Huddie Leadbetter (Leadbelly): Musicking in U.S. Prisons

What caught my eye whilst perusing the Lomax archive was this photograph:

The men depicted are both in prison uniforms, and on the back of the photograph is handwritten, “poss. Leadbelly”; Angola, Louisiana, July, 1934; “Huddie Leadbetter”.

I guess I wasn’t the first to be captured by this image because when I googled the description, the Lomax collection, of course, came up; what I didn’t expect to see was an Amazon link that resold reprints of the image. Further investigation led me to not just one, but several documentaries surrounding the culture of the Angola Prison (AKA: The Louisiana State Pen). Angola is currently the largest maximum-security prison in the United States and resides on 18,000 acres of property [1]. The land which was a plantation pre-civil war was “transformed” into a privately-owned prison by a former confederate general in the late 19th century where slave labor was replaced by inmate labor[1]. Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) was in a way discovered by Alan Lomax while collecting in the south and aiding Lead Belly in recording an album, helped to secure his early release by sharing the album with Louisiana Governor O.K. Alan [2]. 

Whether or not the inmate in the photo is Heddie Ledbetter is unclear, however, the photograph provides evidence that musicking did not stop once people were convicted. 

I have a few questions in regards to the motives of the Lomaxs that include: Why did the Lomaxes decide to collect from prisons? Did it have to do with concepts of the authenticity of black music? Similarly, how did Jim Crow Era politics and criminal justice have to do with the perpetuation of black musicks? Josep Pedro’s biography on Leadbelly suggests that there was indeed a power dynamic at play. 

Leadbelly was effectively liberated in 1934 and the popular legend – backed by both the Lomaxes and the artist himself – made the white ‘ballad hunters’ responsible for the black man’s liberation.” [4]

The Lomaxes created a short film surrounding the liberation of Leadbelly and his transformation into a blues star. The video feels rehearsed (Leadbelly stumbles over a line at 2:28) and is shot skillfully with the usage of continuity editing and non-diegetic noise. Lastly, the film declares the Lomax discovery of Leadbelly’s music was, “the greatest folk song find in 25 years” [3]. The physical copies of his music were then to be stored in the same archive as the original copy of the Declaration of Independence [3]. The juxtaposition of the two is certainly evoking and ethos in legitimizing Leadbelly’s music as authentically American. 

Works Cited

[1] Schrift, Melissa. “Angola Prison Art: Captivity, Creativity, and Consumerism.” The Journal of American Folklore 119, no. 473 (July 1, 2006): 257–274.

[2] “Leadbelly.” In Chambers Biographical Dictionary, by Liam Rodger, and Joan Bakewell. 9th ed. Chambers Harrap, 2011.

[3] March of Time. Volume 1, Episode 2. “Leadbelly”. [New York, NY] Home Box Office, 1935. Accessed September 26, 2019.

[4] Pedro, Josep. “Leadbelly.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Singer-Songwriter, 111–119. Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Marketing ‘Selves’ and ‘Others’: How a Biased Recording Process Divided Bluegrass

In our last class, we talked about the role of the record company and consumerism in the separation of bluegrass into its racially differentiated sub-genres.  I wanted to delve deeper into the idea, exploring the different ways recording and preserving music prioritized some identities and invalidated others within the genre as well as the way that marketing shaped these newly conceived identities.

Willie McTell, with 12 string guitar, hotel room, Atlanta, Ga.                                                        “A prolific musician, McTell had recorded not only 12-bar blues (in the so-called Piedmont style), but also ballads, spirituals and contemporary gospel tunes, songs from minstrelsy and vaudeville, rags, hillbilly songs, and tunes of traditional origin” (Nunn 265)

Despite bluegrass’s transracial origins, the history of the genre has been mired in essentialism and exclusion.  As we could see from Erich Nunn’s article and the “Monologue on Accidents”, folklorists like John Lomax, who were attempting to preserve the traditions of southern ‘folk’, asked specific questions of their African American informants to influence what types of songs were recorded:  

[The informant] McTell’s proffering a spiritual instead of the “complaining song” Lomax asks for speaks volumes about the uncomfortable relationship between white collector and black informant. So, too, does his insistence on the spiritual’s universality in the face of Lomax’s rather startlingly insensitive demand for a racially specific song of social protest. [1]

This is significant in that Lomax, whose supposed motive is to record authentic moments of music-making in southern society, asks pointed questions to certain informants in order to create and control the image he was to preserve, therefore undermining the original goal of the project.

Along with the biased method of preservation, companies recording the genre for entertainment purposes aided in this differentiation.  The common practices of marketing the same groups under “hillbilly” and “race record” labels in order to cater to perceived racial differences and turning away groups who didn’t conform to ‘their’ genre are more attempts at controlling, curating and marketing the images of ‘selves’ and ‘others’:

The record companies had the power, and they wielded it at will – as Ralph Peer himself was quoted saying in 1959, “I invented the Hillbilly and the Negro stuff.” Except, of course, that he didn’t say ‘negro’.  [2]

While the motives of the folklorists and record executives were different, what they have in common is that the bias of the person behind the recording equipment always shines through.  These disingenuous recording practices changed the face of bluegrass due to the misattribution of certain styles to different groups and the erasure and ‘othering’ of music created and performed by racially diverse groups, who have just as much ownership over the style as their white counterparts.

It is important for us to learn more about this complex history, as the consequences of this division are still at play in current music, and there are still efforts made to suppress diverse artists in today’s charts.  We, as informed listeners, should do more research into these issues and understand when bias could be introduced in any step of the music-making process.



1. Nunn, Erich. “COUNTRY MUSIC AND THE SOULS OF WHITE FOLK.” Criticism 51, no. 4 (Fall, 2009): 623-649.

2. Giddens,Rhiannon.“Community and Connection,” Keynote Speech at 2017 International Bluegrass Music Association Conference.


Works Cited

Blind Willie McTell, with 12 String Guitar, Hotel Room, Atlanta, Ga.

Giddens,Rhiannon.“Community and Connection,” Keynote Speech at 2017 International Bluegrass Music Association Conference.

Nunn, Erich. “COUNTRY MUSIC AND THE SOULS OF WHITE FOLK.” Criticism 51, no. 4 (Fall, 2009): 623-649.

Stimeling, Travis.“Ken Burns’ Country Music does Little to Tell the Story of the Non-White, Non-Straight World of Country,” 15 September 2019.

There’s No Place Like… Home? Decentering Appalachia As The Home of Bluegrass

While perusing the “Introduction” to Neil Rosenberg’s Bluegrass: A History, I was fascinated by the importance of location in the nostalgia of bluegrass. The folk scholar notes the creation of a fictional geography in commercial bluegrass production and performance.1 I was reminded of a similar conversation when we discussed country music- how decades of scholarship focusing on country as the music of the American South complicated and even diminished the truth in its origins. But this poses the question: If bluegrass really isn’t the music of Appalachia, where was this music being made?

The idea of Appalachia as a cohesive unit has a large element of mythology to it”

Bluegrass: a History, pg. 13

In searching for clues in a photography collection in the Library of Congress, I found a photograph that captured a geography that challenged the concept of bluegrass as an Appalachian genre. The picture, taken in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 1937, was published in a set of photographs displaying the dwellings and lives of squatters and settlers in the area. While most photographs in the lot detail the shelters and natural surroundings of the settlers, this picture stands out.

‘Lon Allen and his son playing their fiddles to the tune of “The Arkansas Traveler.” Near Iron River, Michigan’. Taken by Russell Lee, May 1937.

Take a listen to the piece listed in the photograph description


Take a listen to an older recording here on another blog (not too different from this one!)

It should be noted that we can hear quite a bit of variation among performances and recordings of the piece. Instrumentation greatly varies between recordings, as well as ornamentations and some stylistic approaches to the core material of the music.

Upon consultation of scholarship regarding the movement of bluegrass, it is clear that Michigan and other states in the Upper Midwest created hotspots for this music as economic migrants traversed the country.2 In the years during and directly following the Second World War, places like Detroit got ahold of musics like bluegrass and marketed it to a country longing for an identity that harkened back to the days of peace and the free, roaming settler. 

It is fascinating to piece together how one photograph can demonstrate an amalgamation of Southern migrant histories and Midwestern musical production. But consultation of additional sources helped contextualize this photograph in the complex geography of bluegrass that had been previously simplified by production companies intending to sell a particular image of the bluegrass musician and backstory.


Primary Source

Lee, Russell. Lon Allen and his son playing their fiddles to the tune of “The Arkansas Traveler.” Near Iron River, Michigan. May, 1937. LOT 1044, The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.

Secondary Sources Cited

[1] Rosenberg, Neil V. Bluegrass: a History. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005) 3-13.

[2] Maki, Craig., and Cady, Keith. Detroit Country Music : Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013) 2-8.

Troublesome Music Collecting

Lomax and Amerson

In the first recordings blue grass, Erich Nunn argues the whiteness of Lomax making the informant uncomfortable in his playing. In my other blog, I discussed the tension in recordings that may have risen with Frances Densmore. In this post, this picture shows the collector and the informant, as Nunn describes. The discomfort of the performer with the collector makes me question the authenticity of the recordings. In the recording, Monologues on Accidents, the interaction between the collector and musician becomes awkward the longer they interact:


McTell: Well, that . . . all songs that have reference to our old people here . . . they hasn’t very much stuff of the people nowadays because . . .

Lomax [interrupting]: Any complaining songs, complaining about the hard times, and sometimes mistreatment of [sic] the whites. Have you got any songs that talk about that?

McTell: No, sir, I haven’t. Not at the present time because the white people’s mighty good to the Southern people, as far as I know.

Lomax: You don’t know any complaining songs at all?

McTell: Well . . .

Lomax: “Ain’t It Hard to Be a Nigger, Nigger,” do you know that one?

McTell: Well . . . that’s not in our time. And . . . now, there’s a spiritual down here called “It’s a Mean World to Live In,” but that don’t have . . . still don’t have reference to the hard times.

Lomax: It’s just because of the . . . Why is it a mean world to live in?

McTell: Well, no, it’s not altogether. It has reference to everybody. Country music and the souls of white folk 627

Lomax: It’s as . . . It’s as mean for the whites as it is for the blacks, is that it?

McTell: That’s the idea (Nunn 623)

With the racial politics of the era, it becomes reasonable to ask if any of these recordings collected are authentic. In this interaction, it seems as though Lomax is looking for a concept of black music rather than what the specific musician had to offer. Even as a respected musicologist, I question what John Lomax specifically looked for in his collection as well.
This photo includes John Lomax and musician Richard Amerson, who went on to record other folk albums later on in his career.
I continue to wrestle with the idea that record companies would advertise to different racial groups based on the race of the musicians. I wonder if this also become the case for Lomax and his collection based on the Monologues On Accident and photo. It feels as though while Lomax may be preserving a tradition through recordings, but also preserving problematic notions of race through his preconceived notions of what he wanted in his collection.


– Nunn, Erich. “Country Music and the Souls of White Folk.” Criticism, vol. 51, no. 4, 2010, pp. 623–649., doi:10.1353/crt.2010.0000.

– “Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 3: Rich Amerson—1/ Smithsonian Folkways Recordings,

– Lomax, Ruby. Richard Amerson and John A. Lomax, Sr., at the Home of Mrs. Ruby Pickens Tartt, Livingston, Alabama. 27 Oct. 1940.

Breaking the Mold: Subversive rhetoric in In Dahomey

For this blog assignment, I found a performance of the song, “On Emancipation Day,” from the musical In Dahomey, with music by Will Marion Cook and lyrics by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. In Dahomey is a significant piece of art for several reasons.

First and foremost, it was the first full-length musical written by african americans, with an african american cast to appear in a major Broadway Theater. The musical was very successful; it ran for 53 performances, including two United States tours as well as a tour to the United Kingdom.

However, there is a deeper significance to this work than just pure success. It also pushed against social norms of the time period. In the chapter “Early Black Americans on Broadway,” by Monica White Ndounou from the Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre, she argues that the musical contained some subversive ideas regarding black freedom of representation and production in theatre.

“The song “Broadway in the Jungle” incorporates African iconography in its vision of the Great White Way, but in a more subversive way than Williams and Walker may have been credited with in their lifetime. They speak not of bringing Dahomians to Broadway but instead building a Broadway for colored people in Dahomey. They sing: “If we went to Dahomey. Suppose the king would say, we want a Broadway built for us, we want it right away.” They call for a space in which blacks control production and performance. Stereotypical references throughout, however, detract from the revolutionary idea (for instance, using a crocodile, or a “Crock-o-Dial” on the face of the Broadway clock, getting gorillas to use as the police, and a hippopotamus for Justice of the Peace, etc). They fail to improve African representation, but succeed in the use of dialect and other devices,” (Ndounou 67-68).

Even though they challenged the status quo in this way, it fell into line with others. The play was not exempt from the influence of minstrelsy, which permeated all black theatre of the time. Ndounou also comments on this:

“In Dahomey: A Negro Musical Comedy draws character names from minstrelsy, while combining low comedy, ethnic jokes, and references to current social and political events within its three-act structure. Whereas white comics were able to access a range of ethnic stereotypes (i.e. Irish, Hebrew, and Dutch), black performers could only play variations of the “Darky” and the Chinese. In Dahomey features these constrained representations of ethnic identity, while building on models established in previous shows,” (Ndounou 66).

To tie this back into class, even though In Dahomey followed the familiar narrative of Black Theater being a successful, though problematic form of entrepreneurship, it should also be recognized for how it pushed against the expectations of the time.

Works Cited:
Bordman, Gerald, Musical Theatre: A Chronicle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 190.

Ndounou, Monica White. “Early black Americans on Broadway.” The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre, edited by Harvey Young, Cambridge UP, pp. 59-70.

Spencer, Len, baritone. On Emancipation Day, by Will Marion Cook. Library of Congress: National Jukebox, 25 October, 1902.

Music and the Market: The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes

James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamond Johnson were musicians, writers, entrepreneurs, and powerful figures of what came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. Beyond being known for writing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” which has been called the black national anthem, Johnson and Johnson thrived as songwriters in New York City during the Tin Pan Alley era of popular music, in which songwriters would churn out sheet music to be sold or recorded. In James Weldon Johnson’s autobiography “Along this Way”1 Weldon Johnson explains his process behind writing a hit song titled The Maiden With the Dreamy Eyes

“In those days the royalties of a writer depended largely upon the young fellow who would buy a copy of the song and take it along with him when he went to call on his girl…In writing “The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes” we gave particular consideration to these fundamentals. It needed little analysis to see that a song written in exclusive praise of blue eyes was cut off at once from about three-fourths of the possible chances for universal success; that it could make but faint appeal to the heart or pocketbook of a young man going to call on a girl with brown eyes or black eyes or gray eyes. So we worked on the chorus of our song until, without making it a catalogue, it was inclusive enough to enable any girl who sang it or to whom it was sung to fancy herself the maiden with the dreamy eyes (160).”

James Weldon Johnson makes it perfectly clear that in writing this piece of music, the objective was to make the song appeal to as large of a group of people as possible, something that is accomplished by literally listing several eye colors in the song. A 1902 recording of the song by the Victor Recording Company, sung by a Canadian tenor named Harry Macdonough accomplishes the precise sweetness that Weldon Johnson refers to in his account. For another, more recent recording check out this version by Melinda Doolittle.


The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes

Part of the specific success of this song was due to new customs surrounding dating at the start of the 20th century. Magazines and journals made money off of marketing to new audiences and age groups, especially to a certain subset of young people who would eventually be called teenagers, Beth Bailey2 writes

“The middle-class arbiters of culture, however, aped and elaborated the society version of the call. And, as it was promulgated by magazines such as the Ladies Home Journal, with a circulation of over one million by 1900, the modified society call was the model for an increasing number of young Americans (15).”

