Densmore, Frances (1867–1957)

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Densmore, Frances (1867–1957)

American who was pioneer in the study of Native American music and a founder of the field of ethno-musicology. Born Frances Theresa Densmore in Red Wing, Minnesota, on May 21, 1867; died in Red Wing, Minnesota, on June 5, 1957; daughter of Benjamin (a civil engineer) and Sarah (Greenland) Dens-more; attended Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

When Frances Densmore was growing up in Red Wing, Minnesota, she often heard the distant singing of the Sioux, an experience that would eventually shape her life's work. Frances was the oldest of two daughters in a prominent, well-to-do family; her grandfather was a judge and amateur scientist, and her father was a civil engineer. As a child, Densmore was given music lessons for which she showed an unusual aptitude. She began at home with keyboard and harmonic studies and, by age 17, journeyed to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music to continue her studies. From 1889 to 1890, Densmore took private instruction in Boston. For the next few years, she trained a boys' choir, lectured and published on musical topics, taught piano, and served as a church organist.

The turning point in Densmore's life came in 1893. Like thousands of Americans, she attended the Chicago World's Fair, which featured Native American song and dance. She was fascinated by the performances that took her back to her childhood. That same year, she read Alice Cunningham Fletcher 's book, A Study of Omaha Music. She contacted Fletcher who encouraged her interest in Native American music.

Densmore's interests were highly unusual in her day. In the late 19th century, American Indians were still considered savages; many had been annihilated and most of the remaining numbers had been relocated on Indian reservations. Few whites considered their traditions important or meaningful. With no guidelines existing for her study, Densmore had to create them as she went along. In 1905, she made her first field trip to a Chippewa (Ojibwa) village near the Canadian border with her sister Margaret Densmore , and one of the Native Americans, Little Spruce , enacted a private religious ceremony for her. A year later, two Sioux women dictated songs that Densmore transcribed. She began to publish her observations, her first article appearing in the April–June 1907 issue of the American Anthropologist.

Densmore soon realized transcriptions alone could not fully convey the spirit of the music and so turned to a new technology, wax cylinders. These turn-of-the-century devices were forerunners of phonograph records. Although crude by modern standards, wax cylinders did a creditable job of recording the human voice. Densmore would make nearly 2,500 wax cylinder recordings, a collection that remains one of the world's largest.

When she realized the enormity of the project, Densmore applied to the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution for assistance; she was urged to record the oldest singers before they died, so that their tradition would not die with them. In 1907, receiving a grant of $150, she purchased an Edison Home phonograph. This would be the first of many grants to follow in the next 50 years. She began working tirelessly among the Chippewa. By the time Chippewa Music—II (Bulletin 53) was published in 1913, Densmore had studied Teton Sioux music and had begun collecting Mandan and Hidatsa songs from North Dakota. Over her long career, she would collect songs from more than 30 tribes.

Not only was her interest in Native American music ahead of her time, but the research methods for a study such as hers demanded highly unorthodox practices for a woman of the period. The work was physically exacting and Densmore lived in the wilderness. In an era before transistors, she had to lug heavy recording equipment. Wherever she went, she had to set up a recording studio, sometimes in a coal shed full of mice, a vacant jail cell, or any available shack. Often tribes were inaccessible by car, necessitating travel by boat or canoe. As technology improved, Densmore adopted it. She returned to record the same Omaha singers who had been recorded 50 years earlier to determine if their songs had changed. In addition to documenting the songs and musical instruments used, Dens-more recorded information about the singers, their costumes, and the ceremonies performed.

Frances Densmore worked into her late 80s before dying at age 90. As the 20th century progressed, there was increasing respect for Native Americans, and the importance of her pioneering effort became more and more apparent. Recognizing that her work would not be the final interpretation, Densmore said, "Other students, scanning the material, may reach other conclusions. My work has been to preserve the past, record observations in the present, and open the way for the work of others in the future."


Frisbie, Charlotte J. "Frances Theresa Densmore (1867–1957)," in Women Anthropologists: A Biographical Dictionary. Edited by Ute Gacs, et al. NY: Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 51–58.

Hoffman, Charles, ed. Frances Densmore and American Indian Music. Vol. XXIII. Heye Foundation, 1968.

Lurie, Nancy Oestreich. "Women in Early American Anthropology," in Pioneers of American Anthropology: The Uses of Biography. Edited by June Helm MacNeish. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1966, pp. 29–81.

Schusky, Ernest L. "Densmore, Frances," in Dictionary of American Biography. Edited by John A. Garraty. Supplement 6, 1956–1960. NY: Scribner, 1980, pp. 161–163.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia