In the Spotlight

News & Features
Song Catcher: Life Story
Radio Biography Script
By Stephen Smith
Minnesota Public Radio

MPR Regional broadcast: 22 November 1994
Broadcast on NPR's All Things Considered: 26 November 1994
Production Notes and Footnotes

This program was made possible, in part, with funding from the Minnesota Humanities Commission, in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Minnesota State Legislature. Additional funding provided by the Red Wing Shoe Company and by the Prairie Island Tribal Council, on behalf of the Prairie Island Tribal Community. (c) 1994 Minnesota Public Radio.

Host: One hundred years ago in this country, it was widely believed that Native Americans were doomed to cultural extinction. The U.S. government demanded that Indians give up their tribal languages and religions to join mainstream American culture. So, a young Minnesota music teacher set out to capture disappearing Indian songs on a cylinder phonograph machine. Frances Densmore began a remarkable, 60-year crusade, travelling to Indian villages all over North America. She left behind thousands of recordings and wrote more than 20 books. Today, Native American musicians are using Densmore's work to recover spiritually meaningful songs that might otherwise be lost. Minnesota Public Radio's Stephen Smith prepared this documentary, "Song Catcher, Frances Densmore of Red Wing."

SFX: cylinder phonograph being loaded

SS: To most of us, the old cylinders might not seem like much. Just brown wax tubes in some storage room at the Library of Congress. The recordings sound rather like a vintage photograph looks: faded, distant, two-dimensional.

SFX: cylinder phono plays Indian song..1

SS: But just like an old picture, there are stories to be found in the cylinders. You have to dig past the surface noise, past the blur of forgotten history. Lives are carved in the wax. Lives of people with names like Yellow Wing, Chased-By-Bears and Red Fox.

FD: [with reverb] The songs I bring you are the songs of yesterday. The winds of the prairie and the pines of the forest have heard many of them for the last time.

SS: Frances Densmore spoke these words in a speech she gave in 1899.

FD: Yet, Indian songs are not petrified specimens. They are live with the warm red blood of human nature. Indian music is not an art in our sense of the term. The old Indians received their songs in dreams from the bird or animal that appears in the dream. It has a purpose, such as bringing rain, calling the buffalo or healing the sick. The Indian believes that music puts him in communication with the mysterious forces of the earth, air and sea.2

Tape: [Aitken] When you look at all the accounts and all the other people who tried to write about our people, they don't even come close to Densmore. She stands alone.

SS: Larry Aitken runs a Tribal College on the Leech Lake Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota. He uses Densmore's books to teach Ojibwe culture.

Tape: Her books and her writings are timeless. A lot of things she's indicated in her book I still practice as a native person. She wrote verbatim the issues of the times, the crafts, the charms, and the beauty of our life. And she did so without trying to have it be some sort of romantic idea other than what it was.3

SFX: contemporary pow wow music4

SS: At the turn of the century, the U.S. government wanted Indian culture to die off. Government schools punished Indian youngsters for speaking their native languages. On many reservations, ceremonies and dances vital to religious life were either discouraged or banned. That's why Densmore sought out the old ones , the last generation of Native people free to live the old ways. 5

SFX: team of horses and box wagon

SS: In 1911, Densmore travelled to the remote Standing Rock Sioux reservation out on the vast Dakota prairie. She wanted to record songs of the Sun Dance, a spectacular religious rite in which dancers pierced their flesh. The government banned the Sun Dance, calling it a "barbaric superstition."6 Densmore persuaded Indian elders to sing the old sacred songs into the horn of her phonograph and to show her where the last Sun Dance took place 30 years earlier. FD: One afternoon, the entire party drove across the prairie. They scanned the horizon, measuring the distance to the Missouri River and the buttes. At last they gave the signal for the wagons to stop, and began to search.

SFX: wagon stopping, meadowlark sings

SFX: prairie wind, crickets & grasshoppers

FD: In a short time they found the exact spot where the ceremony was held. The scars were still on their bodies. Some of the Indians put on their war bonnets and their jackets of deerskin with the long fringes. One old man said with trembling lips: "I was young then. My wife and children were with me. They went away many years ago. I wish I could have gone with them."7

SFX: wind, meadowlark

SS: When Densmore made that Dakota trip she was already 44 years old. With her wire-rim spectacles and close-cropped hair, she looked the stereotype of a prim school teacher. Her manner was often described as solemn and imperious.8 Thomas Vennum, an expert on Indian music at the Smithsonian, admires the courage it took for a Victorian parlor musician to up and strike out for Indian country.

