The Song Catcher
Frances Densmore was born in Red Wing, Minnesota in 1867. As a child she developed an appreciation of music by listening to the nearby Dakota Indians. She became a music teacher, working with Native Americans across the country. Concerned that the tribal music might disappear, she began to record and transcribe their music. In 1907, Densmore began this archiving officially for the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology.
In her travels, she visited the Pawnee in Oklahoma, the Pueblo of the Southwest, and the Seminole in Florida. She even worked with the Kuna Indians of Panama. In 1911, the Dakotas from the Sisseton Reservation invited her to record Dakota songs. She also worked with the Dakota at Standing Rock.
Densmore collected thousands of recordings, many of which are now held at the Library of Congress. She made the recordings on wax cylinders. A large number of them have since been duplicated and preserved using newer technology.
On this date in 1912, the State Historical Society of North Dakota hired Densmore to spend six months pursuing research at the Fort Berthold reservation. She spent years with the tribes in North Dakota.
Professional journals published many of Densmore’s articles. In 1926, she wrote a book titled The Indians and Their Music. Her series of bulletins for the Smithsonian describing the musical practices of the tribes were reprinted in 1972.
In addition to recording the music, Densmore also felt it was important to share the full story of the tribes. She thought American culture contained a great deal of misinformation about Native Americans, and did not want children growing up with stereotypical views of Native Americans. She blamed popular movies for much of the misunderstanding, with Native music equated with the simple “tom-tom” rhythms, when it’s actually much more complex. Densmore wrote “there is danger that the future will form its opinions of Indians from the sentimental movies and the theater music.”
Densmore spent fifty years studying and saving Native music, and she received numerous honors including the Minnesota Historical Society’s first award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Minnesota History.
Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher
Bismarck Historical Society. “It Happened in Bismarck.” http://bismarckhistory.org/it-happened-in-bismarck/?&offset=100 Accessed 4/8/2022.
North Dakota Studies. “Building Communities.” https://www.ndstudies.gov/gr8/content/unit-iii-waves-development-1861-1920/lesson-3-building-communities/topic-7-telling-our-story/section-8-frances-densmore Accessed 4/9/2022.
Smithsonian Institution Archives. “Frances Densmore.” http://siarchives.si.edu/research/sciservwomendensmore.html Accessed 4/8/2022.