This new middle class is also something we tend to think of as predominantly white, a market that Weldon Johnson found great success in despite being a black artist. In his autobiography, he wonders if consumers of his music are aware of his identity, writing about a letter he received as follows.

“The very serious-looking Mr. Bok read me the letter and laughed uproariously over it. I laughed too; but me laughter was tempered by the thought that there was anybody in the country, notwithstanding the locality being Georgia, who, knowing anything at all about them, did not know that Cole and Johnson Brothers were Negroes (196).”

Everything we know about the creators behind The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes makes it a piece of black art, with words by a black poet and a musical arrangement by a black composer, but in standard examples of what “black music” is, it would be highly unlikely to ever hear this song. In my preliminary search of Alan Lomax’s photo collection tied to his work on folk music in the south in the 1930’s I found no instances of pianos, despite the fact Weldon Johnson’s music, published some 30 years prior was based around a piano.

When music is cataloged and categorized, everything that doesn’t fit into those boxes gets left to the side because it fails to serve the central narrative about what that particular music means. While The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes is goofy and a clear grab for money, what new stories can we explore when it is as much of a piece of black music as any recording taken by Alan Lomax in the South?

1Johnson, James Weldon. Along This Way : The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson. New York: Viking Press, 1965.

Country Music Mythologized in Murals

Mismatched faces loom down at passersby in Dothan, Alabama. Some grinning, some straight-faced, sixteen white ovals are superimposed on each other. The mural’s array of country music artists is reminiscent of a bad photoshop job. I will argue that our conception of country music as a genre is just as piecemeal and whitewashed.

Country Music Mural in Dothan, Alabama

Wes Hardin’s 2010 mural presents a myriad of flat, disconnected faces and instruments that are meant to represent country music as a whole. These individual, one-dimensional shapes are imposed on a vaguely southern, pastoral backdrop. This representation of country music is almost exactly what we encounter in written attempts to describe the genre. As Jeffrey Manuel points out, the history of country music is intertwined with a “set of ideals and customs” prescribed to the “plain white folk”.1 These plain white folk themselves are often given a physical description: “Fat or lean, blonde or brunet, the Southern type could be discerned by travelers”.2


Written histories have taken perceived elements of white folk culture, pasted them onto a general image of white folk, oriented the whole scene in a generic Southern landscape, and called it country music. Perhaps the ridiculousness of a mural in Alabama with sixteen heads of varying sizes shows us how this description is a mere caricature of country music.

Mural to Country Music in Bristol, Virginia

Meanwhile, in Bristol, Virginia, a similar sight meets our eyes. Yet another mural depicts symbols of country music painted together onto a brick wall. More white figures holding guitars and banjos dominate the scene, reinforcing the public perception of country music as a genre of the “plain white folk”. This mural, created by Tim and Murphy White, reveals another element of our perception of country music as well. The words at the top claim the town as a “birthplace” of country music, seeming to attribute a whole genre to a few white guys in a southern town. While most people are aware that the genre’s origins aren’t quite so easy to pin down, this mythology of country music as a genre spawned by some white folk in the rural south is still pervasive. The use of white figures and common symbols of country music such as the banjo to represent the genre only perpetuates this view.

Murals such as those in Alabama and Virginia show us an image of country music that is easy to swallow. They depict a genre that can be neatly boxed up and captured by a mythical sense of southern, white culture. But as Jeffrey Manuel points out, no genre of music is ever this easily defined. We need to move past thinking that such basic tropes of southern culture can characterize an entire history and genre of music.

1 Jeffrey T. Manuel, “The Sound of Plain White Folk? Creating Country Music’s ‘Social Origins,” Popular Music and Society, 421.

2 Ibid., 422.

3 Ibid., 421.


Works Cited:

Hardin, Wes. Country Music, 2010. The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America. Dothan, Alabama. Accessed September 23, 2019.

Jeffrey Manuel, “The Sound of Plain White Folk? Creating Country Music’s ‘Social Origins,” Popular Music and Society 31, no. 4 (October 2008): 417-431.

Murphy White and Tim White. Mural to Country Music, 1980-2006. Carol M. Highsmith Archive. Bristol, Virginia. Accessed September 23, 2019.

A Gaelic Bluegrass

Formed by Crockett Ward, the Ballard Branch Bogtrotters are, by their appearances alone, precisely the sort of people a record company of the mid 20th century would market as Bluegrass musicians. They are shown playing stringed instruments, including the emblematic banjo and fiddle, Crockett (front and center) is in a farmer’s coveralls, they are in an ensemble (including family–with Crockett’s brother, Wade, on banjo, and Fields Wade on guitar), and all are white.

[Members of the Bog Trotters Band, posed holding their instruments, Galax, Va. Back row: Uncle Alex Dunford, fiddle; Fields Ward, guitar; Wade Ward, banjo. Front row: Crockett Ward, fiddle; Doc Davis, autoharp]

Found in the Lomax Collection of the Library of Congress

Yet, when the group is viewed through the speech Rhiannon Giddens gave at the 2017 IBMA conference (linked here), Bluegrass is not comprised merely by these attributes. However, I would like to spend a moment to reflect on the Scots-Irish influences Giddens is–rightfully, mind–pushing back on. While these cultural roots certainly don’t tell the whole story, there may be insights hidden beneath the simplistic veneer of “Bluegrass-as-white” which so frustrates Giddens.1

The Gaelic roots which inform this group are apparent in two places. The surname of three of the members of the band, Ward, has origins in that culture ( Perhaps more interestingly, “bog-trotting” has distinct Irish connotations which add more detail to the study of Bluegrass. Contemporary bands have taken up the name, including the Galax Bogtrotters.

A depiction of peasant bogtrotters, including some falling into the bog

Found at the British Museum website

“Bogtrotter,” according to Merriam-Webster, is a usually disparaging term used to refer to a “native or resident of Ireland.” Somewhat defensively, the Irish Times reports that the term unfairly implies a lack of knowledge; to the contrary, they say, the very real act of bog-trotting is strenuous and filled with potential missteps.2


This presents a charming portrait of the self-debasement alongside showy technical skill typical of American country music, and clearly involves the Gaelic culture in Bluegrass. But which culture can claim possession of the band? As I pointed out in my last post, it may not be so simple. The Bogtrotters certainly fit in the mold crafted by record companies named “Bluegrass,” they come from the Appalachian region where “Old Time” sound is said to have originated, and they probably have Gaelic ethnicity. Reality is, here as always, more complicated than the categories we use to make sense of it. It seems to me that the Bogtrotters are just as much a Gaelic band playing non-Gaelic Bluegrass as they are proof that Gaelic culture plays some role in Bluegrass, yet another case study in the interdependence of musical expression.


1     Povelones, Robert. 2018. “Rhiannon Giddens Keynote Address – IBMA Business Conference 2017.” International Bluegrass Music Association.

2     2000. “Bog Trotters.” The Irish Times.

Is There Such a Thing as Geographic Authenticity?

Last class period concluded with a short discussion of the ability to “buy into” the commercial market of country or hillbilly music. Based on Harry Jackson’s album “the Cowboy” and others like it, commercial country music claimed (and still claims) geographic authenticity even though relatively little exists. This album, produced by Smithsonian Folkways, didn’t care that Harry Jackson grew up in Chicago and later adopted the cowboy lifestyle. But his music was recorded to make money, so it’s a fair guess that only so much geographic authenticity was needed.


But what about the traditions that are recorded outside of the commercial market? I would think that geographic authenticity is important to someone like Alan Lomax. In 1961, the folk song collector was asked to speak at an ethnomusicology conference in Detroit. Over the course of two hours, Lomax and his wife Antoinette Marchand detailed their experiences as successful ethnomusicologists, and inserted field recordings and stories from their travels. Of the Georgia Sea Island Singers’ member Bessie Jones, Lomax says:

The reason that this material about Bessie’s sexual attitudes is so crucial, she is almost a pure informant from the middle of the 19th century back, as her repe[r]toire is composed of only the oldest classic songs, and all of her attitudes about singing are the nearest thing to the African pattern that we have found in America, the shape of the songs, shape of the music, how she treats all musical situations.1

It is important to note that the Georgia Sea Island Singers were of particular interest to ethnomusicologists like Lomax. The Georgia Sea Islands held slaves and plantations during the 19th-century just like other parts of the south. Due to the relative lack of contact with outside European cultures, the dialects, songs, and other art forms originating from in the Islands are considered by historians the purest form of West African-sourced material in America. 

By 1961, Lomax had been studying the Sea Island Singers for nearly 30 years. Therefore, it was likely he knew that Jones, the most famous folk artist from the group, decided to move to the island and join the group when she was 31 years old. This begs the question, when and to what degree can we claim geographic authenticity as a marketable attribute. With regards to Bessie Jones, Lomax said:

This brings me to the real point about oral history, I think, in relationship to informants of Bessie’s level of excellence. They can give you very quickly the main emotional psychological patterns absolutely in the most complexly-stated way, and these patterns can be used for really scientific purposes, rather than sheer historical purposes, because these are the historical patterns.2

Even though Lomax’s market was much different from Jackson’s, his research (and that of other ethnomusicologists then and now) heavily relied on the authenticity of place. The degree to which audiences like us should put full faith in this authenticity is constantly in flux.

1 Lomax, Alan. Alan Lomax Collection, Manuscripts, Lomax’s Experience As a Folklorist. 1961. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Image 57.

2 Lomax. Alan Lomax Collection. Image 59.

Works Consulted

Menius, Art. “Georgia Sea Island Singers, the.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, July 25, 2013.

Sheehy, Daniel. “Jones, Bessie.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, January 31, 2014.

Alan Lomax: “Appendix on Guitar and Banjo Accompaniment”

Alan Lomax (1915-2002) was an American folksong scholar who dedicated his studies to searching for new folk songs to record in the rural South using an ethnographic lens. He investigated the correlation between folk song structures and melodies with folk musicians’ races, locations, and economic status. He compiled many manuscripts during his research, one of which, the “Big Ballad Book,” includes his “Appendix on Guitar and Banjo Accompaniment” [1].


He begins his appendix by describing his findings related to the differences in folk music between black and white communities. He states that white frontiersmen generally sang solo a cappella, whereas “Most Negro singing was group performed and was accompanied at least by clapping, foot-patting, and, frequently, by other instruments, played poly-rhythmically, such as the mouth-bow, the panpipe, the bones, etc.” [2], page 2.


However, according to Lomax, white folk musicians had been recently picking up influences from black musicians they met either “on the job” or “in the slums” [2], page 2. This phenomenon of stealing a culture’s music while simultaneously oppressing that culture was, and is, common among colonizers. They also encountered these ideas through the radio, recordings, and touring minstrel groups. As a result, white folk musicians began incorporating instruments into their songs. 


Lomax additionally comments on the practice of judging folk music through a Western lens. As he points out, Western European harmonic traditions were formed in urban areas, whereas folk music developed in rural parts of America. 


“Although Harmony is taught in schools as if its rules were laws of nature, classical Western European harmony is, in fact, just one more fashion …subject to change as the mood of mankind changes…to graft the ideas of this sophisticated urban music onto the sober, workaday back of folk music is an act of vanity and poor taste” [2], page 2.


As a result, composers like Beethoven and Copland who arranged folk songs for concert settings failed to capture the songs’ emotional tension and melodic simplicity; they made “no contribution to the lasting tradition of the song” [2], page 3. Lomax attributes this to the fact that these composers have not lived with the people from these folk traditions they are adapting from, and yet their arrangements caught on with the public while lacking authenticity. 


Furthermore, Lomax highlights several misconceptions surrounding folk music. He argues that many perceive folk music as based upon improvisation rather than strict structure, and consequently feel free to adapt or arrange songs as they choose.  In actuality, the minimal improvisation that can appear does so in a familiar and traditional way. He also states that while many believe that folk songs evoke individuality, a folk singer actually serves as the “mouthpiece of his culture or subculture” [2], page 5.


Finally, Lomax offers a beginner’s tutorial in how to play folk banjo and guitar, including diagrams of rhythmic strumming and picking patterns like “Carter Family’s Lick” and “Woody’s Lick.” 


The numbers above the notes indicate which strings to pluck, 6 being the lowest string. “Abs” means ‘any bass string.’ The letters below the notes indicate which fingers to use to pluck or strum the strings; “Br” means brush the strings with the first three fingers, and “T” means to use the thumb. The arrows indicate which direction to strum.


  1. Lomax, Alan, and Alan Lomax. Alan Lomax Collection, Manuscripts, Big Ballad Book, -1991. to 1991, 1961. Manuscript/Mixed Material.
  2. Porterfield, Nolan, and Darius L. Thieme. “Lomax family.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 23 Sep. 2019.


Bluegrass and Black Appalachian Banjo

When I found a set of manuscripts collected by Alan Lomax on the playing of musicians in Black Appalachia, the last thing I expected was to end up reading about Earl Scruggs. Nevertheless, this letter from Stu Jamieson on field recordings done in 1946 of a trio of Black Appalachian musicians connected directly into our discussions of bluegrass music from Thursday’s class. The recordings this letter is referencing are of Murphy Gribble, John Lusk, and Albert York on banjo, fiddle, and guitar respectively. Apparently a banjo player himself and familiar with the rise of bluegrass by the time this letter was written in about 1978, Jamieson writes to a friend and scholar at the Library of Congress about the Gribble’s particular styles of banjo picking and fingering. As with Bill C. Malone, part of the reason his recounting is convincing because of his own study and experience with the styles he discusses.

Very few of the recordings referenced are easy to find; however, three songs played by this trio appear on the Black Appalachia CD of Deep River of Song – the same series that supplied our listenings for Black cowboy music (1). The three songs can be seen in the list given to the right, labelled with Murphy Gribble’s name: “Christmas Eve,” “Give the Fiddler a Dram,” and “8th of January.” Notably missing from this set is the solo recording of Gribble that Jamieson spends most of his time discussing.

Perhaps this sort of delving into history is what Rhiannon Giddens did when she started to discover the complex roots of bluegrass, which had been introduced to her as a white genre (2). While it is unlikely that these particular players had much to do with the spreading popularity of this style of play until it developed into bluegrass, Jamieson is certain that they are clues to a more significant history, and that there must have been more musicians who played like Gribble, Lusk, and York. As a broader style, and not simply a characteristic of a single isolated musician (or three), it likely would have spread and been one of the streams which fed into the development of mid-19th century bluegrass. In the letter, Jamieson says that the musicians told him what they were doing was “the way the black folks always played” (3). This discussion and the solo recording of Gribble’s playing are his main pieces of evidence in claiming that there is a “whole world” of black country music that has been missed by white recorders. His excitement is genuine and somewhat infectious, but it seems also to be a bit simplistic. Countless other strands of folk music traditions have not been recorded and preserved exactly as they were, but that does not mean they are completely lost; on the contrary, they exist in the traditions that they helped develop. And there certainly are plenty of recordings of black country musicians that could hold the keys that Jamieson says are missing. He himself admits that he saw “nothing new of note” until he persuaded Gribble to play alone; it’s distinctly possible that a similar style had been recorded, but not independently (3).

I also noted that toward the end of the letter, Jamieson (depicted below) tells his friend who to contact for permission to share the recordings they are discussing with a broader public (4). Any of the musicians who appear on the recordings, or any of their family members, as several of them had passed away by the time the letter was written, are not given as contacts. This is not directly relevant to the validity of the story being shared, but it does raise some interesting questions about the ways Jamieson thinks about the music he has recorded, in comparison with other statements about the treatment of black country musicians.

