The Real Song Catchers: American Women Pioneers of Ethnomusicology

A paper presented at the Music Library Association, 
Women's Music Round Table
Austin, Texas, February 14, 2003

Carl Rahkonen
Indiana University of Pennsylvania

© 2003 Carl Rahkonen, Any direct quotes from this paper should refer to the citation above.

Click here for the accompanying chart and here for the bibliography

The 2001 major motion picture, The Songcatcher, pointed out an historical truth: that fact that many of the pioneers in what we now know as ethnomusicology were women. This presentation will be about the real songcatchers, women from the 19th and early 20th century who pioneered the discipline.  For nearly 20 years, I have been interested in these "women pioneers."  When I first truly began to study these women about eleven years ago, I had only three names, Alice Cunningham Fletcher, Frances Densmore, and Helen Roberts.  Soon, I discovered the work of Natalie Curtis, which took me on a five-year quest to find everything written by her or about her.  Recently, I began to examine the work of Laura Boulton, Ruth Crawford and Sidney Robertson.  We may ask the question: Just how many women pioneers are there?  In a presentation given in 1996 by Joe Hickerson at the Library of Congress, he said, "At least 50 percent of the folk and ethnographic collections in the Archive of Folk Culture involve women as collectors, co-collectors, or chief contact persons."  So there are potentially many women pioneers of American ethnomusicology.

The current paper gives a brief summary of the lives and works of those women I have studied to date.  As a librarian, I believe that all scholarship begins with a knowledge of primary source collections and relevant bibliography.  The purpose of this paper is to describe the current state of research and publication for each of these pioneers and suggest further research to document their achievements.

Alice Cunningham Fletcher was born on March 15, 1838 in Havana, Cuba, were her parents had gone in an attempt to benefit her father's health.  Her father, a successful New York City Lawyer, died of consuption in 1839, and her mother, described as a "Boston Lady" remarried a man named Gardner, in whose New York City home she grew up.  She was educated in the "schools of the highest standards of the time" and early in her career lectured and taught in private schools.  In the 1870’s she was active in the in the temperance and feminist movements. 

When she was nearly 40 years old, her interests tuned to archeology and ethnology.  She studied with Frederic W. Putnum, Director of the Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Mass. and began doing archeological fieldwork for the museum.  In the 1880s she devoted herself to studying the Great Plains Indians and became one of the first persons ever to conduct rigorous anthropological fieldwork, living among the Indians and observing their life firsthand. 

Her involvement with the growing campaign to reform the reservation system led to her appointment as a "special agent" with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, heading up the surveying and allotment of many Indian reservations. 

Though lacking formal training in music, she transcribed hundreds of songs and was also one of the first to make wax cylinder recordings of Indian music.  She collaborated with John C. Fillmore in the 1893 monograph A Study of Omaha Indian Music.  Her most monumental work was a general study of The Omaha Tribe (1911), co-authored by Francis La Flesche, son of the tribal chief and her “adopted son.”  Before her death in 1923 at the age of 85, she had authored some 46 monographs and dozens of articles.

Perhaps the best studies of Fletcher’s life are the obituary by Walter Hough for American Anthropologist in 1923, and the 1981 book by E. Jane Gay detailing Fletchers work among the Nez Perce Indians of Idaho in 1889-92.

Frances Densmore was born in 1867 the eldest of two daughters to a prominent family in Red Wing, Minnesota.  Her formal education in music began at home with training in keyboard and harmony.  At age nineteen she entered the Oberlin Conservatory, studying piano and organ.  She worked as a music teacher and church organist until 1889, when she left for Boston to study piano with Carl Baermann and counterpoint with John Knowles Paine at Harvard University.  It was during this period that she came in contact with John C. Fillmore and learned of the work of Alice Cunningham Fletcher.

She had first heard Indian music at a Dakota village on Prairie Island near her home in Red Wing, reporting that she always remembered the "sound of the drum."  Inspired by the work of Alice Fletcher, she set out to record and transcribe Indian music throughout North America.  Her first transcriptions came in 1901, the songs of a Sioux woman near her home in Red Wing.  At the 1904 St. Louis Exposition she studied Filipino music and transcribed the singing of the famous Apache leader, Geronimo.  In 1905 she made her first real field trip.  Together with her sister Margaret, she studied the Chippewa on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.

Over the next 50 years she held numerous research fellowships and was named a "Collaborator" with the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology, which published most of her research.  Between 1901 and 1940, she studied the music of 76 tribes, recording more than 2,500 songs.  Working somewhat in isolation over her long and productive life, she published at least 22 monographs and 175 articles.  Several biographies document her life, most notably a memorial volume edited by Charles Hofmann (1968).