Tape: [Vennum] Here's this woman travelling around with cumbersome recording equipment, getting in leaky birch bark canoes and crossing the middle of Red Lake to get to a village to record somebody else. It took a lot of gumption.9

Schumann piano music, Mai Lieber

SS: It was especially peculiar given the era in which Frances Densmore grew up, a time when a woman's sphere was usually confined to home and family. Densmore was born in 1867 and spent her childhood in what Mark Twain called the Gilded Age. A time when American industry boomed. Railroads spread a metal web across the west, and Indians blocked the way. Even though Densmore's father Benjamin had been wounded fighting the Sioux, Frances was raised to daydream about Indians, not despise them.10

SFX: locusts and crickets

FD: My childhood home was near the shore of the Mississippi River and the Sioux Indians were camped on an island opposite the town.

SFX: distant drumming11

FD: We could hear the throb of the drum when they were dancing and sometimes we could see the flickering light of their campfire. If my mother had told me that Indians were savages, I might have been afraid to go to sleep. Instead I was told they were people with different customs from our own, and there was no fear in my mind. I fell asleep night after night to the throb of the Indian drum. Years passed and I grew up in the White man's music, becoming a piano teacher and organist. But there remained a wonder about the Indians dancing to the throb of the drum, across the water.12

SFX: piano music.. SIYAKA SONG13

SS: As a young woman, Frances got the finest musical training available in Victorian America: Oberlin College and Harvard University, special classes with eminent musicians. But she also read all the books she could find about Indians.14 Minnesota historian Nina Archabal says Densmore gave up a comfortable future as a small-town musician for an uncertain career.

Tape: [Archabal] What is there in the chemistry or history of this woman that says, "I'm not going to teach music for the rest of my life, give piano lessons, I'm going to do something different?" I suspect it's like everything else, it didn't come from a moment of realization, but a growing interest that just began to propel her and gain momentum throughout her life. Enough momentum to keep her going until she was 90 years old.15

SFX: manual typewriter

FD: Red Wing, Minnesota 1903. To William Holmes, Smithsonian Institution. Washington DC. I wish to ascertain the qualifications for field work in connection with the bureau of American Ethnology, and, if possible, to secure an appropriation for doing such work. 16

SS: The Smithsonian was the apex of American anthropological research on Indians. Densmore could offer no scientific credentials, and hardly any field experience.17

SFX: big office atmosphere
SFX: typewriter

WH: [bored, perfunctory] Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. Dear madam, replying to your favor of March 30: I beg to say that we can offer you no financial assistance. Sincerely, W. H. Holmes.18

SS: Undeterred, Densmore made several private trips to remote Sioux and Ojibwe reservations in the Midwest. She hired local guides and interpreters, and copied Indian songs on paper. Then, in 1907, Densmore experimented with a popular invention that might speed up her work. She wasn't the first to use this new device with Indians, but she became the most prolific.19

SFX: newsreel music

SFX: old movie soundtrack audio noise, crackling

SFX: movie projector sprocket noise

SFX: fireworks under

VOX: [compressed, tinny] This news from the St. Paul Dispatch. Detroit Lakes, Minnesota on July 4, 1907. The firecrackers were cracking spasmodically along the usually quiet streets here as George Big Bear, in town to celebrate his foster country's independence, became suddenly aware that a woman of paleface was importuning him to accompany her into a nearby phonograph store. Big Bear allowed himself to be beguiled into the store where the white woman used some more salesmanship and talked the store owner out of the loan of a phonograph. Then George Big Bear obligingly warbled an old Indian refrain or two into the horn.20

SS: Densmore wrote to Washington again. This time the Smithsonian decided to gamble, sending 350-dollars to help her continue working with the phonograph.21 Thus began Densmore's 50-year collaboration with the Smithsonian. She focused on dance music performed by men and women around a big, hide-covered drum. She made detailed studies of the Ojibwe in Minnesota and the Sioux in the Dakotas, sometimes spending months on remote reservations. Bearing the appropriate gifts of tobacco, she gathered songs, collected cultural objects and shot photos of village life.