Works Cited:

  1. Deep River of Song: Black Appalachia. Recorded January 1, 1999. Rounder Records, 1999, Streaming Audio. 
  2. Povelones, Robert. “Rhiannon Giddens Keynote Address – IBMA Business Conference 2017.” IBMA, International Bluegrass Music Association, 17 May 2018,
  3. Lomax, Alan. Alan Lomax Collection, Manuscripts, A Recorded Treasury of Black Folk Song, -1981, Black Appalachia. to 1981, 1978. Manuscript/Mixed Material.
  4. Wikipedia contributors, “Robert Stuart Jamieson,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed September 24, 2019).

Dolly Parton: Breaking and Reinforcing Country Stereotypes and Fallacies

For this blog post I researched into Dolly Parton and the role she has played in shaping country music and challenged the ideas of the poor white hillbilly being the norm in this world. When one hears the word hillbilly they usually associate it with a man, which I think originates from the fact that the music industry was dominated by men at the time of country music being brought into popularity by white Southerners. So what is different about the way Parton presents herself? How does it simultaneously challenge the hillbilly stereotype and become extremely popular, leading her to become a timeless and iconic face within not just female country artists, but the entire genre?

The answer lies within her music and marketing. Dolly markets herself as the common woman, but not in the same “down on their luck” way that most people would expect country music to be presented. In her song, 9 to 5, which is also a feature film, Dolly presents us with the problems of the average person who is dealing with their dead-end job. Sure, this could be construed as someone being down on their luck, but the lyrics “They just use your mind And they never give you credit It’s enough to drive you crazy If you let it”(Parton). show this is a problem that is relatable to any listener that isn’t part of the upper 1%. The imagery of the poster shows how the working class, particularly women, are ready to take back the power from the wealthy (Gibert). This power-dynamic shift is again showing how Parton likes to fight against the typical country music narrative.

This specific line is a bit hypocritical, as country music rarely recognizes the fact that much of their origins come from African American music. Still, the spirit of the song, especially sung by a woman in 1980, is that of resistance. Is it reaching to black women and saying “I”m here! I’m your ally! We’re in this together”? Well, no. It is lacking in connecting that boldly and directly, much like most country music of that era. She presents an air of sticking to your roots but not being afraid to succeed, but isn’t showing off talented African American country and bluegrass singers alongside her.

Although she isn’t making that extra step, I feel she is still stepping out and fighting the patriarchal stereotypes of country music more than other female country singers of the era. She is known for performing alongside modern feminist folk singers, like Brandi Carlile, a known gay Grammy winner. She performed the song Just because I’m a Woman with Carlile’s band at the Newport Folk Festival in 2019 (Ballantyne). This shows that she is still pushing back against double standards that oppress women, while still staying true to the historical descriptions of bluegrass and country, as the lyrics do make it feel like a complaining song, just complaints that are more relevant and valid than some more patriarchal country songs.

Works Cited

Ballantyne, Anna, director. Dolly Parton Sings ‘Just Because I’m a Woman’ with Brandi Carlile and the Highwomen at Newport Folk. YouTube, YouTube, 28 July 2019,

Gilbert, Bruce, producer. “9 to 5”. Poster. Twentieth Century Fox, 1980. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs. Web. 22 Sept, 2019. []

Parton, Dolly, director. Dolly Parton- 9 to 5 (Official Video). YouTube, YouTube, 15 Mar. 2014,

DIY Folk Music

Even though my career as a washboard virtuoso was neither long nor successful, nostalgic recollections of my wild adolescence resurfaced when I found photographs of homemade instruments in The Lomax Collection. Personal experiences aside, the usage or repurposing of household items as musical instruments is an aspect of folk music, and the adjacent genres like country and bluegrass, that is worth further examination.

The Alan Lomax Collection  [1] contains documentation from ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’ field research on folk music locally in the US and internationally. The pictures chosen are from Lomax’ early American research between 1936-1950, while working for the Library of Congress. To accompany the photographs, I have chosen a recording from 1941 by performer Wayne “Gene” Dinwiddie. The recording begins with him explaining how he made a wind instrument and then he performs a song with it.

Bruno Nettl states in his article [2] on folk music in Encyclopædia Britannica that it primarily refers to the music of the majority, “particularly the lower socioeconomic classes”.  Other keywords from the article are “informal”, “social function” and “participatory” which may indicate an improvised and impromptu culture for musicmaking.  He stresses the inclusive, ‘low-bar for participation’ culture. Knowing this, we can begin to understand the need for making instruments or utilizing every-day items. The photos show a wide array different types, varying form wind instruments to strings and percussion.

One could argue that homemade instruments can provide context to the noisy and “unrefined” soundscape so often attributed to folk-related genres. The prejudices against what is identified as a “hillbilly”, “down home” genre may be enforced with the use of homemade instruments. Listening to Dinwiddie one could argue that what sounds like a lot like a modern kazoo, sounds quite tuneful. I would seem that instruments without centuries of history and development, do not get the instant status even though they apply the same basic concepts for generating sound. On the other hand, one could argue that the homemade instruments give folk music a more authentic sound, free from the restraints of western, classical dogma.

[1] Folk Musical […] 1934-1950

[2] Nettl 2019

Primary source; From the Lomax Collection:

Folk Musical Instruments Including Homemade Horns. , None. [Between 1934 and 1950] Photograph.

Folk Musical Instruments Including Homemade Horns, Homemade Drum, and Washboard. , None. [Between 1934 and 1950] Photograph.

Todd, Charles L, Robert Sonkin, and Wayne “Gene” Dinwiddie. There’s More Pretty Girls Than One. Arvin FSA Camp, 1941. Audio.

Secondary sources:

The American Folklife Center.  Alan Lomax Collection [Accessed September 23, 2019]

Nettl, Bruno, Encyclopædia Britannica, “ Folk music”, January 2, 2019. [accessed September 23, 2019]


The Darktown Comics Banjo Class: A Glance At Currier & Ives Lithographs

For this blog assignment, I decided to go the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Catalog and simply search the term ” banjo” to see what would show up.  I was primarily interested in what is still documented in the public perceptions of African-American banjo players based on this quote in Rhiannon Giddens’ address at the IBMA Business Conference in 2017:

“To understand how the banjo, which was once the ultimate symbol of African American musical expression, has done a one-eighty in popular understanding and become the emblem of the mythical white mountaineer… In order to understand the history of the banjo and the history of bluegrass music, we need to move beyond the narratives we’ve inherited, beyond generalizations that bluegrass is mostly derived from a Scots-Irish tradition, with ‘influences’ from Africa.” [1]

Many of the results consisted of photographs of white banjo players or artists’ depictions of African-Americans, which were usually black men sitting on a chair playing the banjo either in minstrel clothing or in “plantation” clothing, which demonstrated what kind of rabbit hole I was entering.  However, I was most struck by this lithograph from Currier & Ives dating to 1886 being the top result:


It was definitely off-putting to see a very caricatured depiction of African-Americans as the first result for just the word “banjo” with no other filter given to the search.  I thought this was some sort of anomaly at first, but the I went back to the search bar to look up “Darktown comics banjo,” and the database returned with two results: one of the first image I found and the other being the “response” to the first comic:


There are a few things that are very striking to me in both images besides the highly stereotypical presentation of their anatomical features.  First, all of the people in both lithographs are wearing very formal clothing with the men in suits and the women in Victorian dresses.  After glancing at several other lithographs from this series, this theme is not uncommon, because the purpose of displaying African-Americans in clothing that belonged primarily to the upper class seemed to be making a satire of stereotyped depictions of African-Americans.  It is as though this series is like an alternate universe where African-Americans run the world, but their stereotypes act as their guiding principles, making them have irrational judgement compared to white audiences.  This also goes into the second point, where the musicians sitting in the group decide they cannot play in a rigid sitting position, so they can only perform by getting rowdy or “loose.”  The artist uses these two comics to create a joke in the “setup-punchline” sense, which seems quite strange, but also not off-kilter for this time period.

While I was originally going to discuss the presentation of banjos and their relationship to African-Americans, I couldn’t help but not comment on these rather obscene comics and how they were somehow considered acceptable enough to be printed.  After browsing Google further, I found that some of these prints in the Darktown comic series are being reproduced and sold on Amazon of all places [HistoricalFindings Photo: Darktown Comics,Darktown Fire Brigade,Chief,Firefighters,1885,African Americans], which would only make sense if it was used for an academic purpose, but otherwise, I do not know who would purchase these or why someone would need it.

If you are curious as to any of the other Darktown comics presented by Currier & Ives, here is a rather expansive blog post by a historical archivist: []


[1] Giddens, Rhiannon “IBMA Business Conference 2017”

[2] The Darktown Banjo Class-off the Key

[3] The Darktown Banjo Class-all in Tune


Giddens, Rhiannon. “IBMA Business Conference 2017 – Keynote Address.” IBMA Business Conference 2017. September 23, 2019.

Teoli, Daniel D. “Daniel D. Teoli, Jr. Archival Collection.” Daniel D. Teoli, Jr. Archival Collection (blog), May 13, 2018.

The Darktown Banjo Class-off the Key: “If yous can’t play de Music, jes leff de banjo go!”. Photograph. Library of Congress; Prints and Photographs Catalog. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress. Library of Congress. Accessed September 23, 2019.

The Darktown Banjo Class-all in Tune: “Thumb it, darkies, thumb it-o how loose i feel!” . Photograph. Library of Congress: Prints and Photographs Catalog. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress. Accessed September 23, 2019.

Stavin’ Chain and the “Batson” Ballad

I was drawn to this photo because it was one of the few in the Lomax collection that depicted black musicians performing. The photo is titled “Stavin’ Chain playing guitar and singing the ballad “Batson” accompanied by a musician on violin, Lafayette, La,” although notes later on clarify that this titled was devised by library staff. The picture is from June of 1934 and is part of the Lomax collection of photographs depicting folk musicians, a collection that focused on the southern United States and the Bahamas.

The first question I had was what the ballad “Batson” sounded like.  While I eventually found the recording, in my search I also happened to come across a particularly helpful three part series of blog posts/essays (blessays??) by Library of Congress researcher Stephen Winick. Winick’s analysis is a wonderfully detailed, albeit lengthy.

“Batson” is a ballad about a string of murders committed by Albert Edwin Batson in Lake George, Louisiana, and his subsequent trial and execution and subsequent trial. Winick examines how ambiguity in the song allows listeners to come to their own conclusions regarding Batson’s innocence. He also compares the ballad presented by Stavin’ Chain (Wilson Jones) and lesser-known versions collected by Robert Winslow Gordon, John Lomax’s Library of Congress predecessor.

Winick categorizes this ballad as an example of African American string bands, which Rhiannon Giddens notes as an influence to the development of bluegrass. This photo supports her argument that black musicians were participating in many types of music generally assumed to be “white.” The photo dates from 1934, before “bluegrass” became its own genre but after the white-washing of country music began. Although perhaps obvious, it is valuable in its depiction that black musicians were engaging in the genre of string band ballads in the 1930s which ultimately helps modern musicians rewrite the notion that these genres do not exclusively “belong” to white musicians.

At the beginning of her speech, Giddens asserts that the question should not be “How do we get diversity into bluegrass?” but rather “How do we get diversity BACK into bluegrass?” As a primary source, this photo helps document Giddens’ claim that bluegrass emerged from diverse roots rather than belonging exclusively to white Americans.

Works Cited

Caffery, Joshua C. Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings. Featuring Wilson “Stavin’ Chain” Jones, Charles Gobert, and Octave Amos. “Batson.”

International Bluegrass Music Association. “Rhiannon Giddens – 2017 IBMA Business Conference Keynote Address.” 2017.

Lomax, Alan. “[Stavin’ Chain playing guitar and singing the ballad ‘Batson’ accompanied by a musician on violin, Lafayette, La.]” June 1934.

Winick, Steven. “’I Didn’t Done the Crime’: Stavin’ Chain’s ‘Batson’ and the Batson Case.” Library of Folklife Today , July 27, 2017,


A Symbol That Transcends Race?

As I began looking through images of bluegrass musicians from almost a century ago, I realized that amidst the controversial discussion about which culture bluegrass music sprang from, one element in this polarized history remains constant. It was present whether the musician was Celtic or Cajun, young or old, man or woman.

Front porches… they abound in the bluegrass music world. Scroll through the Lomax photo archives from the 1930s, or do a quick, modern-day Google search, and your results will be similar. Front porches have become a constant, universal symbol of a bluegrass musician. Front porches had no racial bias–they crossed the lines between races at a time when no other thing did. Cajun fiddlers and white fiddlers, black guitarists and Mexican guitarists, cajun singers and black singer-songwriters alike; Lomax images show that front porches were the bluegrass musician’s favorite place.


Nicknamed “pickin’ parlors,”[1] front porches became the unofficial location for jam sessions to break out in 1930s southern communities. One might argue that front porches are a favorite performance venue for bluegrass musicians because of their great acoustics, or because the intense heat of the south required musicians to play outside in the breeze, but I’d like to think it’s deeper than that. I think that by playing on a porch, these musicians were inviting neighbors, relatives, and friends to enjoy this musical tradition.

The front porch lives on in the modern bluegrass scene. There’s a Spotify-curated playlist called Front Porch: Sit back, stay awhile, and savor the soft, sweet sounds of this folksy collection. Front porches remain in country music today. There’s a Front Porch Bluegrass band, an annual Front Porch Bluegrass Festival and Pork Roast, and a bluegrass radio station called Front Porch. It seems that we simply can’t call music “bluegrass” without reference to a front porch.

No matter the person’s race, front porches offered their wooden floors and rocking chairs to any musician.



[1] Patrik Jonsson Correspondent of The Christian,Science Monitor. “Pulled Up by the Banjo Strings: ALL Edition].” The Christian Science Monitor, Jun 23, 2005.

Pictures referenced:

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Singers & dancers, New Bight, Cat Island, July. Bahamas Cat Island, 1935. July. Photograph.

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Pete Steele and family, Hamilton, Ohio. Hamilton Ohio United States, 1938. Photograph.

Lomax, Ruby T, photographer. Lolo Mendoza and Chico Real, with guitars, at the home of Mrs. Sarah Kleberg Shelton, Kingsville, Texas. Kingsville Texas United States, 1940. [Sept. 20] Photograph.

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Bill Tatnall, sitting, playing guitar, Frederica, Georgia. Frederica Georgia United States, 1935. June. Photograph.

Lomax, Ruby T, photographer. Cajun fiddler, Louisiana. Louisiana United States, 1934. Photograph.

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Wayne Perry playing fiddle, Crowley, Louisiana. Crowley Louisiana United States, None. [Between 1934 and 1950] Photograph.

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Cajun singers, southwest Louisiana. Louisiana United States, 1934. Summer. Photograph.

From Slaves to Mumford and Sons: The Banjo’s Association with the American Dream:

Growing up, I had a specific image of a banjo player in my mind. I imagined a white male wearing overalls sitting on the front porch of a white house with a white picket fence surrounded by farmland.

Now, I recognize how close this picture is to an idea of the American Dream, a hope often associated with, home ownership, comfortable living, wealth, opportunity, and fame.  While the image of the “white picket fence” is more of a romanticized image often situated in Hollywood, it does represent a core tenant of the American Dream—success.

But, how come my image of a banjo growing up was so aligned with a version of the American Dream?  

            To further consider the banjo’s symbolism in the American Dream, specifically the image and idealized version of this dream, I searched simply “banjo” in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs: Lomax Collection, and eight photographs appeared from the search. Each photo contained either an individual playing the banjo, or a group of musicians, one of which is playing a banjo.

Two crucial traits were consistent throughout all the images: white and male.

            One, for example, is an image from 1937 of the Bog Trotters Band, where one of the players is on the banjo (below). They are looking at sheet music in a house with lace curtains, wearing a variety of clothing from overalls to a suit, playing instruments in good condition. While subtle, the three factors of well-taken care of instruments, nice clothing, and delicate lace curtains represent, to me, success, crucial to the American Dream. It appears as though these men are living out their American dream, using the banjo as a stepping-stone to their success [1]. The Bog Trotters Band was such a staple of bluegrass that there is now a new band in the 21st century, the Galax Bogtrotters, who found their music so inspiring they decided to use their name.


