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Frances Densmore
(1867 – 1957)

Frances Densmore

Frances Densmore devoted over fifty years of her life to the study and preservation of American Indian music. In collaboration with the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, she amassed a collection of thousands of song recordings, including twenty-four hundred transcribed songs.(1) For many years, these were housed as the Smithsonian-Densmore collection of Indian sound recordings at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and then later transferred to the Library of Congress.(2) She also aided in the collection of musical instruments associated with the songs. A prolific writer, Densmore published frequently on the topic of Indian music, mainly through scholarly channels. She also expressed an interest in changing public perceptions of American Indians and their music. To that end, she sought to distribute her work to popular publications, and Science Service played an important role in that effort.(3)

Record Unit 7091 in the Smithsonian Institution Archives contains extensive material related to Densmore, who corresponded regularly with Emily C. Davis, Science Service’s staff writer for anthropology and archaeology. In her letters, Densmore described her most recent field trips and findings, sometimes including manuscripts. Davis also wrote news pieces or reviews about Densmore’s work, or cited Densmore’s research on music and native culture.(4)

Densmore aspired to prevent the misrepresentation of Indian music in the media and the underrepresentation of true Indian music in scientific inquiry, and she suggested that the two were linked. She wrote to Davis, “There is danger that the future will form its opinions of Indians from the sentimental movies and the theater music when the Indian is seen through the bushes. Neither the “love lyric” nor theater tom-tom music are genuinely Indian, in the best sense.”(5)

As Densmore experienced difficulty in finding funding and publishing outlets for her work, she sometimes attributed this failure to society's lack of appreciation for music as a focus of study: “I can never understand why material objects are regarded so very seriously while Indian music—the highest type of culture—has had to struggle so hard for more than an indulgent recognition. Expeditions are financed, apparently with ease, to dig up ground on the chance that something significant may be unearthed, but it is very much otherwise with my work.”(6) Indeed, relative to music, the physical objects unearthed by archaeologists received much more attention at the time in the news.

Luckily, Densmore’s relationship with the Smithsonian Institution enabled her to work, collect, preserve, and publish extensively. Over a lifetime, Densmore visited the Chippewa, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Papago, Pawnee, Seminole, Sioux, Maidus, Pueblo, and many other tribal groups. In addition to the collections of songs and instruments, she produced over twenty monographs and numerous reports for public and professional journals.

While Science Service sometimes decided that Densmore’s work was not properly formatted for a news story, or lay outside the scope of Science News Letter, Davis and other staff members continually offered editorial suggestions. Densmore in turn provided feedback on Davis’s own work, particularly for the book, Ancient Americans.(7)

Science Service staff also attempted to place Densmore’s material with other publishers, a courtesy that they offered to many scientists and writers. One such project was a series of stories meant to teach children about "the music of the American Indian." Both the organization's director in the 1920s, E. E. Slosson, and his successor, Watson Davis, offered Densmore advice about how to tailor her material for public audiences.(8)

Densmore frequently expressed the belief that research about Indian music could be used to combat stereotypes and misconceptions in the broader American public. Her projects for children were motivated by this goal. “I am deeply impressed by the incorrect information about Indians which is used in schools," she wrote.(9) Densmore also was convinced that her work on music had application beyond the schoolroom: “I cannot help thinking the Indian music can be used.” Documented cases of healing associated with Indian music, she hoped, might work to make it appear more “natural to experiment with adaptations of Indian music in psychopathic hospitals.”(10) As she explained, “research work is only worth while when its results are transmitted to others”— a sure sign that she was a kindred spirit of Science Service.(11)

* * *

Those interested in Densmore’s affiliation with the Bureau of American Ethnology, her comments about particular fieldwork and scholarly issues in her field, or attempts in the 1930s to obtain funds for projects in the arts under the New Deal will find related material on these topics in Record Unit 7091.


(1) Accession 90-105, Box 4, Folder titled "Portraits – Densmore, Frances," Smithsonian Institution news release, May 21, 1957.

(2) Record Unit 7091, Box 258, Folder 1, letter dated November 6, 1943, from Frances Densmore to Watson Davis. See also Accession 90-105, Box 4, Folder titled "Portraits – Densmore, Frances," Smithsonian Institution news release, May 21, 1957.

(3) See Record Unit 7091, Box 295, Folder 4, letter dated February 14, 1950, from Frances Densmore to Science Service; see other 1947 correspondence in Record Unit 7091, Box 288, Folder 1.

(4) Record Unit 7091, Box 84, Folder 6, various correspondence ca. 1927 between Emily C. Davis and Frances Densmore.

(5) Record Unit 7091, Box 94, Folder 5, letter dated February 8, 1927, from Frances Densmore to Emily C. Davis.

(6) Record Unit 7091, Box 183, Folder 14, letter dated June 26, 1937, from Frances Densmore to Emily C. Davis.

(7) Record Unit 7091, Box 126, Folder 2, various correspondence dated 1931 between Emily C. Davis and Frances Densmore. Also see Emily C. Davis, Ancient Americans: The Archaeological Story of Two Continents (New York: Henry Holt, 1931).

(8) Record Unit 7091, Box 17, Folder 1, various correspondence dated 1923; for 1943 correspondence about a similar venture, see Record Unit 7091, Box 153, Folder 9.

(9) Record Unit 7091, Box 39, Folder 4, letter dated September 20, 1929, from Frances Densmore to E.E. Slosson.

(10) Record Unit 7091, Box 94, Folder 5, letter dated October 9, 1926, from Frances Densmore to Emily C. Davis.

(11) Record Unit 7091, Box 94, Folder 5, letter ca. 1927, from Frances Densmore to Emily C. Davis.

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