Mary Youngblood often listens to the wind. She seeks out how it stirs the grass, how it whistles and whispers through rocks, how it moves across the waters. Through those sounds, she finds inspiration to write her own music.
Her instruments of choice are Native American wooden flutes, themselves riders of wind and expressions of breath. It took Youngblood awhile to make her way to the instruments which have become the source of her deepest expression. Classical piano lessons as a child, garage band jamming on guitar, and high school band participation on the flute all helped pave the way. A family move in the middle of the school year led to that high school band encounter with the flute: it was the only instrument available, the one no one wanted to play. “I really wanted to be in the band, so I said okay, I’ll play it! That was how I became involved, and when I look back, I see the destiny in it,” Youngblood said. “But at the time, no — there was just no other instrument left.”
That led her to training on the classical flute, and eventually to exploration of Native flutes. There was surprise in store there. “It wasn’t common for women to play the flute in Native culture,” she said. “For a long time it was reserved for men, by tradition, but I really didn’t know that when I started playing. People started telling me you’re not supposed to be doing that, and it caused quite a stir. I said, you know what, I’m doing it!”
Youngblood’s musical influences are varied. “I grew up listening to a lot of folk music, I really loved James Taylor. I write songs now for guitar and vocals and they’re very much like ballads. I really love female vocals. I love Joanne Shenandoah, Ella Fitzgerald, Karen Carpenter,” she said, pointing out that her friend Shenandoah has said she wants her voice to sound like a flute when she sings.
Youngblood’s tribal background is diverse too. In her family the far points of Native America join: her mother was of the Aleut tribe, from Alaska, and her dad was Native also, from the Seminole tribe of Florida. They met when her father was sent on a Navy posting to Seattle, where her tribe had sent her mother to a government school.
Drawing on all these elements, Youngblood’s unique view of the world through her music is found on albums including the Grammy winning Dance With the Wind, Native American award winning Feed the Fire,the soundtrack for the Emmy winning film Sacajawea, and collaborative projects including Prayer for Peace.
She still finds the same joy in jamming with other musicians as she did in her garage band days. That continues to be a source of inspiration, and so does the natural world. In Northern California where she now lives “I like to go hiking and take flutes and rattles and my recorder with me. Sometimes I go with my percussionist and we drive two hours and then hike an hour back in. somewhere by the river,” Youngblood said “To me that’s really inspirational. I like to just sit out there and play my flutes, and come up with ideas I haven’t heard before.”