            From this image, and what I found by searching “banjo,” it appears as though I’m not alone in categorizing the banjo with a romanticized ideal of the American Dream and with, to be frank, whiteness. Neil Rosenberg in his “Introduction” from Bluegrass: A History shares a common perception of the history of the banjo. While the following quote doesn’t address the banjo explicitly, it discusses the popular ideas of when bluegrass began, and the banjo is a crucial aspect of bluegrass.

It seems imbedded in the history of the bluegrass genre, and Rosenberg questions if bluegrass began in 1939 with Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys or in 1945-48 when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were performing with Bill Monroe. All white men [2].

            However, Rhiannon Giddens in her Keynote speech at the 2017 International Bluegrass Music Association Conference would argue that bluegrass began much earlier, as she defines bluegrass as complex Creole music coming from African, European, and Native American roots. She adds that the banjo used to be a symbol of African American expression, as it started as a plantation instrument, but it has done a 180 [3]. She evaluates how the banjo and bluegrass has become known as a white art form, but it rather began with roots in slavery.

           Fast forward to the now.  There are still popular bands that feature banjo playing, such as Mumford and Sons. As you can see in the picture above, these men all still identify as white. In a way, they are continuing the same image that the Bog Trotters Band did: white men living out the American Dream of fame and success, but ignoring an entire race who contributed to the evolution of the banjo and bluegrass.


[1] Bog Trotters Band members seated with instruments. 1937. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs: Lomax Collection, Washington D.C., USA.

[2] Rosenberg, Neil. Bluegrass: A History. PDF file.

[3] Giddens, Rhiannon. “Rhiannon Giddens Keynote Address.” Paper presented at the IBMA Business Conference, Raleigh, NC, September 2017.

Black Female Pop Artists and “Being too White”

The idea that a black female pop artist is “too white” is unfortunately nothing new. In a 1988 article published in Ebony magazine (a magazine written by and for an African American audience), Lynn Norment talks to Whitney Houston. Norment claims “Black disc jockeys chided her for ‘not having a having a soul,’ and ‘being too White,’ while other critics [said] she [was] ‘too distant and impersonal [1].’” I thought Houston’s response was very interesting. Houston explains:

“‘Picture this […], you wake up everyday with a magnifying glass over you. Someone is always looking for something- somebody, somewhere is speaking your name every five seconds of the day, whether it’s positive or negative. Like my friend Michael [Jackson] says, ‘you want our blood but you don’t want our pain.’ […] Don’t say I don’t have a soul or what you consider to be ‘Blackness.’ I know what my color is. I was raised in a Black community with Black people, so that has never been a thing with me. Yet, I’ve gotten flak about being a pop success, but that doesn’t mean I’m White…pop music has never been all-White. […] My success happened so quickly that when I first came out Black people felt ‘she belongs to us,’ […] and then all of a sudden the big success came and they felt I wasn’t theirs anymore, and I wasn’t within their reach. It was felt that I was making myself more accessible to Whites, but I wasn’t.’”

Whitney Houston, 1983.


This idea of not belonging seems to be a common theme among female pop singers of color. In a recent example, pop artist Lizzo has experienced the tug-of-war between being in the black community, yet appealing to largely white audiences. She is also a classically trained flautist, who often pulls out her flute during performances (between twerking), and this further complicates people’s perceptions of what “black pop music” really is.



People from the black community are releasing tweets like the following:








Another Tweet in Response:

On the “white” end of the spectrum, “white girls” are posting pictures about attending concerts and using Lizzo’s song lyrics for captions:

There are some strong opinions present here, and these social media posts are obviously not representative of entire communities, but I think it is important to see how the general public is perceiving Lizzo as an artist. 

So what can I do as a listener and performer to break down these stereotypes? Is it okay for me as a white woman to attend concerts or to perform music by these black female artists? Professor Louis Epstein, of St. Olaf College, says that it is a “good idea for people who live “whiteness” to feel limited- but it also reinforces boundaries [2].” These boundaries can cause even more limitations. In class, we also discussed strategic essentialism (the idea that under pressure and in the context of oppression, minority groups draw together while ignoring differences to present a unified front),
as something that has positive intentions like protecting oppressed minorities and giving them political power. Strategic essentialism also has unintended consequences, such as reducing a people to homogeneity and potentially contributing to the very racialist logic they’re trying to overcome.

Ethel Waters, another black female singer accused of sounding “too white,” was the fifth black woman in history to record a record (she also was the first black woman to have her own television show, The Ethel Waters Show. Waters performed throughout the Harlem Renaissance, but as her fame grew she performed for primarily white audiences. picture courtesy of the Library of Congress

Rhiannon Giddens, on the subject of bluegrass, says “the question is not, how do we get diversity into bluegrass, but how do we get diversity BACK into bluegrass [3]?” This idea readily applies to pop music, and how artists are overcoming th seperations between “white pop” and “black pop.” We as audience members, listeners, and performers need to bring diversity back into pop music and make it okay to have artists included from a variety of different backgrounds. As Whitney Houston says, pop music has never been “all-White,” so the idea that we need to make subdivisions between “black pop music” and “white pop music” seems like a step in the wrong direction. Giddens explains that”we have a lot of work to do. We need to build on these moments, on these incredible opportunities [like going to a Lizzo concert] to expand understanding [3].” 

I have a hard time knowing how to handle issues like this. On the one hand, I love the music that black female pop artists are releasing (because it’s honestly so incredible), on the other, I don’t want to take their life experience and claim it as my own. I think the most important thing that listeners and performers who are not part of the African-American-women’s experience is to educate ourselves. Go out and find artists of color that may not have gotten the same publicity as their white counterparts- this is especially important in music genres that are typically considered “white” music (classical, country, pop, etc.). Another way is to keep up the conversation. Talk to peers, other musicians, and people outside of your own community. This issue isn’t going to be fixed overnight, but with conversations I believe learning and understanding will take place.


[1] Norment, Lynn. “Whitney Houston Talks About the Men in Her Life- and the Rumors, Lies, and Insults that are the High Price of Fame.” Ebony (1848-1921), vol. XLVI no. 7, May 1991.

[2] Epstein, Louis. Lecture to his American Music class, September 2019.

[3] Giddens, Rhiannon. “Rhiannon Giddens Keynote Address.” Paper presented at the IBMA Business Conference, Raleigh, NC, September 2017.

The Camera Lens vs. the Public Lens: Perceptions of African Americans in the South

Portrait of Bill Tatnall1

When visiting the Library of Congress’s Lomax Collection, I was intrigued by the photos on the main page, which featured an African American man playing guitar (right). Clicking on the image, I saw “African Americans–1930-1940” listed as one of its categories, and clicking on that led me to a list of other images of African Americans in this time frame—standing, sitting, walking, running, and doing other normal, everyday activities, including more guitar playing (below).

Hurston and others2

Hurston and others3




In contrast to these photos, the following two images also caught my attention, captioned according to the Library of Congress’s summaries:

Left: “The new South facing its knotty land tenure problem:” Seven illustrations from Mid-Week Pictorial, May 23, 1936, showing conditions in the South, including a man with a horse, poor children, a shack, an Alabama steel mill, construction of a house, and African American cotton pickers.4 Right: Cartoon shows two men with rifles, walking away from a lynching victim hanging from a…5

These were some of the few images listed that were not plain photographs, but images of commercial publications. As both feature whites, they were likely both intended for white audiences. More striking, though, is their representation of African Americans. The title of the first image, “The new South facing its knotty land tenure problem,” in addition to the summary’s indication that it is seven illustrations “showing conditions in the South,” would indicate that it is attempting to portray a broad view of the South. African Americans, though, are depicted only as cotton pickers, confining their place in the South to the cotton fields. The second image is even more striking; the two figures in the foreground are whites with guns, and in the background is an African American hanging from a tree, a lynching victim. This shows an even more explicit and extreme racial dynamic.

Neither of these images are surprising in their content, but stand in stark contrast to the many other images in the collection showing African Americans engaged in non-stereotypical and non-confining activities—acting like “normal” people and even playing “normal” Southern music. These two publications publications serve as a reminder that, for most of the commercialized white South of the early 20th-century, African Americans were African American first and Southerners second. They were cotton pickers and lynching victims, separate from the culture of white Southerners, from their horses and poor children to their banjo- and guitar-playing, despite the evidence we have that they were part of these cultural and musical phenomenon just as much as Southern whites.

1 Lomax, Alan. Portraits of Bill Tatnall and Susie Herring, Frederica, Georgia, from recording expedition to Georgia, Florida and the Bahamas. 1935. Photographic prints. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.,

2 Lomax, Alan. Zora Neale Hurston and other African Americans, probably at a recording site in Belle Glade, Florida, 1935. 1935. Photographic prints. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.,

3 Lomax, Alan. Zora Neale Hurston, Rochelle French, and Gabriel Brown, Eatonville, Florida. 1935. Photographic prints. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.,

4 The new South facing its knotty land tenure problem. 1936. Photomechanical prints. Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.,

5 Chase, William C. Man and son walking with guns, and man hanging from tree in background, and the / Chase. 1935. Drawing on illustration board, crayon. Cartoon Drawings, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.,

Tradition and the New Chocolate Drops

Southern music is often categorized as predominantly “white,” due to the prevalence of famous white country stars and white bluegrass groups throughout history.  And while the history of Southern music, and bluegrass in particular, would be incomplete without legends such as Bill Monroe or JD Sumner, the contributions of musicians of other races and ethnicities should not and cannot be brushed over.  The art of Black String Bands goes back to the 19th century, predating the Blues, Bluegrass, and Country by several decades.  A paper by Sean K McCollough explores the background of bluegrass as it relates to race (article found here).  McCollough points out that fiddle playing in the America’s grew in the south, with many African slaves being trained to play the fiddle and accompanying dances or parties that their master’s threw.  This tradition of fiddle playing was then passed down through the generations as a new part of the distinctly African-American culture that was arising (which I differentiate from Black American culture, as not all Black Americans can trace their lineage back to Africa and the slaves taken from their).  This tradition then grew in the late 19th century to become the Black String Bands.

An early band of this style was the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, but they’re not who this blog post is about.  Instead I’ll be looking at a group that may have taken inspiration in both their name and makeup, the Carolina Chocolate Drops.  This group is much more recent, having been founded in 2005, and bases its style on the string bands of the early 20th century.  In the groups “About” page, which can be found here, they describe their founding as having been something of a happy accident.  The three founding musicians (Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemens, and Justin Robinson) would travel together to the home of fiddler Joe Thompson to hear stories and “jam,” as they put it.  Thompson himself inherited much of his fiddle technique from generations of family musicians, potentially stretching back to the slave musicians described by McCollough.  Now Thompson was passing down his skills to a new generation, and when he passed away the three students chose to form a group to honor his legacy and continue the musical tradition.  The group has since changed membership slightly, losing their fiddle player and gaining a cellist, and has gone on to win several Grammies.

Article Cited:

McCollough, Sean K. “Hear John Henry’s Hammer Ring: Moving Beyond Black and White Images of Appalachian Music.” Kaleidoscope of Cultures: A Celebration of Multicultural Research and Practice: Proceedings of the MENC/University of Tennessee National Symposium on Multicultural Music. R&L Education, 2010.

MacDowell vs. Ballard: A Comparison of American Indian Identity in Classical Music

As we discovered in our readings last week, Edward MacDowell’s “Indian” Suite for Orchestra represents a point in American music history where composers felt obligated to present the Indian identity in their compositions.  This is often referred to as the “Indianist” movement inspired by Antonin Dvorak in his use of Native American and African-American thematic elements used in his prolific Symphony No. 9 “New World.” 1 However, we look back on it today as a example in a long line of misunderstood interpretations of the American Indian identity by primarily white people at the top of a hierarchy, whether it be at the helm of a government entity or a religious, social, or cultural sphere.  To drive the point home, here is an excerpt from an article written by Henry Finck as a tribute to Edward MacDowell’s legacy.  This particular excerpt was written in response to hearing the “Indian” Suite performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra:

“The Indian suite played at this concert was interesting from many points of view, which I can touch on only very briefly.  It is based on genuine American Indian Melodies.  The introduction has almost a Wagner touch thematically, but it is note for note Indian, and there is also a curious Northern ring in some of the theme… we might say that the MacDowell suite is civilized Indian music.” 2

By presenting the notion that MacDowell refined American Indian songs to become more “civilized,” Finck asserts that American Indian music is something uncivilized or perhaps “savage.”  This perception of Native American culture by Americans was commonly accepted and was a longstanding notion in the use of programs sponsored by the United States government, with one of the many examples being the use of Indian Boarding Schools as a way of brainwashing American Indian children into becoming more “American.”

While the “Indianist” movement did portray a negative connotation of Native American music, it would later inspire other composers to counteract with their own take on how American Indian identity should be portrayed in classical music.  Take for example, “the father of Native American Composition,” Louis W. Ballard:


As a Quapaw Cherokee Indian, Ballard wanted to blend the styles of Western classical music with “the music and dance traditions of his culture.”  He studied with several different composers in the 1940s and 50s, such as Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Carlos Surinach, Felix Labunski, and Bela Rosza, meaning that he was very dedicated to the craft of composition in the style of Western classical music.  As a composer, he wrote several pieces of varying instrumentation from solo works like the one presented here by Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli  (Louis Ballard: Four American Indian Piano Preludes, Emanuele Arciuli, piano,) to woodwind quintet pieces with Native American flute, ballets, symphonies, and even a chamber orchestra piece titled Incident at Wounded Knee, which was commissioned and performed by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in 1974.  Alongside his compositions, he also served as the National Curriculum Specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1968 to 1979 and wrote American Indian Music for the Classroom which served as a curriculum “for teachers who wanted to incorporate American Indian music in classroom instruction.” 3

With his contributions to American music, Louis Ballard and several other Native American composers provided their unique voice from the precedents set by composers like MacDowell and Dvorak to write “Indianist” works.  Even Ballard himself accredited Dvorak’s prediction as an inspiration to compose his music, saying that “‘…[he] was in good company when [he] took up [his] pen to express the sufferings of [his] people, their regeneration and hopes for a better future life…'”

1. Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians” 1
2. Finck, “An American Composer” 448
3. Berkowitz, “Finding a Place” 4-16

Berkowitz, Adam E. “Finding a Place for the Cacega Ayuwipi within the Structure of American Indian Music and Dance Traditions.” Florida Atlantic University, May 2015. 4-16
Blim, Dan. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” AMS, 2016. 1
Finck, Henry T. “AN AMERICAN COMPOSER: EDWARD A. MACDOWELL.” Century Illustrated Magazine (1881-1906), 01, 1897. 448,

Double standards? In MY America? It might be more common than you think.

In Dan Blim’s paper, “McDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” he exposes a contrast between how post-emancipation white Americans viewed Native Americans and African Americans. He argues that the view that Native Americans were “vanishing” as part of a natural process allowed them to be parodied in their portrayals in a way that Black Americans could not, as many Americans were deeply uncomfortable with America’s slaveowning past.

The document I chose juxtaposes two hymns with each other; one from a “converted indian” and the other from “a little slave boy. The two have a stark contrast in the language they use. The “indian hymn” uses an extremely vernacular dialect of english, whereas the “slave boy’s hymn” is rather eloquent. To illustrate further, I will show the first stanza of each.

“ In de dark wood no indian nigh, den me look heaben and send up cry, upon my knees so low. Dat God on high, in shinee place see me in night wid teary face: de priest he tells me so.”

“There is a book, I’ve heard them say, which says ‘thou shalt not work or play on God Almighty’s holy day.’ On Sundays then, O let me look, in God Almighty’s holy book” (Christian Advocate).

