an animal, ritual, place, or other aspect of life. When a song is included in a story, it is usually sung by a character to communicate or take action. 

One leader who has recorded some of these legends is Chief James “Jim” Billie. He served as tribal chairman from 1979 to 2001 and again from 2011 to 2016. Billie’s album Seminole Fire includes a few legends that incorporate song, including the two discussed below. 

The Lion in Africa/Trickster Rabbit

This legend explains how the lion ended up in Africa. In this story a rabbit pulls the African continent toward its own with a rope. Another version of this story is explained in our “Seminole Songs and Legends” performance (23:00), in which the rabbit then sings a song to temporarily bind the two continents together. According to the narrator, Brian Zepeda, the rabbit is singing in Mikasuki, “Come, come, come together, shake, shake, shake together.” The song causes the earth to rumble as the two continents move closer together. The pulsation and repetition of the chant are like many labor tunes or incantations, structured to serve a functional purpose. Here, the song supports the rabbit’s work as he moves the earth. After uniting the continents, the rabbit then tricks the lion into jumping onto the new continent and severs the rope, pushing the lion and its new African home far away. The song calls the listener’s attention to the special moment in the story where the rabbit accomplishes a heroic supernatural task.

How the Possum Became a Marsupial

This legend is about a mother possum trying to rescue her babies from bullbats (nighthawks). The bullbats signal their presence through song, serving as a warning to other animals such as the possum. In this track, the first time James Billie sings the bullbat song, he speeds up, creating a sense of intensity and threat. We hear the bullbat song several times during the narrative. Billie emphasizes the first part of each word in the song. The repetition and rhythm create a sense of urgency about the safety of the possum babies. In this case, song helps the listener understand the nature of the bullbat characters in the story, and it sets the mood of uncertainty for the story.   

In both of these examples, the legends are primarily spoken but occasionally require the narrator to sing a specific character’s expression or action. Not all legends have songs. But because these legends are typically told out loud and in person, they are well suited to the incorporation of singing. 

Although Seminole legends are traditionally spoken aloud, some have also been preserved in writing. Betty Mae Jumper, who served as chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida from 1967 to 1971, published some of them in a book called Legends of the Seminoles. Some of the tales in that text also include characters that utilize song; for instance, in the legend “Little Frog,” frogs sing to warn people when it is about to rain. 

Jumper’s book captures some versions of the Seminole legends, but storytellers continue to change the stories as they retell them out loud. As we can hear in the two versions of the rabbit story, each storyteller is free to present the story in their own way. That freedom to innovate is a key to keeping the tradition alive.

Emily Ruth Allen

Emily Ruth Allen holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from Florida State University. Allen is currently working on a monograph entitled Mobile Musics and Mardi Gras: Southern Identities in Alabama Parades. This work stems from her experiences marching in the parades during her high school and college years. Her work has been supported by the Society for American Music’s Adrienne Fried Block Fellowship, an FSU Graduate School Dissertation Research Grant, and other grants and fellowships. In August 2023, she will be joining the University of South Carolina as a full-time instructor in the School of Music and Institute for Southern Studies.