Looking for America

Looking for America

In the early part of the twentieth century, a young musician named Natalie Curtis began drawing attention to the music of Native Americans and African Americans, publishing collections, organising concerts and advocating their traditions as the basis for a new American music. Michelle Wick Patterson explores her legacy.

Dr Lily Penleric is a musicologist at the beginning of the twentieth century who visits her sister in Appalachia. In this isolated, mountainous region, stretching from New York to northern Mississippi, she discovers a treasure trove of folk music traditions that had been passed down unadulterated for generations. During her efforts to collect the songs, Lily is forced to examine her motives and her relationships with the people who make this music. Who, she is asked, will benefit from her collecting? Is she guilty of exploiting the very people whose musical traditions she admires?

Although Dr Penleric is a fictional character in the 2000 film Songcatcher, the character had real-life counterparts in early twentieth-century America. They faced similar questions. What motivated them to collect folk music? To what ends should this music be used? Could the folk music they collected, particularly that of oppressed minority groups like Native and African Americans, form the basis of a truly national American music? What obligations, if any, did these song catchers owe to the peoples whose musical traditions they collected?

While not the direct inspiration for the film, amateur ethnomusicologist Natalie Curtis (1876–1921), in the early decades of the twentieth century, joined other musicians, artists and intellectuals in a quest to create, or discover, a distinctively American music that drew explicitly from its folk traditions. Their goal, of course, was not a new one; from the nation’s beginnings Americans sought to create an artistic culture uniquely their own, but by this period the goal of creating an American music had taken on greater urgency. As the nation rapidly industrialised and welcomed boatloads of new immigrants to its booming cities, it found its citizenry had fewer common bonds than ever before. Many were hopeful that American folk traditions could contribute to that bond through resolving the question of a national music.

The product of a cultured and politically engaged old New England family recently transplanted to New York City, Curtis grew up in an atmosphere inundated with music and art and influenced by her family’s history of involvement in the Transcendentalist and abolitionist movements. As a young woman she evinced a passionate devotion to music, especially the operas of Wagner that became popular in the 1890s in New York City. Trained in piano, voice and music theory at home and in Germany and France, Curtis gradually turned to the study of Native-American and African-American music. Her study began as a search for a personal identity – as a woman, music provided her with an outlet to work in the public sphere; she also sought spirituality outside the conventions of organised religion; her passion for German music led her on a search for a national music; and the visit of Czech composer Antonín Dvorák in the 1890s, in which he suggested that ‘inspiration for truly national music might be derived from the Negro melodies or Indian chants’ confirmed for her that this was a worthy goal – but throughout her career she shared her insights with other Americans hoping that the identity she had found in the language of music, particularly in its folk traditions, could lead to greater unity among diverse Americans.


Curtis’ brother George Declyver Curtis, High Chief of Southern Cheyenne and Natalie Curtis singing a hand-game song on the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho reservation in Oklahoma, c. 1904.

As with Dr Lily Penleric in Songcatcher, it was the beauty and supposed authenticity of these folk traditions that initially attracted Curtis. And, like this character, Curtis’ motives for collecting, as well as her assumptions about these groups, can be called into question. While possessing a sincere appreciation for the music and the musicians who made it, Curtis was a product of white, middle-class American thinking on race and race relations. Indian and black music became worthy in her eyes because she saw these groups as less evolved than white Americans. Often referring to these groups as ‘primitives’ or ‘child-races’, Curtis found their music and cultures appealing because of the contrast with what she saw as more highly-developed European–American musical forms. Their music, she contended, because of its primitive ties to American soil, could authentically represent the American spirit.

As a young woman, she attempted a few minor compositions on American themes, working, like other female composers, in the smaller medium of parlour pieces and short songs. Significantly, in 1902 she published with the Wa-Wan Press, a publishing house dedicated to promoting American music. Arthur Farwell, the press’s founder, sought out music that expressed national themes in particular.

By 1902, after a visit to her brother George’s Arizona ranch, Curtis began researching and writing on the cultures of the region, and her interests in Navajo and Hopi music soon expanded to other American tribes. Collecting at reservations, federal Indian schools and even the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, Curtis encountered a wide variety of Native music, collecting songs wherever and whenever she could. At times she paid or induced individuals to sing their own songs directly into her Edison phonograph, often with just the accompaniment of a rattle or hand drum. Other songs were recorded with pencil and paper in the midst of tribal ceremonies, such as the Peyote songs recorded at a ceremony on the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho reservation. Some songs were collected from the elder members of the tribe, like Lololomai of the Hopi who shared his oldest songs with Curtis; and others came from school children who sang songs with modern themes from the classrooms of their reservation boarding schools. From this Curtis soon gathered sufficient material for The Indians’ Book, published in 1907, which contained songs, folk stories and ethnographic information on eighteen tribes from across the United States. Additional articles in a wide variety of popular and specialised journals also presented her views of Native-American songs to broad audiences.