Regardless of whether either text’s authorship is genuine as the publishers describe it (I’m not sure that it is. I couldn’t find another publication of the “slave boy’s hymn”, but the “Indian Hymn” has been included in numerous publications, including several that assert origins for the hymn, all of which conflict with each other. One such origin is even verifiably false. Friends’ Review published a version asserting that it was written down by Reverend William Apess in 1798. Rev. Apess was a renowned public speaker and activist for Native American rights in his day, not to mention that he was himself from the Pequot tribe, but he was born in 1798, so whatever plausibility the publishers of the Review sought to gain by using his name is lost when the facts are checked. While the exact history of the hymn is unknown, it is certainly sketchy.) , we can see even from their choice to include these contrasting texts that some dynamic akin to what Blim describes is at play. Even though the readers of the Advocate might not have assumed that either party would be educated, the slave boy is shown to have some eloquence, while the Indian is portrayed as a caricature that would be familiar to their audience.

The column concludes with a paragraph that echoes McDowell’s own comments on slavery. “Thank God that the old days of slavery, with all the enforced ignorance, the bitterness of bondage, and the cruel seperation of families, are gone forever, and that so much now is being done to give the freedmen both the ability and the opportunity to read in ‘God Almighty’s holy book,’” (Christian Advocate). This supports the narrative that Blim illuminates, where White Americans seek to uplift Black Americans in order to forget the horrors of slavery, but feel comfortable enough to portray the “vanishing indian” as a caricature.

Works Cited:

“Two Quaint Old Hymns.” Christian Advocate, 18 May 1893. American Periodicals,, Accessed 19 September 2019.


Steel Guitars: from Hawaii to Hank Williams

When I think of country music, in my mind I can hear what sounds like to me the whiny steel guitar to accompany that accompanies it. What I did not know was the “whiny” steel guitar is not only a trademark to country music, but Hawaiian as well. The origin of the steel guitar begins in Hawaii in the early 1893.

The repertoire first performed by the steel guitar performed by the first generation of steel guitarists consisted of mele and was in the Hawaiian language. The songs often reflected the political turmoil taking place during that time in the state in the early 1900’s.1

Joseph Kekuku is credited with inventing the steel guitar, and spent the rest of his life perfecting it. The very origin of how he invented the steel guitar is contested, but according to his great niece he developed the sound by an accident. As she recalls, Kekuku was eleven years old when he was sitting on the front steps of his house. By accident, he leaned over and his metal tooth comb fell out of his pocket and onto the strings of his guitar, making a sound he would spend his life trying to recreate and perfect.2 Trademarks to the Hawaiian guitar are the ornamental sweeps such as: glissandos, dampening the strings to imitate glottal stops, sliding notes with the steel bar and many others were used to imitate ancient Hawaiian music.

Above is audio of how the steel guitar was used in Hawaiian music. While it is not performed by Kekuku, Sol Hoopii is another well known Hawaiian steel guitarist who made his living performing across the country.

The effects that the Hawaiian use of steel guitar in the music draws similar response to the “complaining songs” of country music that yearn for a better life. Bjorn Jonsen from Brooklyn wrote “I have never been to Hawaii but someday I will go. The playing makes one forgets the care’s worries of the day and makes one want to forget the humdrum existence of the city for the sandy white shores of beaches where the sun always shines.”3 Helen Ward from Ohio agrees saying “It is my favorite music. Especially when I am tired, nervous, overtaxed from worry. It is so resting, so comforting when I am all alone and blue.”4 No doubt, the expressiveness of the steel guitar is modeled in the listeners.

The steel guitar was brought to the United States by traveling troupes in the 1910’s. America’s reception to the steel guitar like other foreign musical cultures and instruments was exotic but not threatening. While the very start of the instrument’s implementation in country music and American culture is heavily debated, the pioneer of country music, Jimmie Rodgers is one of the first know musicians to use the instrument. The exotic sound of the guitar and the “whine” it made was a perfect backdrop for the complaining songs of country music. Below is an example of the steel guitar used in country music, in a song by Hank Williams.

In both videos the steel guitar is used as an accompaniment and “whine” and slide of the guitar is evident.

America’s reception to the foreign steel guitar was exotic like other foreign music but not dangerous. The dreaminess as told by reviews gave listeners a sense of comfort. The steel guitar unites the “whiteness” of country music and the “whine” in their music with the sounds of another culture that experiences the very same feelings linking together people of very different backgrounds and filling them with comfort and hope.

1 TROUTMAN, JOHN W. “NOTES.” In Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music, 235-320. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. pg 62.

2 STEEL GUITAR PLAYING INVENTED BY HAWAIIAN. 1927. New York Times (1923-Current file), Jan 23, 1927. (accessed September 23, 2019).

3 Bjorn Johnsen to the Oahu Serenaders, February 7, 1933, folder 2, box 83,

4 Helen B. Ward to the Oahu Serenaders, January 22, 1934, folder 7, box 83,

The Reception of Edward Macdowell Throughout The 20th Century

In our studies of Native American music, I have come across the name “Edward Macdowell” several times.  Most recently in an article by Daniel Blim entitled “Macdowell’s Vanishing Indians.” This peaked my interest in the composer to see what his general reception was amongst the musical community.  Much of his music uses themes from Native Music that is fraught with problems in respect and appropriation (to modern listeners), as can be represented by the Blim article. There are two reviews of Macdowell that I will be exploring to do this, one from 1944 in the Music Educators’ Journal and one from American Music in 1987.  

The first review takes Macdowell’s Second “Indian” Suite under fire as a piece for High School Orchestra.  The full text is short and is reproduced below:

The piece is lauded for its musical accessibility and distinct “Americanness” and its ability to rekindle interest in Macdowell, who it describes as “much neglected on our present day concert programs.”  The only acknowledgement of source material in this (very short) review are that the melodies are suggested by the North American Indians. The score can be found here, for reference to the melodies that it describes.  Despite the short nature of this review, there are a few things we can safely extrapolate from it.  The first surrounds the “much neglected” comment. This shows that Macdowell was not a key facet of many, if any, concert programs in 1944, just 36 years after his death.  The reason for this is not specified, but it does go to show that the use of such Native American Melodies was not popular for composers to do, as Macdowell did with a number of pieces (he has at least two full Indian Suites as the title of the piece suggests).  This could be for a number of reasons, among them being a general disdain for non-white-sounding music (possible, but severe speculation) or a loss of interest in the music of American Composers who weren’t Aaron Copland (again, speculation).  

The second review is much longer, and is regarding a recording of several piano works by Macdowell.  For our purposes, we can just look at the material regarding the piano work itself. The reviewer, Margaret Barela, found Macdowell to be compositionally important to the development of American Music, but not because he “lacked foreign influence.”  Barela likens Macdowell’s music to that of Liszt and Chopin, although Chopin died before Macdowell was born and Liszt died when Macdowell was 26, so they were not contemporaries. Barela praises the first two sonatas of Macdowell for their narrative splendour, but had little good to say about the second two.  This might shed some light on why Macdowell was “much neglected,” even by the 1940s. Macdowell, while an important composer in the development of American music, did not do enough to revolutionize it to gain a spot on the pedestal of history that we historians reserve for the “greats.” It would indeed be ironic if the music of Macdowell “vanished” with history, just as his Indians did.

Works Cited

Barela, Margaret Mary. American Music, vol. 5, no. 2, 1987, pp. 231–233. JSTOR,

Louis G. Wersen. Music Educators Journal, vol. 30, no. 4, 1944, pp. 42–42. JSTOR,

The role of the Medicine Man in Native American Music

A Native American Medicine Man standing beside a sick woman, c. 1870. Photographed by O.C. Smith (American, active 1860s – 1870s).

In almost every Native American tribe, there is a medicine man or healer, as seen in the picture above. These men, and occasionally women, had to go “beyond human power” to use their herbs and chants to heal ailing tribesmen. A medicine man gained his power to heal through dreams, visions, and even during the song, as discovered in class while looking through many primary sources. During visions and encounters with the Great Spirit, healers were told how to heal ailments and advised on which herbs, roots and plants to use, and which to avoid. To aide their power, healers often lived in quiet seclusion to be in tune with nature its power sometimes giving them the name “forest folk”.

A traditional medicine mask used to scare off evil spirits and disease in tribe members.

Ely S. Parker, born in 1828, was from the Iroquois tribe and in newspapers, recounts the practices of the medicine man through public and private ceremonies. Native American medicine men treated the sick and ailing in public ceremonies followed by a private meeting. The public ceremony was attended by tribesman of high power and influence and took place over several days. During those public and private healing sessions, the medicine man may have told narratives, chanted, and sing. A “sacred song” is chanted only by one medicine man. If anyone else chants the “sacred song,” it is expected that evil events will follow.2   To further aide him, he may have used tobacco pouches and the herb of choice sent to him by the Great Spirit. There are times when the the medicine man is not able to heal the sick, but this is viewed as the will of the “Great Spirit” who is asked to “guide the red man and choose for his best, always.”

Most songs were accompanied by a regular drumbeat, dubbed as the heartbeat of the Earth, to help calm and relax the sick. Additionally, the drumbeat expanded the mind of the medicine man to the awareness of self and spirit. Other instruments like the rattle, shook away disease, and bells borrowed from Christianity invoked God’s healing power.3  It is told that “he who holds the medicine has time to die.” That is, they can choose their successor because their death is never sudden and “has time to die.” This background of the medicine men’s rituals which were alien and exotic to foreigners such as John Smith helps shed a light on what outside visitors encountered.

1 Hofmann, Charles. American Indians Sing New York: John Day Co., 1967. 46

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2 Ely Samuel Parker scrapbooks: Vol 11, 1828-1894, © The Newberry Library, 96


The Native American Princess

     Whilst perusing the “Hearts of Our People” exhibit this summer at the MIA, an exhibit featuring exclusively female Native American artists. What I found striking was a video from the early 1950s of a woman named Maria Tallchief who was in fact not in traditional regalia, but an elaborate ballet costume, pointe shoes, and dancing to Igor Stravinsky. I thought to myself, “Wow, a Native Ballerina? If I would have seen this video as a kid I probably never would have quit ballet.” 

     The findings of Densmore as well as of the explorer’s accounts we read in class point to a correlation between Native Americans and dance. I would find it safe to say that not all of the dances Densmore recorded, let alone what those who made first contact saw, made it to the 21st century in their original form due. The role of the U.S. government in intentionally trying to vanish Native Americans, leading to the “Vanishing Indian” sentiment which eventually evolved into what Rebekah Kowal refers to as the Termination Era (early-mid 20th century), created the environment out of which Tallchief had her start. The article that caught my eye was titled, “American as Wampum” and was published in TIME magazine in 1951 following her performance with the New York City Ballet Company in Balanchine’s adaption of Firebird [1]. The article claims she was produced by the same era that created Shirley Temple and that:

“Onstage, Maria looks as regal and exotic as a Russian princess; offstage, she is as American as wampum and apple pie.” 

Taken from TIME Magazine

The discussion of her lineage only mentions that her father was a full-blooded member of the Osage tribe [1], further exoticizing her and leaving out the fact that her mother had European heritage: Scotch, Irish, Dutch [2]. It is possible that the author of the article simply didn’t know that Tallchief was mixed-race but I find it more likely that her choice in self-identifying primarily with her Native heritage contributed to her fame and success as the first American Prima Ballerina. Her image, both literal and social, is another aspect of her life I found compelling. It was her front page of Newsweek that crowned her, “the finest American-born ballerina the twentieth century had ever produced…” [2]. The use of a literal crown in both articles, Newsweek and Time,  the image of the “Native American Princess”. This brings us back to depictions of the idealized Native woman, the peace bringer such as Pocahontas, a role model of femininity and what was called civilization, integration, or assimilation[3]. Toll argues that the trope Tallchief embodies is more complicated than simply playing the civilized Indian in that her achievement of being the first-ever American Prima Ballerina, that she was a creator of western culture rather than an “assimilated Princess” [3].

Works Cited

[1] “American as Wampum.” TIME Magazine, vol. 57, no. 9, Feb. 1951, p. 78. EBSCOhost,

[2] Kowal, Rebekah J. “‘Indian Ballerinas Toe Up’: Maria Tallchief and Making Ballet ‘American’ in the Tribal Termination Era.” Dance Research Journal, vol. 46, no. 2, 2014, pp. 73–96., doi:10.1017/S0149767714000291.

Toll, Shannon. “Maria Tallchief, (Native) America’s Prima Ballerina: Autobiographies of a Postindian Princess.” Studies in American Indian Literatures, vol. 30, no. 1, 2018, pp. 50–70,

The Choctaw Hymn Book and Native American Hybrid Music

While we weren’t able to take much time on it, I was intrigued by the article we looked at in class on Native American hybrid music.  In my research, I happened upon the names of a few hymn books, but the one that interested me the most was the Chahta Vba Isht Taloa Holisso of the Choctaw.  I was also able to find corresponding letters from the missionaries who had shared their hymns with them, which I found interesting.  

Chahta Vba Isht Taloa Holisso : Choctaw Hymn Book. Richmond, Va, 1872. Print.

The hybridization of Native American music and Christian hymnody adds complexity to the oftentimes oversimplified narrative of the erasure of Native American culture.  While the Choctaw welcomed the missionaries and adopted the tradition of hybridized music, other groups reluctantly converted, and “…people [who] had initially pretended to convert in order to survive, went on to ask, ‘At some point, did we forget we were pretending?’”[1] Such practices oftentimes came about through generations of forced acculturation; however, for some groups, they were accepted into the culture, expanded upon with original works and have been ingrained within their practices to the point of becoming a part of their musical tradition. 



“MISCELLANEOUS.:CHAHTA VBA ISHT TALOA. CHOCTAW HYMN BOOK, 18MO, PP. 84. BOSTON: CROCKER & BREWSTER. ALPHABET.” American Annals of Education (1830-1839) 1, no. 11 (11, 1831): 537

While we’ve been talking in class about the “Vanishing Indian” trope in the context of 19th century classical music, I believe the same ideas of misplaced nostalgia and oversimplification are prevalent today and relevant to the delegitimization of modern Native American culture.  As hinted at in some of the letters above, Choctaw were thought to be more receptive to conversion due to the available access of their language in printed form. This aspect might have aided in their conversion; however, it also aided in the preservation of their language and the transmission of what is now seen by them as their own traditional music.  The collection and performance of these hymns, original and translated, have helped the Choctaw maintain its ethnic identity through frequent meetings and the continued use of native language [2]. While these hybrid forms were born out of the gruesome history of Native American genocide and cultural erasure, to invalidate this living tradition due to its western sound is, in my opinion, just as problematic as the commodification of a curated characterization of what this music ‘should’ sound like.


  1. “Musical Interactions.” Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3 – The United States and Canada. Ed. Ellen Koskoff. Routledge (Publisher), 2000. 510-20. Music Online: The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Database. Web. 
  2. STEVENSON, G. W. (1977). The Hymnody Of The Choctaw Indians Of Oklahoma (Order No. 7802869). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (302857576).


Works Cited:

Chahta Vba Isht Taloa Holisso : Choctaw Hymn Book. Richmond, Va, 1872. Print.


“MISCELLANEOUS.: CHAHTA VBA ISHT TALOA. CHOCTAW HYMN BOOK, 18MO, PP. 84. BOSTON: CROCKER & BREWSTER. ALPHABET.” American Annals of Education (1830-1839) 1, no. 11 (11, 1831): 537.

“Musical Interactions.” Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3 – The United States and Canada. Ed. Ellen Koskoff. Routledge (Publisher), 2000. 510-20. Music Online: The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Database. Web. 

STEVENSON, G. W. (1977). The Hymnody Of The Choctaw Indians Of Oklahoma (Order No. 7802869). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (302857576).

