Willie’s Musical World Tour

While looking through The Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper founded in 1905, I came across a series of articles written by Willie Belle Jones. Jones was an African-American woman who it seems worked as a musicologist for The Chicago Defender. Over the course of two years, Jones wrote a series of articles describing types of music from around the world. I could only find four of these articles, however it is implied in the article “Chinese Street Music” that Jones wrote one of these articles every week,1 although it is possible not all of these articles were about musical cultures. The range of the articles that have been preserved are from April 1929 through July 1930, however it is possible that this series extends beyond those boundaries.

A picture of Willie Belle Jones from 1929.

In the four articles I found, Jones shares her opinions of music from China, India, Japan, Mexico, and Peru. It is unclear whether or not Jones herself traveled to these countries, or had other methods of learning about their musical traditions. These articles show a care for musical cultures around the world, while also demonstrating that racism and xenophobia permeated nearly all corners of the United States throughout the 20th century.

Jones, Willie Belle. “MUSIC: MUSIC IN PERU AND MEXICO.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Apr 13, 1929. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/music/docview/492217804/se-2.

In this article, Jones discusses both Peruvian music and Mexican music. Jones compares these two traditions to each other, while also comparing them to “oriental” music traditions. I think these comparisons are problematic given that all of these traditions are so different and independent of one another. Also problematic are the descriptions of these two musical traditions. Jones describes Peruvian music as “Idyllic and Pastoral” while describing Mexican music as simply “barbarous.” It is already bad to assign certain qualities to an entire country’s music, and even worse to refer to an entire tradition as “barbaric pomp.”4

Jones, Willie Belle. “MUSIC: CHINESE STREET MUSIC.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Jun 15, 1929. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/music/docview/492306389/se-2.

Jones seems to take a fancy to “Chinese Street Music,” however that doesn’t stop her from impressive feats of racist rhetoric throughout the article. Jones refers to Chinese workers as “coolies,” which is a slur so old and racist that I didn’t even know it existed until just now. Jones also makes fun of the variance within this musical tradition, and describes it as “purely racket” and “[not] very pleasant to the ear.” However, Jones seems enamored by the idea of having music in the streets throughout the day.1

“MUSIC: MUSIC IN JAPAN.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967),Jul 05, 1930. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/music/docview/492235829/se-2.

Jones does not dedicate too much time to the music of Japan in this three sentence long column. She simply implies it’s basically the same as China, and moves on.3 This is insidious both for its lack of care and effort to understand Japanese music, as well as its essentialization of all Asian music as roughly identical.

Jones, Willie Belle. “MUSIC: MUSIC IN INDIA.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Mar 30, 1929. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/music/docview/492230977/se-2.

In this article, Jones argues that Indian music is more pleasing than that of the other countries she has described. What is the basis for this claim? That Indian music more closely resembles European music than that of the other countries. I don’t doubt that music built on “seven tones to the octave” with characteristics similar to European music can sound more familiar to Western audiences. However, to describe this music as objectively “more pleasing” due to its proximity to western classical music is eurocentric and a problem in and of itself.2

These articles showcase that even within communities working to combat racism in the United States, racism was still internalized to the fullest extent. However, it is cool to see the interest that this community had for other musical traditions from around the world.


1 Jones, Willie Belle. “MUSIC: CHINESE STREET MUSIC.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Jun 15, 1929. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/music/docview/492306389/se-2.

2 Jones, Willie Belle. “MUSIC: MUSIC IN INDIA.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Mar 30, 1929. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/music/docview/492230977/se-2.

3 MUSIC: MUSIC IN JAPAN.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967),Jul 05, 1930. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/music/docview/492235829/se-2.

4 Jones, Willie Belle. “MUSIC: MUSIC IN PERU AND MEXICO.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Apr 13, 1929. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/music/docview/492217804/se-2.

Did Ethnomusicologists Know Other Forms of Notation? And Other Thoughts That Keep Me Up at Night

Among the greatest blunders committed by ethnomusicologists when interacting with indigenous cultures is their notation of that culture’s music. The process that comes with this endeavor ends up having a pretty standard formula. A musicologist will learn their notation skills in higher education, become convinced that theirs is the best (typically the standard European notation practice), and then go on to apply it when “capturing” the music of other cultures. We of course all know the tales of Densmore and her blunders, but unfortunately her story is not very unique. Take for example this French Ethnomusicologist’s transcription of indigenous American “chants”.

French Musicologist’s transcription of “Chants indiens du Canada Nord-Ouest [manuscript]”


Similar to Densmore, very strange notation that we can only assume is a mere approximation of what was heard. This begs the question- if western notation is restrictive, why not employ other notation styles? Why not unmetered bars of music? Why not employ a number system for microtonal music? WHY DON’T OUR TAX DOLLARS GO TOWARDS MORE PUBLIC INFRASTRUCTURE? But seriously- did these musicologists have ideas of other forms of notation? I believe that there are many answers to why western notation was forced to merge with other cultures in violent ways. For one, a precedent was set by Densmore to use western notation and to not deviate so that it was easier for western scholars to consume. Secondly, I do believe that many scholars of the late 19th and early 20th century were certainly unaware of other forms of notation. They lived in a far less globalized and more isolated society, even in the most diverse and rich academic institutions of the time.