In these works Curtis tried to interpret and explain Native-American music to a mostly white middle-class audience. ‘We are a people of great mechanical and inventive genius,’ she argued in The Indians’ Book, ‘but we are not naturally song-makers, poets or designers.’ Could America ‘afford to lose from our country any sincere and spontaneous art impulse, however crude?’ The ‘undeveloped talents’ displayed in Indian and black music were ‘precisely those in which the Anglo-Saxon American is deficient.’ She felt that her research, filled with evidence of this poetry and artistry, could be used to spark creativity and provide a means to create America’s own music and art. Fearing that government policies of forced assimilation would lead to the demise of Native populations and result in the loss of this wonderful music, Curtis advocated for a less assimilationist federal Indian policy, one that respected and preserved aspects of Indian cultures.

Other students of Native music, like Frances Densmore, Alice Fletcher and Frederick Burton, joined Curtis in seeking to inspire composers through their music collections – ‘Indianist’ composers such as Charles Sanford Skilton, Arthur Nevin, Arthur Farwell and Charles Wakefield Cadman. In the pages of The Indians’ Book, Curtis claimed that, ‘Like all folk-music, the music of the Indian is the spontaneous and sincere expression of the soul of a people. It springs from our own continent, and is thus, of all music, distinctively American. If Indian song be encouraged with Indians, and recognition of it awakened among our own people, America may one day contribute a unique music to the world of art’. Indian songs alone could not become a new American music, but ‘the folk-music of any land is a soil from which genius draws sustenance for fresh growth, and the stimulus to the creative mind through contact with this native art should give to America a new and vigorous art impulse.’

Curtis, too, created ‘Indianist’ works, such as the ‘Dawn Song’ she composed based on a Cheyenne melody. This composition represented ‘an effort to reproduce the spirit and the elemental atmosphere of that half-barbaric music that belongs essentially to the great nature-world’. She explained to the New York audience that first heard its performance that, because Native Americans lived so intimately with their environment, the sounds of nature became the ‘unconscious background to the voice of the Red Man’. Her song, she said, recreated the natural American world in which humans blended so effortlessly into their environment. ‘No transplanted version’ of an Indian song could totally capture this experience, but she maintained that her ‘years spent among the Indians studying Indian music’ allowed her to ‘echo… that racial voice which should be part of the heritage of American art’. Essentially, Curtis claimed her right as a musician, albeit one with noble intentions, to use tribal music for her own needs. The desires or wishes of her Native collaborators became lost in her efforts to claim a national music that offered her authenticity and spiritual meaning in an otherwise fractured and confusing world.

Curtis’ attempts to forge an American music also attracted her to the music of African Americans. Arguing that black music derived from experiences on American soil, Curtis and others claimed it as a folk tradition from which composers could find inspiration. From the ‘childlike and submissive pathos’ of slave songs to the ‘good-humored charm’ and ‘irresistible pulse in the rhythm’ of social and work songs, this music could leave an indelible mark on American culture, Curtis argued in a 1913 Craftsman article. Because this music was already influential, Curtis argued, composers could easily develop Negro folk songs into more ‘cultured’ forms of expression.

Curtis began collecting and studying African-American music soon after the publication of The Indians’ Book. At the request of ‘a group of earnest colored men’ who asked her to ‘do for the music of their race what I had tried to do for that of the Indian, to present it with entire genuineness and in a form of publication that could readily be grasped by all people’, Curtis began her study of African-American folk songs. Her goal became to ‘put in written form, without addition or change of any kind, the true folk-song, spirit, and sound, just as it springs from the hearts and the lips of the folk-singers’. Urged by her patrons George Foster Peabody, a philanthropist of Southern education and other causes, and the leadership of Hampton Institute, a Virginia school established for ex-slaves, Curtis collected songs from Hampton students and ventured further south to collect from students at Penn Institute, a similar school to Hampton in South Carolina. She also sought out music in rural black communities in the vicinities of these schools. As she collected among African Americans she focused on capturing ‘musical photographs’ of the songs. In a letter to the anthropologist Franz Boas, she explained, ‘My collection differs from many others in that instead of collecting the melody merely and harmonising that with a piano accompaniment of my own (and after the manner of most white musicians), I have recorded the Negro’s own spontaneous harmonies, for, as you know, the Negro songs are usually sung by the Negroes in parts, the people themselves making up alto, tenor or bass as they go along.’ As with Native Americans, Curtis argued that she needed to spend sustained periods of time with black singers to ‘drink in the atmosphere’ and develop the proper musical intuition to best interpret and use their music.

The four-volume Negro Folk Songs (1918–1919) argued that African-American music offered much to composers seeking an American music, especially because it could help industrialised Americans reintegrate art and work. In Negro Folk Songs she complained, ‘To have lost art out of the life of the worker is one of the most deadening blights of commercial civilization.’ She contrasted African-American work songs with those of the northern factory. ‘With us Anglo-Saxons, song as a labor invigorator seems to have died away with the invention of machinery,’ but blacks in America, she believed, still drew on their folk songs to bring art into their work. ‘Is it not, after all, a most vital and priceless thing,’ Curtis asked regarding black work songs, ‘this art which is part of a man’s own pulse-beat, his own muscle, his own will? What a contrast to the silent, deadening toil of the modern factory.’ ‘We of the white race,’ she continued, ‘are at last awakening to the fact that the Negro in our midst stands at the gates of human culture with full hands, laden with gifts.’ Her fellow white Americans must ‘unlock the gate to see that [the Negro] can be equally important to cultural evolution in the “melting pot” of the United States, and that his presence among us may be a powerful stimulus to the art, music, letters and drama of the American Continent.’

Working alongside African-American composers, Curtis had pieces, including ‘Go Down Moses’, ‘Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray’, and ‘Good News, Chariot’s Comin’!’ from Negro Folk Songs included on the programmes of several music concerts in New York City. A music critic from the Southern Workman was so impressed by these works he exulted, ‘Surely the music of the black race is now to be accepted as one of the most precious artistic treasures of America.’ Black and white musicians, such as R. Nathaniel Dett, J. Rosamond Johnson and Will Marion Cook, also used poems, arranged spirituals and other folk songs, and employed the rhythmic sounds of black music to create a distinctive American sound.

As with her work with Native-American music, Curtis used African-American folk songs to find answers to her questions about American identity, spirituality and authenticity. She believed she understood and respected the groups with whom she worked, but it is likely that black musicians had other goals, ones that reflected their personal creative and artistic aspirations, and which may have been far removed from gaining favour with white audiences. Nevertheless she hoped that the popularisation of black music as a source for national song would lead to greater understanding between blacks and whites and would improve race relations. In the Craftsman she claimed, ‘If anything can bring harmony from this present clashing of the two races during this difficult period of problems and adjustment, it might well be the peace-giver – music!’

This theme resounded through Curtis’ lifelong work in Native and African-American music. Inspired by the beauty in the music of these groups, Curtis came to see Native Americans and African Americans as fellow citizens with the same right to be heard as she had, and devoted her career to creating a national musical expression. Her sincerity for this project is undeniable. The outcome of her work, however, is a bit ambiguous. Her hopes that European-American composers could simply add the flavour of these folk traditions to the forms and styles they already employed proved largely unworkable. Similarly, spending time with these musicians would not magically provide her with the actual worldviews of Native and African Americans. Her approach ignored or whitewashed decades of racism and violence and ultimately failed to take into account the aspirations and beliefs of the many people who also claimed an American identity or those who believed the nation could have multiple ‘American’ identities. Ultimately, the racialist, at time racist, assumptions underlying her work with people she often labelled ‘primitives’ hindered her efforts to create a truly national music or to adequately advocate on behalf of these groups.

Her work, though, did help pave the way for an acceptance of new forms of American music in the decades after her death in 1921. Advocacy for Native Americans foreshadowed reversals to the assimilationist policies of the federal government in the 1930s. Curtis’ support of African-American composers and her efforts to popularise their musical traditions helped open a way for greater appreciation of black musical forms such as jazz. Although her work was tinged with the assumptions of her age, she sincerely strove to understand those Americans whose voices were often unheard by her contemporaries. Curtis’ search for an American identity, her sense of herself as a ‘song catcher’, helped reveal in American music a larger, more inclusive, more beautiful nation.

Published on 1 June 2010

Michelle Wick Patterson is Assistant Professor of History at Mount St Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. She has just published Natalie Curtis Burlin: A Life in Native and African American Music (University of Nebraska Press) and is currently working on an anthology of the work of ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore.

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