Indian Tunes and Protestant Hymns: Early Assimilation of Native Music

Many people have a clear and narrow impression of Native American music, broadly amounting to a simple, percussive beat and non-syllabic unison melody atop it. As is the case for many such clear-cut descriptions, this is a gross oversimplification. Through the work of musicologists such as Frances Densmore, we can be secure in the understanding that the music of North America’s native tribes in the 20th century was far more complex than that impression, and assuming that complexity extends both forward and backward through history is natural.

Exemplifying the diversity of Native repertory is a collection of shape-note hymns called Indian Melodies, compiled by Thomas Commuck, a member of the Narrangaset tribe from the East Coast, now living in Wisconsin [1]. The Christian verses, set to choral, sometimes-chromatic textures, are a far cry from the stereotype. Yet its distance raises another concern: that of appropriation.

Sheet music of a shape-note hymn, Missionary

An example of the distinctly European harmonization of “Indian Melodies.”

While Commuck himself professes Christian sentiments–referring to himself as being enlightened “under the blessing of God” and expressing a desire to “spread the knowledge of the Redeemer”–it is informative that his work be titled as it is. The combination of traditional tunes with Protestant verse is seen by the author as an expansion of Indian repertoire in a collaborative, rather than parasitic, light. But that is still not enough to pick apart the dialogues surrounding this work. In the preface, Commuck makes his intentions with the writing clear.

“[The author] feels willing to acknowledge frankly and openly the truth, and he assures his friends and the public, that notwithstanding all other ends which may result from the publication of this work, his object is to make a little money.”

This statement opens up the possibility for concessions made in the interest of financial sustenance. Perhaps, as James Page suggests [2], Thomas Hastings’ involvement in arranging the music was forced by the publisher, thereby obscuring the intended blending of worlds with the one-sided use of the Native as a touchstone for American identity, thereby contributing to the story of the Vanishing Indian. If Commuck was desperate enough for the publishing of the book, it is at least plausible.

However, as a refutation of this line of thought, Commuck’s parting words in the preface emphasize the merely ceremonial usage of the Indian elements of the work. After stating that the tunes will use Native titles, he insists that “This has been done merely as a tribute of respect . . . also as a mark of courtesy.”

If these final words can be taken as genuine (without financial concern forcing his hand), Commuck himself may have been a participant in the era of the Vanishing Indian, at least in part. Referring to the elements of Native American culture which inform the work in such brief terms suggests their non-importance. At the same time, the most apparent part of the book remains the most potent proof of its expansion, rather than narrowing, of Indian culture–its title. Protestant hymns may also be Indian tunes after all.


  1. Thomas Commuck, Indian Melodies, (New York, Lane & Tippett, 1845). Accessed at
  2. James Philip Page, “Thomas Commuck And His Indian Melodies, Wisconsin’s Shape-Note Tunebook”, (1989). Accessed at

Noise, More or Less: White Ethnologists and Their Role in the “Vanishing Indian”

Upon decades and even centuries of reflection, scholars can debate the true motivations and implications of the cultural observation and study of Native Americans. At best, the efforts of ethnologists like Frances Densmore and James Owen Dorsey can be hailed as necessary archival work that preserved cultures on the verge of extinction from a colonialist nation. At worst, their work can be essentialized as the groundwork necessary to provide a basis for the “Vanishing Indian” discussed at length by scholar Daniel Blim and our class. 

The latter is my understanding of the work of Rev. Myron Eells. In his article “Indian Music” published in an 1879 volume of The American Antiquarian: A Quarterly Journal Devoted to Early American History, Ethnology and Archaeology, the anthropologist and missionary studied many indigenous groups of the American Northwest.1 In his article, his first topic sentence immediately eases the fear of any upstanding, white American enjoying some ethnology from the safety and comfort of their log cabin: Eells assures readers the music of the American Indian is nothing complicated or culturally relevant.

“Music… consists more of a noise, as a general thing, than of melody and chords” – Rev. Myron Eells describing the music of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest

Eells compares the musicality of the Clallam and Twana people of the Pacific Northwest. Despite detailed accounts of the percussive instruments created and the diverse use of song in the daily lives of these peoples, Eells summarizes the music as plain and dull, with little variety save for loud or soft moments. The reverend does notate the various melodies described in his prose, but his level of analysis and specificity is but a shadow of the work of Frances Densmore- a scholar discussed at length in class who will release volumes of her own works just a few decades later. Eells’ work is important in providing a sort of early “part one” to the “Vanishing Indian” condition, assuring white audiences that the music of the Native American groups he’s studied the sophistication to deserve attention beyond defining their music as simply cacophony.

To further contextualize the “Vanishing Indian”, we look to an article published The Atlanta Constitution in 1906. In this article, we are informed that an ancient relic has been preserved that upends decades of historical understanding of Native American music. The article claims a portion of the “first, genuine Indian melody” has been found. Overlooking the concerning lack of scholarly oversight in this sweeping statement, the article focuses instead on composer Abe Holzmann’s2 arrangement of this melody while in-process. After further digging, I was able to procure both a recording of a military band arrangement and a score of a piano rag arrangement of the piece.

Scan of Holzmann’s “Flying Arrow” Rag for Piano

This sheet music was found in a rag piano collection at the music library of St. Olaf College

Recording of a military band performing Holmann’s band arrangement of “Flying Arrow”

The work of ethnologists like Rev. Eells signaled to broader American society a subordination and savagery of Native Americans, which allowed composers like Abe Holzmann to create music that glorified indigenous melodies (whether truly authentic or not). By comparing these two examples, we see how the passage of time allowed for conclusions from earlier ethnologists to be realized by the musicians of the early twentieth century.



Music as a Priority in Native American Culture

As a part of a personal diary, William T. Parker, M.D. and Indian War Veteran of the U.S. Army, wrote of his experiences with Native American populations and peoples in New Mexico, California, Canada, and Kansas between 1867 and 1885.

The section of his journal I found most topically interesting and pertinent to our class learning is titled: “Concerning American Indian Womanhood – an Ethnological Study.” In this section, Parker discusses the role of women in music and the arts in Native American society. 

Parker places most of the importance of this section of his writing on, what he takes to be, the poor prioritizing of Native American tribes. Unlike Macdowell’s “Vanishing Indians,” Parker’s writing does not discuss attempts to appropriate and commodify Native American music and art for white consumption, but instead belittles Native American emphasis on music and art. He consistently reinforces his biased belief that American Indian populations place too much importance on art, music, and religion, and not enough on health and traditional (European) gender roles, with respect to home life. He names Native American women as the reason for the poor education of children, particularly female children, in that they are taught music and art before they are taught homemaking skills. He also blames spikes in women’s health issues on this “poor education,” saying “if hygiene and manual labor could be looked after more carefully, then might follow the cultivation of the arts.” In stating this, Parker ignores the intersection between religion, the arts/music, and health, that we know existed and still exist in Native American culture, particularly the medicinal qualities of Native American music.

Parker’s accounts and opinions of his time spent with Native American populations seems typical of someone of his background at the time of his writing. Unlike Densmore, he did not write critically about Native American lifestyle as a viable and rich culture, but instead stuck to a pre-defined, Eurocentric view of what makes for an acceptable lifestyle. 


Parker, William T. 1913. Personal experiences among our North American Indians from 1867 to 1885. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American West, [Accessed September 17, 2019].

Blim, Daniel. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory, Vancouver, BC, November 2016.

Full text of “Frances Densmore and American Indian music : a memorial volume”. Accessed September 17, 2019.


The “Vanishing Indian” Ideology in 19th Century Poetry

Reading the melancholy words of an 1841 poem entitled “The American Indians,” I can practically hear the final F major chord of Edward MacDowell’s “Indian Idyl” fading gently into the background. The two works could easily be based on each other. In her poem, Emeline Smith describes Native Americans as “passing away like a dream,” a sentiment echoed perfectly in the soft closing passage of “Indian Idyl”.1
As Daniel Blim discusses in his paper, MacDowell’s work evokes a wistful nostalgia that reflects a white American vision of a cohesive Native American culture confined to the past. According to Blim, this is just one instance of the “vanishing Indian” ideology, an assertion that is supported by the presence of the exact same sentiments in Smith’s poetry.2

Smith, Emeline S. 1841. The American Indians. The Ladies’ Companion, a Monthly Magazine; Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts (1834-1843). 02, (accessed September 15, 2019).

Emeline Smith, writing her poem as an entry in the monthly issue of A Lady’s Companion, is blatant in her perpetuation of the “vanishing Indian” trope. She refers to Native Americans as “doom’d,” “passing away like a dream,” and even “hastening on to decay,” clearly displaying the same attitude we discussed MacDowell as guilty of during class.3 Smith treats Native American life and culture as a relic of the past. What MacDowell does artistically in his New England Idyls, Smith does verbally in her poem. 

Just as the cover art of the collection presents an image of Native Americans that reduces them to a part of the landscape, Smith couples nearly every reference of Native Americans to a description of nature.4 She views Native American existence as merely a fading memory that is now incorporated into the natural landscape of white America.

The cover art of a collection of Edward MacDowell's music.

Lanman, Charles. “Farmyard.” 1838. Naxos of America.

Furthermore, the title of Smith’s poem, “The American Indians,” implies that the subject will have something to do with Native American life or culture. What follows the title, however, contains little more Native American identity than superficial references to “chieftains,” “warriors,” and “relics”. Even in her remembrance of Native Americans, the only details Smith describes are a warrior’s shout and the “low music” of an echo of Native American life that lingers in the hills.5 These two auditory remnants simultaneously represent a distant memory of a powerful culture and a dwindling present existence – exactly what we hear in MacDowell’s music as well. The lively opening passage (a “warrior’s shout”) reflects a dramatized view of Native American life, while the way each phrase subsides into nothingness (“low music”) marks this life as something of the past.6

What struck me most about Smith’s poem was how evident the “vanishing Indian” perspective was in a seemingly ordinary piece of poetry. If it took me only a few searches and clicks to stumble upon such a blatant example of the “vanishing Indian” ideology, then surely this is some indication of how pervasive the concept is. From music to poetry, representations of Native Americans as a vanishing race are ubiquitous.

1 Emeline Smith, The American Indians, (New York, The Ladies’ Companion, 1841), 220.

2 Daniel Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians”, (Vancouver, 2016), 3.

3 Smith, The American Indians, 220.

4 Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians”, 10.

5 Smith, The American Indians, 220.

6 Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians”, 9.

Works Cited

Blim, Daniel. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” Vancouver, 2016.

Smith, Emeline S. 1841. The American Indians. The Ladies’ Companion, a Monthly Magazine; Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts (1834-1843). 02, (accessed September 15, 2019).

Alice Fletcher: “Indian Songs: Personal Studies of Indian Life”

Alice Fletcher (1838-1923) was an American ethnologist who worked for the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology. She extensively studied the Great Plains Indians, and was frequently able to gain their trust and immerse herself in much of their daily lives. She recorded and transcribed hundreds of songs and recorded observations of their rituals and music (using Western notation, similar to Frances Densmore). While she seemed to care about the Native Americans she interacted with, and even helped one woman get a loan to attend medical school, she also advocated for the Dawes Act, which redistributed reservation land and broke up tribes with the goal of assimilation (1).


This excerpt narrates her experience living on an Omaha reservation. She begins by asking to observe a dance, and her “Indian guide” leads her to a white tent filled with men and women sitting around a large drum (2). She states, “I was startled by a sudden mighty beating of the drum, with such deafening yells and shouts that I feared my ears would burst” (page 1); this echoes Drake’s description of Native American singing as shriek-like. As the music and dancing continues, she describes, “I felt a foreignness that grew into a sense of isolation…I was oppressed with its strangeness…It was nothing but tumult and din to me; the sharply accented drum set my heart to beating painfully and jarred my every nerve” (page 2). She doesn’t see the sounds she hears as music because it doesn’t sound like typical Western classical music, and she, along with many others, holds Native American music to a Western standard. She additionally writes, “The outstretched arms brandishing the war-clubs…called up before me every picture of savages I had ever seen,” calling the Native Americans “terrible creatures” (page 3). The use of the word “savage” relates to all of the course readings we have done so far, which contrast the white view of Native Americans as violent and savage while also nostalgic.


However, in the next paragraph she says that she later “had a laugh with her red friends” over this incident; she sees some Native Americans as savages, and others as her friends. Fletcher grew ill and Native Americans would come sing softly to her without a drum; “the last vestige of the distraction of noise and the confusion of theory was dispelled, and the sweetness, the beauty, and the meaning of these songs were revealed to me…from that time forth I ceased to trouble about scales, tones, rhythm, and melody” (4). She seems to finally realize that she shouldn’t base all musical analysis off of Western scales, and finishes her account by describing different types of songs and transcribing several.


  1. DeVale, Sue Carole. “Fletcher, Alice Cunningham.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 16 Sep. 2019.
  2. Fletcher, Alice C. “INDIAN SONGS.: PERSONAL STUDIES OF INDIAN LIFE.” Century Illustrated Magazine (1881-1906), 01, 1894, 421,

What’s in a Fight Song?

As an Iowan growing up in a college town, Saturday football games were unavoidable. I’m from Ames which is home to the Iowa State Cyclones, and the biggest game of the year is when we play our in-state rivals the University of Iowa Hawkeyes. This last weekend was the biggest rivalry game yet, when some 160,000 extra people came to town just to celebrate and watch football. So when I went searching for a text that stood out to me, I was stopped in my tracks by the words written for a celebratory song called “The Proud Hawkeye State” by Richard B.B. Wood. I found the lyrics as part of an 1884 reunion for “The Tri-State Old Settlers’ Association of Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa”1 to be performed after a series of speeches celebrating what it meant to be an “Old Settler,” or in this case, someone who lived in one of the states prior to 1860 or who had been there for the last 25 years. Amid the triumphant chorus these lines stand out to me

They were long and tedious hours

When we sought these western bowers

Grown with rude uncultured flowers

In that time long ago

Now this happy land is beaming

Bright as angels that are dreaming

With the harvest that is teeming

On our own Hawkeye soil

Iowa became a state in 1846, only 38 years prior to the year the convention was held. While it is unclear, the general consensus by Iowa historians is that the “Hawkeye” nickname comes from fans of “The Last of the Mohicans” an 1826 novel by James Fenimore Cooper set during the French and Indian War in which “According to Cooper’s story, the Delaware Indians bestowed the name of “Hawkeye” upon a white scout and trapper, who lived and hunted with them, who also braved their perils in war against the Iroquois and Hurons.”2
It seems absurd but the nickname was bestowed by white Iowan newspaper men, inspired by a story by a white writer, in which Native Americans give a white man a Native American name. In Iowa, almost all of the Indigenous population was forcibly removed by the government by 19303, except for the Meskwaki Tribe which still exists to this day, so when this reunion was held there were likely attendees who were very familiar with this history.

“The Tri-State Old Settlers’ Association of Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa”

The Tri-State Old Settlers’ Association of Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa

In Dan Blim’s “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians”4
Blim explores the concept of the “Vanishing Indian” as demonstrated in Edward MacDowell’s compositions. Blim explains that by creating art that claimed to eliminate any threat from Native Americans, Europeans could incorporate that imagined other into their cultural heritage, and that by establishing that Native American culture had “died,” it outlined white, European culture as something triumphant and unifying. 

Similarly in these lyrics, Richard B.B. Wood celebrates  “Old Settlers” as a powerful group of people who arose from some sort of tension to create a shining and glorious land on “their own Hawkeye soil.” However, while history is no doubt alluded to with racist coding like “rude uncultured flowers” these tribes are never named. The song is more about proving the excellence of the “Old Settlers” whose identity is literally grounded in economic prosperity tied to the richness of the land. 

