Sunday, January 3, 2016

Margaret Densmore, Listening But Not Learning Enough

Edward Curtis is famous in the history of photography for capturing images, like the one at right, of Native Americans as they looked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Frances Densmore, a Minnesota music teacher, is less famous for capturing the music of many tribes around the country.

Densmore, who was funded partly by the Smithsonian, which still houses the recordings, started her life's work just after the new century began and continued until after 1950. She grew up in Red Wing, Minn., where she could hear the drumming and singing of the nearby Dakota. She later wrote, "If my mother had told me that Indians were savages, I might have been afraid to go to sleep. Instead I was told they were people with different customs from our own and there was no fear in my mind. I fell asleep night after night to the throb of the Indian drum."

Densmore was the subject of an American Radio Works documentary from the 1990s, which can be heard here. Stephen Smith of ARW said that despite her many years of close work with native people, she still held an attitude toward them that seems hard to fathom:
When Indians failed to dissolve into the American melting pot as she predicted, Densmore’s sympathy hardened, Smith said. During her decades of research, she said: “I never let them criticize the government nor the white race, nor come across with any sob-stuff about the way they had been treated, as a race.”
More evidence that it's hard for humans to hear anything but what they want to hear, even when they can listen to the music.

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