SFX: wind in shack, locusts outside

SFX under: hauling heavy objects in shack, hammering

SS: At Fort Yates, North Dakota, Densmore rigged up a recording studio in an old coal shed. She perched her typewriter on a bacon box and her phonograph on a packing crate.22

SFX: cylinder machine winding, needle placed on raw cylinder

SS: She cranked the phonograph spring by hand. Her singer looked down the throat of a specially-built galvanized horn. The soft wax cylinders threatened to melt in the broiling summer heat. 23

SFX: cylinder plays - Densmore's opening slate, song24

FD: I sent for Red Weasel the only Sioux living who was known to have acted as Master of Ceremonies at the Sun Dance. He came very unwillingly, travelling 43 miles by stage and wagon, against his wishes. He said the truths of the Sun Dance were very sacred to him and he intended they should die with him. I said I only wanted him to tell me if I had written down anything that was not true. Before the day was over he gave me a great deal of most interesting information, and also sang four songs. Afterwards, he said he had not sung those songs for more than thirty years, and would probably never sing them again.25

SS: Gripped by a collector's impulse, Densmore wanted above all to get the music on wax.

Tape: [Vennum] She was clearly a very determined woman. When she wanted to get something she would push.

SS: Again, Thomas Vennum of the Smithsonian.

Tape: She obviously would cajole and flatter singers to induce them to perform for her. She was recording Meckawigabau, a Lac du Flambeau singer, and you can hear on the cylinder recording her saying: "This is Joe Kobe and he has such a beautiful voice that we're going to send it all the way to Washington."

SFX: this cylinder is heard with her words26

SS: Older Indians, experiencing recorded sound for the first time, were often amazed to hear the song played back on the spot. One woman said: "How did it learn the song so quick? That is a hard song."27

SFX: newsreel music
SFX: newsreel noise

Vox: This news from the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune. Miss Densmore never subscribed to the belief, held by some scientists and artists, that one should "go and live with the Indians" in order to know their ways. She preserved her identity as an educated and cultured white woman. She always ate with her own people.28

FD: It is very hard to learn to "draw the line." To be chummy and cordial and friendly with Indians but not let them ever overstep. I never let them criticize the government nor the white race, nor come across with any sob-stuff about the way they had been treated. 29

SS: Densmore wrote that in the 1940s to a young scholar named Charles Hofmann.

Tape: [Hofmann] She felt superior. She was doing them a favor by recording their past, and so on. She never considered that she was doing anything wrong. She came and she recorded them and that was it. 25 cents a song is what she gave them.30

Period music: Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

SS: During the Depression, government research money grew scarce. For a number of years Densmore essentially paid for the work herself. Even after the Depression, money was a struggle, perhaps because some professional anthropologists in Washington never fully accepted her as a social-scientist. Densmore suspected that her gender was an obstacle.31

FD: If I drop out I know what will be said - that a woman cannot "make good" in scientific work. It is repeatedly said that I am doing a valuable work that no one else can do. If my work is all that people say it is, especially to future generations, why should I have no more compensation than a routine stenographer?32

SS: Whatever problems came up, Frances persevered. She travelled from British Columbia to the Deep South, recording among dozens of tribes. She filled more than 3-thousand cylinders with music. Although Densmore never married, she wasn't alone. Frances and her younger sister, Margaret, were life-long companions. Margaret managed the family home, drove the car on field trips and handled much of the typing.33 Catherine Ullrich lived down the street from the Densmore sisters. She remembers that when Margaret died, Frances was 80 years old.

Tape: [Ullrich] We all thought when Margaret died that Frances would fall apart because she never had to do anything for herself. Not at all. As I recall, at that point she sold the big house, moved up into that Spartan apartment where she lived until she died. Nothing in there practically excepting her work. And that was her main thing her work.34

SS: At age 87 and in frail health, Densmore got one last commission to make a field recording trip among Seminole Indians in the Florida Everglades. Shortly after her 90th birthday, Frances Densmore caught pneumonia and died.35 It was 1957. She was buried on a hill above her home town of Red Wing next to Margaret.

momentary pause

SFX: cassette being loaded in boom box, cylinder music

SS: Summer 1994, eighty years after Densmore worked among the Sioux at Standing Rock. Singer Earl Bullhead searches through cassette tapes of the Densmore cylinders for Lakota songs his traditional drum group might revive.