The act of singing a song meant to celebrate an identity in opposition to something is unifying. Anyone who cheers for a certain sports team can feel a sense of camaraderie with perfect strangers if they wear the same colors as us, hate the same people as us, and sing the same song as us. In the case of “The Proud Hawkeye State,” the team is the “Old Settlers” and the opponent is effectively unworthy of a name since it was defeated. “The Proud Hawkeye State” claims that something that once was “uncultured” has now been replaced to use a farming analogy as Iowans love to-do, it was uprooted. 

1Tri-State Old Settlers’ Association of Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa. 1884-1887. Report of the first-[fourth] reunion of the Tri-State Old Settlers’ Association, of Illinois, Missouri and Iowa. Keokuk, Iowa: Tri-state Printing. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American West.

Pocahontas: a History Vanished into the World of Disney

In 1995, a new Disney princess was introduced: one that did not follow the typical “damsel in distress.” This princess may have not been a damsel in distress, but she certainly sparked new conversations regarding a people overlooked and often forgotten, considered vanished, even.

This princess is Pocahontas, and the people are Native Americans.

The Disney producers’ goal in creating Pocahontas was to “address the rise in public criticism from various ethnic groups over racial stereotyping in their most recent productions” (1). In order to prevent another cultural appropriation outbreak in Pocahontas, the producers hired Native American advisors to join their team and cast Native American performers to provide the voices for the main Native American roles.

(Gary Edgerton and Kathy Jackson’s article, “Redesigning Pocahontas: Disney, the ‘White Man’s Indian,’ and the Marketing of Dreams.”)

However, by creating a story about Pocahontas (while attempting to incorporate love, drama, and music), they risked continuing the stereotype of the “Hollywood Indian,” as outlined in Gary Edgerton and Kathy Jackson’s article, “Redesigning Pocahontas: Disney, the ‘White Man’s Indian,’ and the Marketing of Dreams.” This stereotype is an image focused on representative types and traits that are typically used to depict Native Americans in films, such as dress and spirituality (1). Beyond the “Hollywood Indian” stereotype, the producers of Pocahontas also allowed the “Vanishing Indian” theory to strengthen.

It all began in their marketing campaign, specifically their partnership with McDonald’s.  A 20 second McDonald’s commercial from 1995 opens with a flute-like instrument playing, accompanied by a rhythmic drum sequence. The camera zooms in on two children, wearing what looks like modern-day Native American Halloween costumes and feathers in their hair, playing with the Pocahontas toys from the McDonald’s Happy Meals. Next, an older man beckons the children into a teepee, where they start watching the Disney movie Pocahontas. The commercial concludes with two individual dressed in what looks like wooden masks and armor playing with the Happy Meal toys. This commercial exudes stereotypes from the “Hollywood Indian” stereotype, such as the dress, non-historical teepee, and the men in wood, which seems to inaccurately symbolize spirituality and tradition.

(The 1995 McDonald’s commercial advertising Pocahontas)

This ties into the liberties that Disney took throughout the movie, such as distinguishing the violent and traumatic experiences that the real Pocahontas endured, such as her kidnapping, isolation from her people for a year, marriage, and eventual death at age 21 from tuberculosis. By leaving them out, they strengthen the “Vanishing Indian” theory, as discussed in Dan Blim’s paper, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians”, with Pocahontas a specific example of an Indian vanished into history, ignoring her true fate and primarily remembered by her Disney-depicted fate (2).

However, Disney is not entirely to blame for the diminishing of Pocahontas’ true story.  A May 1907 edition of Ladies’ Home Journal published an article titled “The Love Story of the First American Girl”, written by Laura Spencer Portor. This article begins, “Few of us know the entire story of Pocahontas. Yet it is a delightful story so full of romance that it might fitly begin in the old romantic way, ‘Long, long ago,’ or ‘Once upon a time’.” (4)  It continues talking about a romance between John Smith and Pocahontas, portraying her history as one like a fairytale. As shown by this article, the idea of the “Vanishing Indian” in terms of Pocahontas was a concept that was initiated very early on, much before Disney; people didn’t want to acknowledge the dark, violent aspects of her life brought on by their ancestors. Rather, they wanted to think about a Native American princess falling in love with an Englishman, saving the colonies from disaster from the “savages.” Disney, however, only further prompted these stereotypes and false account of Pocahontas’ life.

As summed up by Edgerton and Jackson:

“The film’s scriptwriters chose certain episodes from her life, invented others, and in the process shaped a narrative that highlights some events, ideas, and values, while suppressing others…Disney’s Pocahontas is, once again, a parable of assimilation.” (1)



[1] Edgerton, Gary and Kathy Merlock Jackson. “Redesigning Pocahontas: Disney, the “White Man’s Indian,” and the Marketing of Dreams.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 24, no. 2 (Summer, 1996). 90.

[2] Blim, Daniel. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory, Vancouver, BC, November 2016.

[3] OnTheTelly. YouTube. YouTube, September 14, 2016.

[4] By Laura Spencer Portor Author of “A Gentleman of the Blue Grass,” “‘The Light of,Other Days. “The Love Story of the First American Girl.” The Ladies’ Home Journal (1889-1907), 05, 1907, 10,

Densmore and the uninterested Ute Tribe

When studying Frances Densmore’s notes on the music of the Pawnee people, I was impressed that many recordings were supplemented with written European musical notation such as sheet music. Phonetic pronunciation of words and sounds were provided. It’s very clear that for the time, Densmore used all the resources available to her to put together an archive of Native American tribal music.
When reading through her memoir of Frances Densmore and American Indian Music, Densmore accounts on instances where her plans of recording tribes became difficult due to lack of cooperation. In this primary source dating from 1916, she recounts her first encounter with the Ute tribe, located on their Southwest Colorado reservation, and their disinterest in making an archive and recording.
She writes:
Not all Indian tribes have the same disposition and before I went to the Utes I was warned that they were “touchy” by nature. Events proved this to be correct. From the day of my arrival the Utes did not like the idea of my work. I had a pleasant cottage for an office, far enough from neighbors so the singing could not be overheard, and on a street conveniently near the trader’s store. I set up the phonograph in the front room, secured a good interpreter and hoped for singers. Many Indians came out of curiosity, looked in the windows, sat around the room and laughed. In vain I explained through the interpreter, that I had been with many tribes who were glad to record their songs. I told of the building in Washington that would not burn down, where their voices would be preserved forever, but still they only looked at each other and laughed (Densmore 39).

The lack of desire from these tribes to work with Densmore poses a problem. Densmore is a pioneer in her attempt to preserve the believed to be disappearing traditions of Native American tribes. Through all the work we have studied as a class, I believe her intentions were to give the most accurate preservation of the music and such is shown in the visceral work she provides through writing and recordings. This primary source makes me question the authenticity of the work Densmore strived for (the musical practices and songs of Native American tribes) given that there were clearly Native people who had no interest in cooperating with Densmore. There are many factors that make me question whether Densmore achieved the goal she set out. Not only were the people clearly apprehensive but their songs had been taken out of their ceremonious context.

The musicologist may have also brought some tension to the situation. In her article of The Music of American Indians, Densmore writes, “In all his means of expression, the Indian is still a child. When he dances, he puts his feet together and moves from side to side with a motion precisely like that of a three-year-old.” When the collector and performer comes to the act of recording with such tension and veracity, how can an accurate recreation of these practices take place?

These sources open the audience up to the possibility that Densmore may have not achieved her goal. In the book, Densmore labels this section as “Incidents In The Study of Ute Music”. The format in which Densmore chooses to present the encounter becomes a question of biased as well as mention in The Music of American Indians that they are children. If the passage begins with her warning the reader of the tribe being “touchy” and continuing on to what allegedly happened, it stands to reason that other tribes may have felt uncomfortable taking part in Densmore’s work but had not spoken up.

Works Cited

-Hofmann, Charles, and Frances Densmore. Frances Densmore and American Indian Music; a Memorial Volume. Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, 1968.

-FRANCES D. “THE MUSIC OF THE AMERICAN INDIANS.” Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine (1868-1935), vol. XLV, 03, 1905, pp. 230. ProQuest,

Misconceptions of Native American Music and Tradition

The source that I found for this blog post is Personal Experiences Among Our North American Indians 1867 to 1885 by William Thornton Parker. Parker was an author from New Mexico who studied at both Harvard and the Institute of Technology. One particular section of his book felt very relevant to our conversations from class, and was similar to the first assigned primary source readings we had. One segment focused in on the connection between dance and music that is so essential to Native American music, but is often left out in our education about it as a recording cannot fully convey what the Native American musicking experience was like. After he had personally observed a war dance, he states that “he [the dancer] dances with the peculiar motions of the Indian, so indescribable, yet so suggestive that he is able to convey to the onlookers the passions which sway him” (Parker, 14). I think this excerpt helps to demonstrate the complicated ways that Americans have historically, and currently, interact with native culture, and especially their music. They know it is passionate and feel the meaning but at the same time they find it odd and crude; simplifying it to be insignificant rather than putting effort into understanding.

Like in MacDowell’s Indian Suite, he is taking the elements from Native American music that he perceives to demonstrate the brute force and ignorant simplicity that Native Americans were inaccurately thought to have. He does this while wrapping it in a package of typical Western orchestration that is more palatable to a white audience, allowing them to further generalize and stereotype the culture from which this music was derived. Parker views these Native Americans in such a light, shown by his journals stating “the drums are, in fact, musicians skilled in this particular are of war-dance music” (14). The use of “in fact” in such a contrary way shows that the default idea is the Native Americans could not be skilled as musicians, and it’s almost as if he is patting himself on the back for noticing that there is actual depth to a cultural practice that has been going on for hundreds of years.

Works Cited

Parker, William T. 1913. Personal experiences among our North [[American]] Indians from 1867 to 1885. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American West, [Accessed September 15, 2019].

Woah Look at That! Colonial Tourism Within Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair

Moving pictures from the 1983 Chicago World’s Fair

There is strong evidence to suggest that sensationalism occurred within the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, specifically within the Native American exhibit. Professor Dan Blim of Denison University speaks to historian David Beck’s argument that “the fair provided Native Americans one of their earliest opportunities to self-represent rather than the familiar caricatures featured in Buffalo Bill’s traveling shows,” and that “the exhibit also generated interest in anthropological ethnography for some visitors, including Frances Densmore, who had her first encounter with Native American culture there [1].” Beck believes visitors came away from these exhibitions with a strong impression of Native Americans. For Blim, the exhibit “undoubtedly offer[ed] visitors a chance to engage in some form of colonialist tourism [1].” This idea of “colonial tourism” has made me question how visitors saw themselves in the context of the exhibit. Were visitors truly interested in gaining a deeper understanding of Native American culture, or were they there purely for entertainment?

In order to understand more about what the general public’s perception was about these exhibitions, I did some digging. I first looked at an article published in The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal, called “Man and His Works,” written by Harlan Smith in 1892 before the fair had happened. The article speaks to the proposed plans of an “Indian school exhibit.” Smith explains the exhibit will show how “our government represents its method of educating and civilizing them, […] and will occupy four acres of land [2].” 

Students from the Haskell Indian School

To get a second perspective on what the general public thought of this specific exhibit, I looked at an article published in The Independent, an article that is published in 1893 after the fair had taken place. In the article, Carl Johnson describes an exhibit of the Haskell Indian School from Lawrence, Kansas “decidedly animate and correspondingly interesting[…] [3].”  The children in this exhibit were between ten and twenty years of age, and Johnson describes them as “a remarkably intelligent-looking lot of young people, who had none of that stolid, indifferent look common to the average Indian.” Johnson goes on to explain that the Native Americans “plainly desire to reverse that popular sentiment that ‘there is no good Indian except a dead one’.” 

In my opinion, I think the Native American exhibit at the 1893 World’s Fair was there not only to entertain (which supports Blim’s argument of colonial tourism), but also to support the idea that the United States government was “saving the savages.”As we see in Smith’s article, the government specifically wanted the Indian school front and center as a tribute to “Man and His Works,” and while some visitors might have been there to gain a better understanding of Native American culture, the exhibit was so edited and controlled by those outside of the Native Americans that it had to have been nearly impossible to gain an accurate understanding. Both articles are heavily influenced by racist views (especially when Johnson explains what the “popular sentiment” of Native Americans was at the time). I was honestly kind of shocked that these articles were printed and accepted as the norm, and am thankful society has (mostly) developed a deeper understanding of respecting cultures. We still have a long way to go!

[1]. Blim, Daniel. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory, Vancouver, BC, November 2016.

[2] Smith, Harlan. “Man and His Works.” The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal (1880-1914), vol. 15, Mar. 1893.

[3] Johnson, Carl. “World’s Fair Letter.” The Independent … Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts (1848-1921), vol. 45, July 1893.


Cultivating Compassion: an Unexpected Plea for the Native Americans

Figure 1                                   Figure 2



For this blog post I will examine the book History of Oklahoma and Indian Territory and homeseekers’ guide (Fig. 1), published in 1906 and written by James L. Puckett. The book itself is based on statements given to the author by different people that were in some way affiliated with the native American tribes in the area. The specific primary source is the experiences as stated by Ora. A. Woodman (Fig. 2)[1], after his capture during an Indian raid and the subsequent adolescence as part the tribe. Puckett stated that there is little to no evidence of Woodman’s ancestry or background, other than being born somewhere in western Texas before the civil war[2]. In the section I chose from this account, Woodman explains how the Native American music might be wrongly perceived (Fig. 3)[3] and how he views it.

Figure 3

Why did Puckett include this rather nuanced encounter, stating somewhat radical opinions on Indian music, in his book? Woodman, with no recollections of his life outside the tribe and one could argue without the biases that comes with western, Eurocentric society, has an interesting platform for promoting the Native American cause. Or did Puckett simply include this story as a curiosity for the readers, a local Tarzan of sorts? Does he want to show the world the depravity attainable when one fraternizes too much with the natives? To find meaning and take pleasure in their music?

When it comes to Puckett’s personal views and credibility it is worth looking into his life story according to his own recollections, a separate chapter of the book, he began his career moving cattle in Arkansas of which he soon tired. After a failed courtship with a Cheyenne woman he went to Oklahoma where he had close friendship with a Cherokee man (Fig. 4 a and b)[4] culminating in him attending gatherings for the native tribes an interacting with them.

Figure 4 a

Figure 4 b

He ended up being married to three Cherokee women, separately, throughout his life and the book names the third one as a co-author (Fig.1). It seems to me that this is a life and the actions of a somewhat progressive thinker, through marriage and friendship he interacted a lot with native tribes and collected testimonies from them directly. in spite of this   it is important to highlight the somewhat autobiographical nature of this collection of experiences.

As far as the original or intended audience for this book Puckett writes that he believes what he calls his “memories” will be “worth something to people seeking homes in the new country”[5]. Considering this statement in light of what might be perceived as sympathetic undercurrents in the text, I would be inclined to assume that Puckett’s intentions were conscientious; That he wished that newcomers to the territory would have a better understanding of the land, its people and consequently their music.


Puckett, James L. History of Oklahoma and Indian Territory and homeseekers’ guide. Vinita, Oklahoma: Chieftain Publishing Company. 1906. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American West, [Accessed September 15, 2019].

[1] Puckett 1906: p. 71

[2] Ibid p. 73

[3] Ibid p. 77

[4] Ibid p. 123-124

[5] Ibid p. 149

Skulls: a 19th-Century Justification for Racism in Music


Anyone could read this short passage and recognize that the author is approaching music with a problematic, racist mindset, but I had no idea the undercurrent of “science” propelling these opinions until I dug a little deeper…

The pseudoscience of phrenology was running rampant in mid-19th century society. Racist beliefs and actions were justified through this “science.”[1] Phrenologists argued that a person’s character, intelligence, and opinions could be deduced from the shape and size of their skull.[2] This was fodder for 19th-century minds to be opposed to whole races and ethnicities, solely based off the external shape of their skulls. Samuel George Morton wrote Crania americana; or, A comparative view of the skulls of various aboriginal nations of North and South America[3] in 1839. Crania americana allowed racism to reign in 19th-century thinking under the guise of science, as the book was published in great quantities and spread across the continent and across the ocean to Europe.[4] Through drawings like the ones below, Morton provided “reasoning” for the acceptability of racism against Native Americans. Phrenology directly influenced how people viewed Native American music and musicians.

