Music, the Heartbeat of Every Culture




November is my favorite month of the year. It is my birth month, but it is also Native American Heritage month. One way we can highlight Native American Heritage, is with positive stories. This does not mean we ignore the ugly ones. They happened, they are real. Moving forward in this century, it seems to me that looking at some of the more positive aspects of the histories, the times that we collaborated beneficially, are important. I think the following is a lovely example of collaboration between an anglo and Native Peoples.


Frances Theresa Densmore was born in Red Wing, Minnesota, on May 21st, a little town about fifty miles southeast of Minneapolis. Frances had one younger sister, Margaret. Her father, Benjamin, was a civil engineer, and owned a foundry. Her mother, Sarah Adelaide, was active in many humanitarian causes, but also a tough taskmaster with her daughters. The Densmore family believed in education and wished their daughters to be self-reliant and also encouraged open-mindedness. Frances remembers her family as being “Spartan in its severity.” Music was always an important part of the Densmore family’s life. Frances remembers being gently rebuked for playing “frivolous” music when she was supposed to be practicing.


As a young child, Frances listened to the music of her many neighbors, the Dakota Indians. The family home was on a rise overlooking the Mississippi River, and they could not only see the campfires but also listen to the drums of the Dakota Indians who lived on Prairie Island. Frances was enthralled with the music she heard, often falling asleep to the sounds of Native drums, which she said inspired the work she did for most of her adult life.


Frances studies music at Oberlin College, then taught Native Americans nationwide. Oberlin College was the first to admit women and the first to admit students of ethnic minorities. At Oberlin, Frances studied piano, organ and harmony. She studied music with talented musicians, in New York, then in Boston, Massachusetts, at Harvard University.


Frances became more immersed in the music of Native People and began to transcribe it, teaching herself how to record it as she went along. She wanted to use this music to help document and preserve their culture. This was a bit of a counter culture rebellion, as our government was encouraging (often forcing) Native Americans to give up their language, music, lifeways, and adopt Western customs. The result of this brutal erasure campaign was that people came to see indigenous peoples as living fossils on the brink of cultural extinction.


This attempt at cultural erasure appalled Frances, and she set out to single-handedly preserve a vital aspect of indigenous culture, the one art that is the heartbeat of every culture: music. She traveled to some of the remotest areas, where no one else had dared go, focused and at ease. Her younger sister, Margaret, often assisted her. She said that had she grown up hearing the Native Peoples called “savages” she might have been fearful, but her mother always described them as just people with different customs than ours. Some tribes that Frances worked with included the Chippewa, the Mandan, Hadatsa, the Sioux, the northern Pawnee of Oklahoma, the Papago or Arizona and Native peoples of Washington and British Columbia, the Winnebago and Menominee of Wisconsin, the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, the Seminoles of Florida and the Kuna Indians of Panama. Everywhere that Frances went, her love and devotion to the Native Peoples shone and they extended great warmth and appreciation. The Sioux elder, Red Fox, adopted her as a daughter.


Frances often perched late into the night at her heavy black typewrite recording what was her knowledge of a complex musical world belonging to the Native Peoples. Her work did what no scholar before her had done, and none since. She detailed children’s songs, the design of the wind instruments, different tribes made and the spell-like songs that were sung as “love charms.” For many years, Frances also traveled giving lectures about Native American music.


In 1907, Frances was officially recording music for the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology. Her sister, Margaret, quit her job as a teacher and became Frances’ full-time assistant. The two lived together in Red Wing, where Margaret proved a valued aide and consultant. For over fifty years, Frances made thousands of recordings, and some are not housed in the Library of Congress. Many of the original wax cylinders have been reproduced using more modern technology and are included in other archives, accessible to researchers and tribal delegations.


In 1926, Frances wrote The Indians and Their Music. Between 1910 and 1957, she published fourteen book-length bulletins for the Smithsonian, each of which described the musical practices of a different Native American group, reprinted as a series by DaCapo Press in 1972.


Frances contributed constantly during her career to the preservation of Native music, not only by recording music but also by writing articles in the journal, American Anthropologist. The University of Michigan Press published her manuscript, A Study of Some Michigan Indians, in 1949. She spent the last years of her life rewriting her notes and caring for the wax cylinders that held some of her recordings. We know little of the inner Frances Densmore, because upon her death, she ordered all personal works or journals destroyed.


In 1924, Oberlin College awarded Frances an honorary M.A. degree

In 1950, Macalester College awarded Frances an honorary Doctor of Letters degree

In 1954, The Minnesota Historical Society honored Frances with its first Citation for Distinguished Service in the Field of Minnesota History

In 1940, the National Association for American Composers and Conductors recognized Frances Densmore with awards for her work in musicology.