Tape: [Bullhead] Like for instance..this comes from the Densmore collection. On the first cassette, number 10,55A.

SS: [on tape] Are then Densmore songs, the kind of songs one hears in the Densmor collection, do they have a place in contemporary life?

Tape: Definitely. More so than we ever realized. Because our people cling to those things whole-heartedly. What she left was kind like a seed. And that seed now is starting to flourish among a lot of people my age and older, and the young ones coming up. Because you got to remember, a lot of this was almost lost.36

SFX: Bullhead sings Densmore honor song

SS: One of the tunes Earl Bullhead found in the Library of Congress tapes was a song composed to honor Densmore herself, when a Lakota elder named Red Fox adopted her as his daughter in a 1912 ceremony.37

SFX: Bullhead again full

SS: Indian singers across the country are slowly finding out about Densmore's recordings. A young Ojibwe singer named Wayne Valliere looked up songs his great-grandfather sang for Densmore in 1910. Valliere's ancestor was a powerful Ojibwe religious leader on the Lac du Flambeau reservation in northern Wisconsin.

Tape: [47:45] E'niwube and those old people, when they allowed Frances Densmore to record those songs, the way they figgered it was that it was going to the great father's house in Washington, so in that way those songs wont' be lost. And those people were very very wise. Because here we are a hundred years later looking and finding.38

SS: Valliere used Densmore tapes to recover songs he could sing at Ojibwe religious ceremonies. He is convinced his great-grandfather recorded those songs expressly for the current generation of singers in the Valliere family. The songs are sacred, the kind of thing Ojibwe people usually keep secret from outsiders. But anyone can order tape copies of Densmore's cylinders from the Library of Congress. So, Valliere wants the original cylinders repatriated, given back to the tribe.

Tape: They've served their purpose. Why do we have to have them on some white man's recording? I think they ought to be given to the appropriate people. And, there's a lot of it that should have been buried with the deceased person. There's a lot of it that should have been just taken out in the woods and let the spirits and the elements take it. That's the way we do it, and I'd like to see it come back. That would make the spirits - make our ancestors up in the sky - very, very happy.

SS: Some Ojibwe elders worry that sacred medicine songs recorded by Densmore may be exploited by people with bad or misguided intentions.39 Ojibwe scholar Larry Aitken warns that anyone who listens to the medicine songs must be careful, because powerful spirits may be angered.

Tape: [18:15] That's meant for indigenous ears, indigenous hearts, indigenous spirits alone. If non-Indians or lay people try to interpret them, they'll come out wrong. And they ought not try because they put in danger their families when they try to interpret them...and misinterpret them, you see.

SS: Larry Aitken and many other Indian people I spoke with are sure that Frances Desnmore, herself, must have been guided by the spirits. How else, they say, could she earn so much trust from Indians. How else could she collect such powerful medicine songs, from so many tribes, and live to be 90 years old?

SFX: Densmore's voice on cylinder, Indian music40

SS: In 1905, when Frances Densmore first canoed to an Ojibwe village, many Native people still lived in wigwams. By the end of her life, Densmore sped to Indian reservations on paved highways. Her prediction that American Indian music would vanish never came true. But Indian scholars say much of Native culture did erode in the heavy pressure to join mainstream America. Much more might be gone without Densmore's 60-year-crusade. Single-minded, untiring, Frances Densmore left a legacy of rare and endangered sounds. From her childhood home on the edge of the Mississippi River, Densmore heard an Indian drum, and spent a lifetime following.

SFX UP: needle in run-out groove, machine stops
Schumann piano music

Host: "Song Catcher, Frances Densmore of Red Wing" was produced and narrated by Minnesota Public Radio's Stephen Smith, with help from Kitty Eisele, John Scherf, Nancy Fushan, Stephanie Curtis, and actress Brenda Wehle. This program was made possible, in part, with funding from the Minnesota Humanities Commission, in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Minnesota State Legislature. Additional funding provided by the Red Wing Shoe Company and the Prairie Island Mdewakanton Community.


Song Catcher