Natalie Curtis was born in 1875, the fourth of six children to an upper-class family in New York City and received her initial training in music at the National Conservatory in New York and had additional training in Berlin and Paris.  She intended to have a career as a pianist, but upon her return to the United States, a trip to Arizona roused her interest in Indian culture and in 1900 she started the self-imposed task of studying and transcribing Indian music.  Her work resulted in the publication of The Indian's Book (1907), which contains transcriptions of more than 200 songs collected from 18 tribes.  Through a personal appeal to President Theodore Roosevelt, she helped end a governmental policy that prohibited the use of native languages and singing in schools on the reservations.  She later applied her skills to the study of African and African-American music, publishing four volumes titled Hampton Series Negro Folksongs (1918-1919).  In addition to her 7 monographs, she published at least 69 journal articles and 12 newspaper articles, as well as composing some 14 musical compositions, some of them based on American Indian themes.

On July 25, 1917, she married the contemporary artist Paul Burlin whom she had met while doing fieldwork in the West.  Burlin was also from New York and, like some other artists of the time, his work was influenced by the art of "primitive" cultures.  In 1921, as a result of the bitter reaction to modern art in the years immediately following the First World War, Burlin moved to Paris as an expatriate.  Curtis joined him there and at the age of 46, just after addressing an International Congress on the History of Art, she was stuck by a car and killed.

Helen Heffron Roberts was born in Chicago June 12, 1888.  Her early musical training was at the Chicago Musical College and the American Conservatory of Music.  She hoped to become a concert pianist, but due to ill health and physical limitations she taught piano instead.  In 1916 she went to Columbia University to pursue an interest in American Indians by doing graduate work in anthropology under Franz Boas, completing her M.A. degree in 1919.

Beginning in the early 1920s, Roberts completed a number of field trips to collect music and ethnographic materials.  These sponsored journeys included Jamaica, Hawaii, California, and the American Southwest.  Working with her own collections she discovered a particular talent: that of making transcriptions and analyzing music found on wax cylinders.  Soon, she was making transcriptions for many other collectors such as Jesse Walter Fewkes and Edward Sapir.  In 1924 she began working as a research assistant in anthropology at the Yale University Institute of Psychology, renamed in 1929 as the Institute of Human Relations, famous for their Human Relations Area Files, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.  For the next twelve years she made a number of field trips to the West, as well as visiting major ethnographic museums in Europe.  The bulk of her work at Yale consisted of transcribing and analyzing traditional music and she wrote some 26 monographs and 30 articles about this music.  In all she transcribed nearly 3000 pieces, a little over half of which she colleted personally.  As a testament to the high quality of her work, many of her publications were later reprinted.

In 1936 Rockefeller funding ended for the Institute and Roberts lost her job.  As she pointed out in her oral history, this marked her formal retirement from ethnomusicology.  She lived another 49 years, traveled extensively for education and pleasure, and did philanthropic work with the support she received from her family who owned an insurance company in Chicago.

Laura Boulton was born in Conneaut, Ohio in 1899.  She studied singing at Western Reserve University and graduated with a B.A. degree from Denison University.  She married Wolfrid Rudyard Boulton, Jr., who was an ornithologist and lecturer at the Carnegie Institute and Museum in Pittsburgh.  Laura herself was part of the ornithological staff there in the early 1920s.  The first expedition she accompanied to Africa left in January 1929 and she brought along a cylinder recorder with the intension to record exotic music as well as bird-calls. Over the next 50 years, she participated in forty international expeditions compiling extensive collections of field recordings, films, photographs, and musical instruments. Her autobiography entitled The Music Hunter documents these travels, but offers little additional information.

Today Boulton’s large collections of world music materials are found at several institutions.  The Columbia University Center for Ethnomusicology has the Laura Boulton Collection of Traditional Music, with approximately 30,000 field recordings and accompanying documentation.  The collection was purchased for Columbia in 1964 through a gift from the estate of Alice Fries Levi.  Boulton served as its curator from 1967 to 1972.  Boulton’s Liturgical Music Collection is found today at the Harvard University Archive of World Music, part of the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library. The Music Library, headed by the ethnomusicologist Virginia Danielson, has digitized this collection and made it available on the World Wide Web. The Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress contains wax cylinders, aluminum discs and reel-to-reel tapes of Boulton’s field recordings of traditional vocal and instrumental music worldwide, with accompanying catalogs and commentaries.  The Smithsonian Institution Film Archives contains the originals of her film footage from 1934-1979, including collaborative films with the National Film Board of Canada.  Smithsonian Folkways Records has the originals of recordings Boulton made for Folkways.

From 1972-77, Boulton took her personal collection with her to teach at Arizona State University, which was named the “The Laura Boulton Collection of World Music and Musical Instruments.”  This collection came to Indiana University, Bloomington in 1986.  The Musical Instruments are housed at the William Mathers Museum of World Cultures, while the remaining materials are at the Archives of Traditional Music.  Through the Laura Boulton Foundation in New York City, Indiana University awards junior and senior Laura Boulton fellowships, designed for researchers to work with these materials. 

Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953) is best known as a composer, who was the central figure of a family of famous musicians and acclaimed music scholars.  She had three distinct careers: as a composer of progressive contemporary music, as a folk music transcriber and scholar, and as a music educator, particularly of children.  Excellent biographies by Matilda Gaume and Judith Tick document her life and career.

Shortly after she married Charles Seeger in 1931 they moved to Washington, D.C.   Ruth placed her compositional career on hold and became involved in various folk music projects as a transcriber and scholar.  The folk music recorded in the field by the Lomaxes and others contained interesting complexities in rhythm and harmony, which took a fine composer's ear to transcribe properly.  Ruth Crawford launched into the task with the same zeal and skill as her European counterparts Bartok, Kodaly and Vaughan Williams did with their own folk music, and with similar results.  She applied her study of traditional American music as a path to compositional development, and also to provide primary material for teaching music. She published three collections of American folk music and served as "music editor" for many other publications the most important of which was Our Singing Country by John and Alan Lomax (1941).

What was to have been a two-month project grew to four years.  She transcribed more than three hundred tunes, of which 190 were eventually published.  But most significantly, she wrote a protracted treatise on the process of transcription intended as an introduction to the Lomaxs' book, but its length, complexity, and intellectual demands precluded its publication, and they included only a ten-page summary as a “Music Preface.”  The unpublished monograph sat for more than sixty years, known only to a few scholars.  Fortunately, it was finally published in 2001 under the title The Music of American Folk Songs, edited by Larry Polansky.

Sidney Robertson Cowell (1903-1995) is best remembered today as the wife of composer Henry Cowell, but she was an important ethnographer and folk music collector in her own right.  Sidney William Hawkins was born in 1903 in San Francisco.  In 1924 she received a B.A. degree from Stanford University in Romance Languages and the next year studied piano at the Ecole Normal de Musique in Paris.  After returning to California in 1926, she studied counterpoint and analysis with Ernst Bloch and the music of non-Western cultures with Henry Cowell at the San Francisco Conservatory.  In 1934, she and her first husband Kenneth Robertson were divorced.

In 1935 she moved to New York City and served as director of the Social Music Program at the Henry Street Settlement, and by 1936 was working as music assistant to Charles Seeger in the Special Skills Division of the Resettlement Administration in Washington D.C.  It was in this position that she began conducting extensive fieldwork, initially with the Lomaxes and Frank C. Brown, but soon on her own.  She used what at that time was a "portable" recorder, a very heavy and bulky machine that recorded on disks made of aluminum with an acetate coating.  She began collecting music in the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains.  In May 1937, she went to the fourth National Folk Festival in Chicago and recorded Swedish, Lithuanian, Norwegian and Finnish musicians.  In September of the same year, she traveled through the Great Lake states recording Finnish, Serbian and Gaelic communities in Minnesota, and Anglo-American ballads from the Ford-Walker family in Wisconsin.  My own introduction to Sidney Robertson's works were her excellent recordings of Finnish-American kantele players dating from that time.

By 1938, as a well-seasoned fieldworker, she was ready to embark on the largest project of her career.  With the co-sponsorship of the Library of Congress and the Music Department at the University of California at Berkeley, she received funding from the Works Projects Administration (WPA) to conduct the California Folk Music Project resulting in 237 acetate disks, 168 photographs, 25 musical instruments, and extensive field notes and documentation, which are found today at the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture and have been digitized as part of the American Memory project on a web-site entitled California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties, collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell.  

She has yet to have a definitive biography written about her life, but there are good biographical articles by Brett Topping (1980) and Catherine Hiebert Kerst (1994), as well as obituaries (Hitchcock 1995, NYT 1995).  Perhaps the best source of information today is the California Gold web-site, also created by Cathy Kerst (1997).

In conclusion, what future work needs to be done with these women pioneers.  Some are very well documented, such as Ruth Crawford and Frances Densmore, but others remain obscure.  There is the potential of discovering many additional women pioneers who are unknown to scholars.  Lily Penleric of the Songcatcher movie was a fictional character, but was supposedly based on an Olive Dame Campbell, who went to Appalachia in 1908 with her minister husband and collected music and handicrafts.  Each time I do a presentation on these women, I receive new names.

More contemporary research is needed.  I was surprised to find most of my information on these women came from older sources.  Also not much is available about what these women have in common.  They were among the first ethnographers to go to the field and live with their informants, recording, transcribing and analyzing music.  They were all prolific in their output of published research--transcriptions and analysis--and were politically active in the defense of minority rights at a time when it was not popular to do so.

As more publications, recordings and web-sites become available, these women will receive the recognition they deserve as pioneers in the development of American ethnomusicology.


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