Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: A Nightway Song

Feb 28, 2018

When NASA launched the Voyager spacecraft in 1977, there were two golden records on board. They contain sounds and songs from Earth, sort of a musical time capsule for any extraterrestrial being that might come upon them. One of the songs comes from a Navajo chant called "Nightway." In his latest Canyon Commentary, Scott Thybony recalls hearing the song while traveling with a Navajo medicine man. 

One of two records launched on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977

Darkness settled over Black Rock on the final night of a Navajo healing ceremony. I watched wisps of breath steaming in the cold air as the Yeibichai dancers began to chant. Their voices started eerily high then settled into a lower range, sending their song into the night. The chantway, lasting nine nights, aims at restoring a sense of beauty and wholeness, the loss of which leads to a downward spiral of suffering. 

When I traveled through Canyon de Chelly with a Navajo medicine man, he talked about the origin of the Nightway chant. His version told the story of a twin brother and sister who were raised in poverty without a father. They set out to discover his identity after being rejected by their relatives when their mother refused to reveal his name.

On the journey the twins were injured by rockfall, which blinded the brother and crippled his sister. Lost in unfamiliar country, their only choice was to struggle on. The blind brother carried his lame sister, who in turn guided his steps. The twins descended a trail into a deep canyon and found the Holy People gathered inside White House, perched high on a cliff face. One of them, Talking God, admitted he was their father, and the others agreed to cure them. When the twins failed to keep silent during a critical phase of the ceremony, they were once again cast out.

Forced to continue their journey, the brother and sister became afraid as night approached. Alone in the world they begin to cry, softly at first and then it poured out. As their tears fell they began to sing, at first only meaningless sounds, but as their suffering grew the words came to them. All of their pain—their injuries and thirst, their rejection and fear found its way into the human voice. “We began to cry,” the story goes, “and then we sang. We turned our cry into a song.” Moved by their singing, the Holy People called them back and set about curing them through the prayers and intricate rituals of the Nightway ceremony.

And now one of the songs from the chantway has entered deep space. In 1977 NASA scientists launched twin Voyager spacecraft, each with a gold-plated record stowed onboard containing images and music from around the world. Heavy on Bach and Beethoven, the recordings are intended for any alien intelligence with ears to hear. Whoever intercepts it will discover the pleasures of Bulgarian folk music and Azerbaijani bagpipes after listening to a greeting in ancient Sumerian. And they will form an impression of America from four songs:  Louie Armstrong’s “Melancholy Blues,” Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” and one of the loneliest songs ever recorded, Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark was the Night.” It’s about a man with no place to sleep who dreads the coming night. The fourth song comes from the Nightway chant.

As dawn approached, I sat inside the ceremonial hogan at Black Rock. A single drum and rattle accompanied the songs, which had been going all night. Not knowing the words, I tried to hum along. The force of the singing intensified as the medicine man chanted with his eyes half closed and lips barely moving, focused and solemn. 

Song followed song until the last refrain ended, and everyone stepped outside the hogan. A sliver of old moon floated over the horizon as night shifted westward leaving a gap filling with light. And somewhere far above, the twin spacecraft carried a Nightway song deep into space.