But our time is different. We must teach at least basic introductions into other forms of notation. If not just to spread music from different cultures in less violent and in more reliable ways, but to expand our own worldview and thought processes when listening and interacting with music from varying cultures in all situations we may encounter it. To fail to learn other systems of notation, is to fail other cultures in an increasingly global society.


Works Cited:


Natalie Curtis – Intention vs. Impact

Natalie Curtis Burlin (1875 – 1921) was an American ethnomusicologist and musician whose work centered around preserving and archiving African-American and Native American music, art, and culture. In her 1913 article “The Perpetuating of Indian Art”, she appeals to the American governmental systems that are trying to erase Native culture altogether by assimilation into Western culture. While Curtis’ intentions were likely to help the Native American peoples, her argument against assimilation focuses largely on how Indian culture benefits white people. In the opening sentence of her article, she states:

“Those who have worked among the American Indians, and have learned to respect the thought, the art, and many of the religious ideas of this most interesting people, must feel a sense of almost personal gratitude to the present Secretary of the Interior for having appointed a Supervisor of Music in the department of Indian Education, whose duties shall be to ‘record native Indian music, and arrange it for use in the Indian schools.’”1

While Curtis continuously raves about the beauty and importance of Native Culture throughout the article, her argument always boils down to this: since Native culture is so beautiful, we can’t let it vanish completely because we can learn from them to help better ourselves and our Western culture. 

This is a common theme among supposedly well-meaning American ethnomusicologists at this time and throughout history. Ethnomusicologists like Alice Fletcher and Natalie Curtis tended to use language that is insensitive and dehumanizing towards the cultures they were studying. Fletcher was of the belief that “education was of primary importance for Native Americans, as it would ease assimilation into ‘civilized’ culture.”2 Curtis referred to Native Americans as “underdeveloped”, “primitive”, and “noble dogs”. 

Not to say that Curtis didn’t accomplish good things in her work – she used her personal relationship with Theodore Roosevelt to aid in the removal of a longtime ban on Native American music, 3and she strongly advocated against the erasure and white-washing of Native culture. Whatever the intentions, it’s important to analyze and acknowledge ethnomusicologists of the past so we can recognize where they failed and do better in the future. What we can learn from Curtis and others is that It’s important to ask yourself, whose betterment is the work intended for?


2 Haynes, Caitlin T, and Katherine Crowe. “Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Francis LaFlesche in the Transcription Center.” Smithsonian, 2023, transcription.si.edu/articles/alice-cunningham-fletcher-and-francis-la-flesche-transcription-center.

3 Curtis, N. (1919, Mar 05). MR. ROOSEVELT AND INDIAN MUSIC: A PERSONAL REMINISCENCE. Outlook (1893-1924), 399. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/magazines/mr-roosevelt-indian-music/docview/137007546/se-2

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Natalie Curtis Burlin”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 22 Apr. 2023, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Natalie-Curtis-Burlin. Accessed 20 September 2023.

Misrepresentation of Indian Music


[Portrait of Mr. John Comfort Fillmore]. Photographs. Place: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.1

In his article, John Comfort Fillmore presents his analysis of a set of songs collected by Alice C. Fletcher. Aside from the conclusions that Fillmore draws from his harmonic analysis, he provides us with much more information that alerts us to his biases toward Native American Music. He recalls Fletcher’s request of him to analyze the songs to determine “the scale on which [they] were built,”2 but the existence of this article alone proves that this simple request made by another scholar quickly ballooned into something much more presumptuous and declarative than it deserved to be. 

Fillmore presents the scales of these songs in Western notation on the ignorant basis that, “the Indians have no musical notation, no theories of music whatsoever.”3 His deprecating comments continue when describing how he felt obligated to harmonize the versions of these songs since, “the harmonic sense of these peoples is underdeveloped.”4 Fillmore’s imposition of Western notation and harmony onto these songs is an excellent example of “colonial imposition,”5 which is a term used by Beverly Diamond in Music and modernity among First Peoples of North America to describe inadequate documentation of Native American music through the use of Western notation.

Fillmore’s intentions and biases are made clear at the end of the article, where his initial intentions of using the music of Native Americans to “test the naturalness of our own musical perceptions”6 lead to his far-fetched conclusion that Native American music contains a “noble religious feeling [akin to] the central idea of Christianity.”7 Contrary to popular ideas of the time, he does advocate for Native American music as being “worthy of comparison to some of the best [music] we possess ourselves,”8 but only after his unwelcome imposition of Western notation to create versions of Native American music that “the Indians couldn’t have produced unaided.”9

Though much of ethnomusicology has changed over the course of its existence, some things remain the same, both positive and negative. Browner notes that the employment of fieldwork as the main method of ethnomusicological research has remained the same throughout history.10 Similarly, although the field has advanced greatly over time, the misrepresentation demonstrated through Fillmore’s article and research methods remains something to be aware of within ethnomusicology today.


