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Song Catcher: Life Story
Author Stephen Smith's observations on the
interior life of Frances Densmore

OVER THE COURSE of her 40-year career, Frances Densmore sat at her heavy black typewriter pummeling ream after ream of writing paper. A swollen cabinet of Densmore's research papers and other professional writings survived her death in 1957. Yet even though she produced a meticulous catalog of her professional career, Densmore left a parsimonious record of her interior life.

It is possible that Densmore was an unreflective sort. In old age and living alone, she told an interviewer, "I have no special philosophy, but nothing downs me."

It is equally possible that Frances Densmore got so lost in her work that work became her entire self-image. Most personal feelings and events not directly connected to that lifelong cause seemed, to her, irrelevant. Such an attitude is stereotypical of a 19th Century man, but not a woman.

Sifting through the written remains of Frances Densmore is a bit like listening to a carton of her old, scratchy cylinder recordings. Somewhere, down under the haze of surface noise, lurks a woman's voice singing a personal song. Densmore's papers offer so few glimpses into her inner life that is tempting - and probably misleading - to pounce on the few anecdotes and reflections and invest them with unwarranted significance.

In this online biography I try to avoid generalizing from a scattering of particulars.

Still, I have gazed at this woman's life long enough to sketch a provisional portrait of her traits. Consider these following observations a hypothesis:

When Frances Densmore set an objective, she pursued it with limitless vigor and a certain cunning. In 1916, working by herself among the Unita and White River bands of Ute Indians in Utah, Densmore's project drew opposition from many in the tribe. She played her "highest trump card," declaring that - as the adopted daughter of the prominent Sioux elder Red Fox - she should be treated like a visiting dignitary. It worked. Densmore left Utah with 114 Ute songs.

She was always the straitlaced Victorian. There is no hint anywhere in Densmore's papers of a romantic attachment (excepting a few letters she wrote home from college). Densmore was especially careful not to go unescorted by a woman or a white person when she mingled with Indian men. Densmore brought her own food to Indian feasts, even one in her honor. Did she ever loosen up long enough to join even one of the hundreds of traditional dances she observed? Unlikely. She never admits to it.

One of her supervisors at the Bureau of American Ethnology remarked: "Frances Densmore was completely dedicated to her work and so serious minded that she apparently had little sense of humor. I soon learned that any attempt at a joke was apt to be taken literally."

While Densmore's commitment to preserving Indian culture was progressive for her time, she still harbored many of the common American prejudices about Indians. She viewed them as a childish race with a "native simplicity of thought." (See Densmore's Attitude Toward Indians.)

It pained Densmore that the professional anthropologists at the Bureau of American Ethnology - for whom she worked as a "collaborator" - failed to recognize the importance of her work and grant her the professional recognition she craved. While she was often overbearing, she could also appear pitiable. Densmore bombarded executives at the BAE with letters from Red Wing pleading for a raise, for a satisfying title, for collegiality.

Densmore has been called "the greatest pioneer" in the study of Indian music. Partisans of her mentor, Alice Fletcher, might qualify the claim by saying Densmore was the most prolific pioneer in the field. Densmore's exploits drew some public attention. Over the years a number of newspapers and magazines wrote stories on her, usually emphasizing the oddity of her work. A short piece in Time magazine was headlined: "Whoop Collector."

Frances Densmore spent the last years of her life preparing an "official" self to leave behind in the nation's historical storage closets. Clattering away at her typewriter in an austere one-room apartment, Densmore retyped her field notes and speeches and official correspondence. In doing so, she purged almost all reliable traces of the personal Densmore.

She let stand an imposing but dry facade, a professional Densmore.

The Densmore Collection of cylinder phonographs in the Library of Congress is a remarkable legacy. So are her many books and papers on Indian music and culture. Equally remarkable is what Frances Densmore did with her life - abandoning her predictable, genteel Midwestern comforts for an uncertain, pioneering quest.

Without doubt, Densmore owed nothing to hopeful biographers who might come along after her. But had she done a less effective job of obscuring her interior journeys and conflicts, this exceptional life might attract wider attention today. For someone who craved recognition, Densmore helped ensure her own historical obscurity.

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