Looking back at the first excerpt,[5] it is easy to witness how this undercurrent of phenological thought influenced the cultural norms of the 19th century about racism towards Native Americans. This passage comes from the American Phrenological Journal, a publication by scholars of this pseudoscience. Much to my chagrin, this journal would have held great authority over its original audience, an audience well-accustomed to phrenological thought. American Phrenological Journal deems the music of the “wild Indian” to be lesser, because they believed that a Native American’s brain did not physically have the same capacity for music making as a European did. Before even hearing the music, phrenologists had deduced the music to be less advanced than “Christian” music, purely because of the shape of the musicians’ skulls. Along with making assumptions about the music before listening to it, the author makes conclusions about the whole people group based off of the music. They say that “it is a fact” that people can be judged by their music, and that this serves as confirmation that white European-descendants are “superior,” as organs and pianos are a testament to.



[1]  SciShow. “Victorian Pseudosciences: Brain Personality Maps.” YouTube. YouTube, December 1, 2016. Accessed September 14, 2019.

[2]  Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Phrenology.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed September 16, 2019.

[3]  Morton, Samuel George. Crania Americana, or, A Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America to Which Is Prefixed an Essay on the Varieties of the Human Species. Philadelphia: J. Dobson, 1839.

[4]  “Skulls in Print: Scientific Racism in the Transatlantic World.” University of Cambridge, March 19, 2014. Accessed September 13, 2019.


Henry Finck & the Construction of An American Sound

Henry Finck’s 1906 article “Creative Americans: Edward MacDowell, Musician and Composer” was published in Outlook, a New York-based magazine in operation from 1893-1924. The article’s opening lines casually establish Finck’s authority on MacDowell by stating that in the summer of 1895 he “spent a few days with Edward MacDowell in a hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva.”[1] He further drops a subtle brag that MacDowell was “sorely tempted to ask my advice about various details, but refrained for fear of breaking into my vacation.”[2]


This is Henry Finck. In addition to having an impressive mustache, Finck was an American music critic. Although German and a Wagnerite, he distrusted Germany. His 18 publications include Wagner and his works: the story of his life, Richard Strauss: The man and his works, Songs and Song Writers, an autobiography, and books on gardening and food. Finck was a music critic at the Evening Post for 43 years and a lecturer at the National Conservatory of Music (alongside Dvorak).[4]

The purpose of Finck’s article is not consistent. The first page seem to build up to the thesis that “It is time to drop the ludicrous notion that a truly national art can be built up only on folk-songs.”[5] This theme, particularly the importance of individuality, is further developed through the third page. Finck then suddenly switches to a lengthy discussion of MacDowell’s education. Interestingly, in this section Finck uses the same revering tone that he describes MacDowell using towards his own idols (particularly Liszt and Raff), even going so far as to assert that MacDowell was “the greatest pianist this country has produced.”[6] Finally, Finck ends with a quick overview of what he considers to be MacDowell’s best pieces and mourns the “loss to American music” caused by MacDowell’s death. He never seems to return to his “thesis” that individuality is the key to building a national art. In this way the article has a unique mix of informal musicological argument and half reverent biography.

I came upon this source about MacDowell while searching for more context on Dan Blim’s essay “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” I was excited to find this article because it seems to contrast some of Blim’s arguments. Blim’s essay states that:

“[A] so called “Indianist” movement had emerged, placing Native American subjects at the fore of US musical nationalism. Pisani attributes the success of this movement in large part to the participation of Edward MacDowell, the preeminent American composer of the day, who premiered his Second Suite for Orchestra with the moniker ‘Indian,’ in 1896.”[7]

While Blim only quotes Pisani on this point, he does not refute it, leading me to the conclusion that he agrees with this argument. Blim in fact seems to take the argument for granted as it is presented in the portion of the essay dedicated to context. Although it perhaps was a personal issue that I didn’t catch this distinction the first time around, my first experiences with the article led me to think that Pisani’s claim was indeed a central pillar of Blim’s own argument.

However, Finck’s article gives evidence that MacDowell specifically didn’t want to create a new American sound based on Native American music. Finck states that MacDowell:

“…never indorsed the view… that a great American Temple of Music might and will be built with Indian songs as the foundation-stones. Nor has he ever countenanced the widely prevalent opinion that negro melodies form the only other possible basis of a distinctively American school of music.”[8]

In combination with his own argument that individuality is the key to building up an American school of music, Finck’s interpretation of MacDowell’s intentions (or lack thereof) contrasts with Pisani’s claim that the “Indianist” movement was conscious and deliberate. Finck only speaks towards MacDowell’s intentions, and because actions and intentions are not the same, it is highly plausible that both Pisani and Finck are correct. I synthesize these conflicting arguments into the claim that MacDowell did not intend to participate in the ‘Indianist’ movement but was nevertheless accidentally a key player in the construction of a US musical nationalism.

This was but one interesting tidbit in a rather long article. Other intriguing morsels that I don’t have space to unpack in this blog post include:

  • Your daily dose of sexism/engrained hypermasculinity (“exquisite feminine tenderness” and “sturdy, manly spirit”)
  • Condescension poorly hidden by Finck’s belief in his own open-mindedness (“The aboriginal Iroquois and Iowan songs which form its main themes are in themselves by no means without charm…”)
  • Was Finck in love with MacDowell? He’s really quite complimentary of his musical accomplishments, not to mention his handsomeness (“His face retains its unearthly beauty… and his eyes still have the light of genius in them.” However, Mark Grant says “Finck was an unabashed enthusiast, not a paid puffer but a booster, and he did not hesitate to write articles about his particular favorites… that bordered on press agentry.”)
  • Finck has strong opinions on what a “real American,” so much so that perhaps the establishment of an American identity can be better examined in the way music is talked about rather than in the music itself



[1] Henry Finck, “Creative Americans: Edward MacDowell, Musician and Composer,” Outlook 84, no. 17 (1906), 1.

[2] Ibid, 1.

[3] “Henry T. Finck,” Lapham’s Quarterly,

[4] Mark Grant, Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.

[5] Ibid, 1.

[6] Ibid, 7.

[7] Dan Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” Vancouver, 2016, 2.

[8] Finck, “Creative Americans,” 1.

Works Cited

Blim, Dan. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” Vancouver, 2016.

“Henry T. Finck.” Lapham’s Quarterly.

Finck, Henry T. “Creative Americans: Edward MacDowell, Musician and Composer.” Outlook 84, no. 17(1906).

Grant, Mark. Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.



The Expansion of the “Vanishing Indian”

In his paper “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” Dr. Daniel Blim writes that the “Indianist” movement of using Native American inspiration for American music owes its success largely to the composer Edward MacDowell, and especially to his Indian Suite, premiered in 1896. Blim connects this to the “vanishing Indian” trope: “the Indian as a cultural figure . . . began to ‘vanish,’ and no longer a threat, could be reappropriated in the national imagination as a nostalgic figure rather than a living oppositional force.” He discusses MacDowell’s Westernization of Native American music as one way in which it aligns with this trope. Regarding MacDowell’s piece “From an Indian Lodge,” Blim writes, “the subject of this work is not Native America, but a reenactment, subtly Westernized.”1

Reviews of the Indian Suite support this view, showing a strong alignment with the “vanishing Indian” trope and praising MacDowell’s Westernization of Native American music. Blim uses the Indian Suite as an example of MacDowell’s music before it reflected the shift to the “vanishing Indian” view, still depicting Native Americans as a “living oppositional force.” However, the following two reviews, though approaching the Indian Suite from opposite directions, both project the “vanishing Indian” trope onto the piece.

In 1898, the magazine The Critic published a review (right) praising MacDowell’s ability to “weave a series of tone-pictures out of . . . purely native material.” It contrasts his suite with Dvořák’s ninth symphony, stating that MacDowell “clings to what is elemental and more thoroughly representative, . . . carefully avoiding as inappropriate a too complex treatment of native themes.”2 Rather than seeing Native Americans as a living opposition still in need of Westernization, The Critic praises MacDowell for getting to the core of what is Native American, showing the extent to which their opposition had been replaced by an opportunity for inspiration.

In 1939, 41 years later, the magazine Forum and Century also published a review (left) praising the Indian Suite, but comparing it favorably with Dvořák’s symphony: “The Suite is in no sense a sequence of Indian tunes. It is a sweeping orchestral work, symphonic in nature, that evokes auditory images of our ancestors, their mores, and their cherished aspirations and bitter frustrations.”3 For Forum and Century, rather than Westernization being an obstacle, it allows the Native American to be more effectively appropriated, so much so that they are now “our ancestors,” and the music’s frustration that Blim associates with their oppositional position now reflects the “bitter frustrations” of the Native Americans themselves.

From only two years after the premier through the following several decades, MacDowell’s Indian Suite was fully enveloped by the trope of the “vanishing Indian.” Though approaching the piece from opposite directions, both reviews celebrate MacDowell’s synthesis of Native American music. They do not make Blim’s differentiation between the suite and pieces that more explicitly align with this trope. Rather, due to the strength of the national shift spurred by MacDowell himself, they project onto this piece the concept that the Native American has vanished and transformed into fodder for American music.

1. Blim, Daniel. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory, Vancouver, BC, November 2016.

2. “Music: Notes of the Season.” The Critic: A Weekly Review of Literature and the Arts (1886-1898), Feb 05, 1898, 97,

3. ARTHUR, WALLACE HEPNER. “THE RECORD REVIEW.” Forum and Century (1930-1940), 11, 1939, 1,

“Edward MacDowell, Suite No 2, Indian, Op 48.” YouTube video, 36:24, posted by
Gunnar Frederikson, Feb 28, 2018,

“Woodland Sketches, Op. 51: No. 5. From an Indian Lodge.” YouTube video, 2:48, posted by Alexandra Oehler – Topic, Jan 30, 2015,

The Way from Marginal to Mainstream: Another Early Example

I can freely admit that this playbill announcement caught my attention because I share a name with it. Helena, Montana and its musical and theatrical scene is almost as far from the musical encounters we have discussed between Europeans and coastal Native American tribes as I am, but I do believe that it has some connection to the development of an “American” music.

Native American references are markedly absent from this particular theatre’s presentation, although they seem to have been fairly common in other places at the time. The Montana Territory, not yet a state in 1866 when this playbill was published, was a frontier territory. Clashes between Native American tribes and European settlers were still common. Perhaps this continuing conflict is the reason for this music’s absence; theater is designed to be an escape, and comedy, farce, and melodrama were particularly popular in this period (1). The Vanishing Indian trope doesn’t fit well into the shows of an area that know the Indians have definitely not vanished yet.

However, there are plenty of interesting features of this program.  “Exotic” features or tidbits of a marginalised culture are often used as a draw in entertainment, so it is probable that this is the case here. Prominently displayed are the acts of “Ethiopian” comedian Ned Ward (who would have been a white actor in blackface) and the play “The Irish Diamond.” In discussion of anti-blackness and the racism particularly directed at non-white groups as a society and a class, we often neglect to be aware of the struggles of certain white (as they are considered now, in our black/white dichotomy) ethnic groups, such as the Catholic Irish who were marginalised in both Protestant America and Britain after the English Reformation. This playbill was published not terribly long after a large wave of Irish immigrants came to the United States in the 1840s. This type of wave of immigration often comes with mixed feelings toward the group in question, and the Irish certainly were not met with arms all open. The prominence of an Irish drama in this program could be another example of what was discussed in our very first class session: the construction of a distinct American identity through reference to and use of the art and culture of marginalised American groups, in this case Irish culture and African-American culture through the lens of blackface. There is even a second Irish play in what appears to be a “coming soon to theatres” section at the bottom – Arrah-na-Pogue, which was written in 1864 and adapted into an early silent film in 1911 (2)!

American music and art has always been an amalgamation of cultures, and that of frontier Montana in the 1860s is no different. Home to mostly young, male miners (3), this playbill from a theatre in Helena, Montana nonetheless draws on different styles of music, dance, and theater, and conveys an interesting picture of the artistic landscape that people from this time would have encountered. Much like music of the time, American theater was moving away from its European counterpart and searching for a new identity in the cultural resources of the “New World.”

  1. Meserve, Walter J. An Outline History of American Drama, New York: Feedback/Prospero, 1994.
  2. Williams, Henry Llewellyn, and Dion Boucicault. Arrah-Na-Pogue; (Arrah-of-the-Kiss.) or, The Wicklow Wedding. Founded on the Same Incidents as the Celebrated Drama. New York: R.M. De Witt, 1865.
  3. Wikipedia contributors, “Montana,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed September 16, 2019).

The “Vanishing Indian” Materializes Before Audiences

The opening imagery of Daniel Blim’s conference paper “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” that vividly describes the setting of Chicago World’s Fair and Columbian Exhibition, stuck with me after class. What would it be like to walk down a corridor in the natural history museum to have real people and animals stare back at you? Historical newspapers and current scholars describe these events as half circus, half Night at the Museum.

Blim’s article introduced the idea of the “vanishing Indian,” a symbol of Native America(ns) that “could be reappropriated in the national imagination as a nostalgic figure rather than a living oppositional force.”1 We know that Native Americans were (literally) put on display at the 1893 World’s Fair, but in what other instances were Americans, and other nationalities in the case of the World’s Fair, witnessing and consuming Native American culture? Based on research via newspaper archives from the 19th-century, World’s Fairs, International Expos, and museums were the primary contexts in which non-Natives could interact with actual tribes. 

To further investigate the “vanishing Indian” trope, I found an article originally printed in Scientific American in 1898. The article, titled “the Omaha Exposition and the Indian Congress,” described the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898. After quickly mentioning the technological advancements of fireworks, the author lays out the newest and most attractive addition to the Expo ⎯ the Indian Congress. The Indian Bureau of Washington, D.C. allocated $40,000 to find, deliver, and enclose 35 distinct Native American tribes. Nearly 500 members of these tribes were camped out over four acres of Expo premises. For three months, anthropologists, sociologists, and the general public could observe Native American musics, rituals, and all modes of living in between as if they were zoo animals.

“Representative Indian Chiefs, Indian Congress, Omaha Exposition.” from left to right: Four Bulls, Assiniboin; Antoine Moise, Flathead; Different Cloud, Assiniboin; “Killed the Spotted Horse”, Assiniboin; Eneas Michel, Flathead

The article, read by thousands across the U.S. every year during this time, delivered the story triumphantly:

It is a curious and interesting fact that less than half a century ago the same docile Omaha Indians who peacefully doze by the camp fires within the Exposition gates were waging the war of the tomahawk and arrow on these very grounds, which is gratifying proof of the triumphal march of civilization.2 

No wonder the “vanishing Indian” trope was recognized by music consumers and the general public ⎯ the only times Native Americans were presented as apart of American society were part of a curated experience:

The agents were instructed to send old men, and, as far as possible, “head men,” who would typically represent the old-time Indian, subdued, it is true, but otherwise uninfluenced by the government system of civilization… some [tribes] have become so civilized, like the Creeks, Choctaws, Cherokees, and Seminoles, that their presence would add little interest from an ethnological point of view; so the government did not assemble it most civilized proteges at Omaha, but the tribes it has conquered with the greatest bloodshed are the most important at the congress.3

Not only curated, but curated to show their defeat and vulnerability in the face of America’s power.