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 shaped the discipline. Because of that influence, many scholars have since turned a critical eye toward her work, aiming to better understand her attempts to represent Indigenous cultures. After all, it’s dubious that a culture can be accurately represented at all, much less by someone who is a member of a different cultural group. In 1950, Densmore broke from her typical ethnographic formal to publish the LP “Songs of the Chippewa” with the Library of Congress.1 This complication 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

Hot Takes with Henry Hanchett

I have to commend Henry Granger Hanchett, a musician, doctor, and lecturer, on one thing: his choice of title for this piece, which was published in The Outlook (a New York magazine) in 1896. Posing the question, “What is ‘Good Music’?” in the title of an article implies to me that the author intended to answer that question to some degree of certainty within approximately one page, something most authors would be cautious of. In fact, Hanchett appears to have had few reservations about answering such large musicological questions, having also written during his lifetime a book with the title, “The Art of the Musician. A Guide to the Intelligent Appreciation of Music.”

In this particular article, “What is ‘Good Music’?”, Hanchett explores typical themes such as church music, the purpose of music, personal tastes, the roles of instruments and performers, and so on. However, what I found to be the most telling about Hanchett in this article, as well as the role of race and identity in his musical opinions, were his offhand comments about “Gospel Hymns”. He uses the example of the song “Way Down Upon the Suwanee [Swanee] River” being performed by a beloved opera singer, Christine Nilsson, to illustrate that even the most inferior compositions can be made into good music through a virtuosic  performance. In the midst of an article otherwise dominated by a casual and exploratory tone, Hanchett shifts to an exasperated condemnation of what he believes to be gospel music. He describes these “Gospel Hymns” as “not really worth the paper upon which [they are] printed,” having “no musical sense or meaning,” and overall, “not good music.”

As I attempted to get a clearer understanding of what Hanchett’s definition of a “Gospel Hymn” was, I searched for recordings of “Way Down Upon the Swanee River” (also called “Old Folks at Home”). This immediately led me to a video of Al Jolson, a popular minstrel show performer in the 1900s, performing the song in blackface in the movie Swanee River.

Diving deeper into the background and the lyrics of this song, it turns out that “Way Down Upon the Swanee River” is, in fact, a minstrel song written by Stephen C. Foster (and currently the Florida state song??). In addition to being written by a white guy for other white guys in blackface to perform, the song makes no reference to religion or the gospel. I may not know a perfect definition of what a Gospel Hymn is, but I’m pretty sure that this is not it. All available evidence leads me to assume that Hanchett hates this particular song, as well as the musical style, not because it is rooted in the racist practice of minstrelsy but because he actually perceives it to be genuine Black music and he’s just super racist. Although Henry G. Hanchett had his knack for musicological confidence, behind that confidence was the privilege and ignorance that make his opinions irrelevant today.

 

Citations:

Crawford, R. (2005). America’s musical life: A history. W.W. Norton.

Goldstein, H. (2001, January 20). Jolson, Al. Grove Music Online. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000014435?rskey=pQuzQC.

Hanchett, Henry G. “What is “Good Music”?” Outlook (1893-1924), Feb 15, 1896, 287, https://www.proquest.com/magazines/what-is-good-music/docview/136934140/se-2?accountid=351.

Martin, S. L. (2015, May 28). Hanchett, Henry Granger. Grove Music Online. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002283077?rskey=ittjn6.

Old folks at home. Song of America. (2018, July 16). Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://songofamerica.net/song/old-folks-at-home/.

Root, D. L. (2013, October 16). Foster, Stephen C(ollins). Grove Music Online. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002252809?rskey=Yle74c&result=1.

Southern, E. (1983). The music of Black America: A history. Norton.

Henry Edward Krehbiel

While browsing the African American Newspapers database, I came across a short article  talking about a Mr. Krehbiel’s recent lecture on “Folk Music. ” Published in 1897, this article caught my eye because the subject matter – folk music in general but occasionally discussed southern black folk music – present was described as “new.” The fact that Mr. Krehbiel was talking about African-American folk music in an educational setting (implied by the text of the article) prompted me to search for more about him.

Henry Edward Krehbiel.

Henry Edward Krehbiel was an American music critic and musicologist who lived from 1854 to 1923. Although he studied law, he went on to become a music critic with the New York Tribune, where he stayed until his passing. For more than forty-three years, he was considered the leading music critic in America, analyzing all facets of music composed in America, including works by Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, Antonín Dvořák, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (composers he supported before they became popular), and African-American Folk Music. This, in particular, is important as it indicates that Krehbiel was one of the earliest researchers to go beyond recording or transcribing Black folk music and study the characteristics in relation other folk music (Russian, Swedish, etc…).

Henry Krehbiel’s “Afro-American Folksongs.” St. Olaf Libraries call number: ML3556.K9 1914

In 1914, Krehbiel published a book entitled Afro-American Folksongs with the following intention:

 

“This book was written with the purpose of bringing a species of folksong into the field of study of scientific observation and presenting it as fit material for artistic treatment.”

In part, Krehbiel is acknowledging the lack of study on African American Folk Music and, by doing so, is giving it and the black community more credibility than what was not common in that era. When searching St. Olaf’s database, I was pleased to find that the school did own a copy of the (I believe) original book! As mentioned earlier, this book is one of the first scientific studies into African American Folk Music and sought to compare the characteristics (rhythm, intervals, and structure) of that music with folk music of other regions.

Returning back to the original article, Henry Krehbiel held lectures on “Folk Music” before and after the publication of this review in the New York Tribune. It is indicated in the text that this article followed the third installment of his “Folk Music” lecturesThe significance of thesis lectures, articles, and of Krehbiel’s book is it provides insight into how people first viewed African-American folk music as research began on it.

 

Citations

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Henry Edward Krehbiel, 1854-1923.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 10, 2017. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-a83a-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Krehbiel, Henry Edward. Afro-American Folksongs : A Study in Racial and National Music. 4th ed. New York: G. Schirmer, 1914.

“Mr. Krehbiel On Folk Music.” New York Tribune. Mar 2, 1897: African American Newspapers, Readex. 9 Oct, 2017 <http://infoweb.newsbank.com/>