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Joanne Shenandoah grew up on the Oneida Iroquois Territory in central New York in a large house without running water. A descendent of Revolutionary War hero Chief John Shenandoah, she was raised by her mother, Maisie, an Oneida Wolf Clan mother, and her father, Clifford Shenandoah. Music was commonplace in her upbringing; Shenandoah's parents would sing the songs of Billie Holliday, Hank Williams, and Patsy Cline to her and her four siblings. Shenandoah's father, a jazz guitarist, was interested in jazz and early rock 'n' roll. In Native Peoples, Shenandoah wrote, "singing was as natural to me as breathing." Her native name, given to her before she could talk, is Tekaiawahway (pronounced De-gal-la-wha-wha), which means "she sings."
As the only Native American student at the private Union Springs Academy in New York, she threw herself into music. She experimented with various musical instruments, including French horn, cello, clarinet, and flute. She spent hours practicing piano and learning to read and write music while developing her talent for singing and composing original music. In the early 1970s, there were few Native American performers for Shenandoah to look up to. Her childhood idols included Rita Coolidge, Buffy Saint-Marie, Floyd Westerman, Paul Ortega, Jim Pepper, and the rock bands Redbone and XIT.
Shenandoah did consider the idea of a professional career as a performer before taking a job in the corporate world as a computer specialist in Washington D.C. "I was working very hard and was doing all the things I thought were important in life," she said in an interview with the Observer-Dispatch. But that quickly changed. She released her debut album, Joanne Shenandoah, in 1989, and only months later was performing on stage at a benefit with Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, Kris Kristofferson, and Neil Young, who became a long-time supporter. Her early work was a blend of "traditional Native American style with traditional American folk and even country," wrote Mark Bialczak in the Syracuse Herald American.
Once committed to life as a performer, Shenandoah did not hold back. She went on to release a total of ten albums in just over ten years, in addition to countless live performances. Some critics suggested her popularity was a result of the crossover power of her music. Though she did not sing in English, but in her native Iroquois language, Shenandoah's music seemed to transcend the language barrier with her voice and message of peace. Alan Bisbort of the Hartford Advocate noted that Shenandoah's 1996 release, Matriarch, lacked conventional songs and song structure and called it the "Iroquois version of Gregorian chanting," adding, "You don't need to understand the words to feel the spirit." He also noted Shenandoah's "remarkably soothing voice." Her children's record, All Spirits Sing, won the Native American Music Award (NAMMY) for Best Children's Album in 1998, and her album Orenda won the NAMMY for Best Traditional Album a year later. As of 1999, each of Shenandoah's recordings had sold over 100,000 copies worldwide.
|1. Friendship Song|
|2. Rabbit Dance Song|
|3. Everybody Else Can Sing|
|4. Light Up The World|
|5. I Am The River|
|6. Tise Old Wurtle|
|7. Roots and Wings|
|8. Bear In Mind|
|9. Three Sisters: Corns, Beans and Squash|
|10. Sing Away Your Cares|
|11. All Spirits Sing|
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