Real Song Catchers: American Women Pioneers of Ethnomusicology
A paper presented at the
Women's Music Round Table
Austin, Texas, February 14, 2003
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
© 2003 Carl Rahkonen, Any direct quotes from this paper should refer to the citation above.
here for the
accompanying chart and
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties, collected by Sidney
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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