1 https://library.artstor.org/asset/NMNH_125725565.

2 John Comfort Fillmore. “A STUDY OF INDIAN MUSIC.1.” Century Illustrated Magazine (1881-1906), 02, 1894, 616, https://www.proquest.com/magazines/study-indian-music-1/docview/125524446/se-2.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Diamond, Beverly. Music and modernity among First Peoples of North America. Edited by Victoria Lindsay Levine and Dylan Robinson. Wesleyan University Press, 2019.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Music of the First Nations : Tradition and Innovation in Native North America. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2009. Accessed September 18, 2023. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Frances Densmore: Can we Learn from “White Saviors?”

Pretty much everyone who’s taken a musicology course in the US has heard the name Frances Densmore. She was one of the pioneers of ethnomusicology, a scholar who traveled the country in the early 20th century recording somewhere between 2000 and 3500 samples of Native American music and speech and publishing ethnographies which integrated her analysis of these recordings with relevant cultural information from the tribes involved. Her work defined the discipline of ethnomusicology. Because of that influence, many scholars have since turned a critical eye toward her work, aiming to better understand her methods and motivations as she worked with Indigenous peoples. While the scope of her work is admirable and she single handedly created a historical record for cultural information that might otherwise have been destroyed by cultural genocide, Densmore’s work can be problematized due to exploitation and what we’d now think of as “white-savior” attitudes. After all, we can’t ignore the shameful reasons why she, a white person, was ever in a position to independently create a historical record for a cultural group to which she did not belong. The 1950 LP “Songs of the Chippewa” (Ojibwe),1 which Densmore recorded and compiled herself, is a near perfect microcosm of this dualism between historical record and material harm. This compilation of recordings, taken on Ojibwe reservations between 1907-1910, was published with a bulletin, a document similar to liner notes which proved to be extremely revealing as to Densmore’s engagement with, and attitudes toward, those she recorded.

The first page of the “Songs of the Chippewa” bulletin1

In her favor: Densmore credits her performers in the notes, lays out relevant personal information about them, and presents freely given and accurate cultural information about their tribes. In this, her engagement has some authenticity (if such a thing exists). She includes performers’ Native names and the song lyrics recorded in tribal languages, which I find to be a particularly significant example of genuine cultural engagement. Here especially, there are traces of Native voices, of Native histories as Indigenous Peoples wanted them preserved, in her work, and she showed genuine respect for them in how earnestly she preserved them.

However, her writing also reveals concerning white-saviorist attitudes toward the Indigenous people she worked with. While she may have had shining moments of respect for her performers and their cultures, Densmore often failed to consider how Native Americans wanted their music to be represented; she used writing to codify aural traditions, and she dissected music with western analytical methods instead of using the language and analytical tools that the musickers themselves used to engage with their own traditions. She engaged with Native musics on her own terms, not as the peer of those she was working with. This implies an attitude of superiority, the white-savior attitude which discards the possibility that culture-bearers have any knowledge to offer as to how intercultural engagement should take place. Densmore’s white-saviorism also took more explicit forms: she wrote that she undertook her recording projects to preserve in White institutions that which was “disappearing”2 while ignoring the fact that, as a white woman, her interests were the reason why those musics were being intentionally destroyed in the cultural genocide of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The juxtaposition between Densmore’s perspective and Indigenous perspectives preserved in her work complicates established profiles of this early musicologist. She’s often reduced to either the intrepid founding mother of ethnomusicology or the misguided white savior who took advantage of Native tribes all over the country; in a way, she was both. There are Native voices that shine through her texts, and to discard her writing or her recordings is to discard those valuable perspectives and pieces of cultural history. However, everything Densmore wrote has to be read with a most critical eye, because those white savior attitudes permeate every inch of her activities. She was an extremely flawed human being who preserved some genuine aspects of cultural and Native voice (almost despite her own best efforts). 

Embracing the paradox of her work, however, does not answer the question of how or whether modern musicologists should use it. Densmore’s materials teach us a lot about white constructions of identity in opposition to an Indigenous “other,” so they’re useful on a meta-musicological level, but should they be considered good source material for modern study of Indigenous traditions? I honestly think the answer is generally no. We can and we must address Densmore’s legacy, but I believe that when it comes to cultural research we should prioritize the voices of Native scholars, and focus on Indigenous cultures that willingly produce musical content to share with the broader world, or otherwise want to participate in musicological research – many, unsurprisingly, don’t. Perhaps the broader musicological community, particularly the American musicological community, should take a step back from trying to study Indigenous musics and focus on pursuing material, reparative action with Indigenous groups. When Indigenous peoples and Indigenous scholars are uplifted, there may be room for us collectively to overcome legacies like Densmore’s and more ethically engage in musicological study of vibrant, living traditions.

1 Densmore, Frances. Songs of the Chippewa. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, Division of Music, Recording Laboratory, 1950.

2 Densmore, pg. 4