The Woman with the Gramophone

Save Our Sounds Postcard, Photo Courtesy of National Anthropological Archives

For the last few years, I’ve had this postcard up in my office promoting Save Our Sounds, a program by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH) and the Library of Congress dedicated to restoring, preserving, and digitizing historic recordings.  What a wild image! How did this woman from the 1800s end up in the field recording this imposing figure with a gramophone? It blew away my stereotype of sound engineers as aloof techies.

Well, I finally met her, Frances Densmore, in the Women in Science Flickr Commons set, originally from the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA).  Lo and behold, her image matches her character.

Album Cover Courtesy Smithsonian Folkways, Album Design by Ronald Clyne, Photo by Frances Densmore

Her 50-year career studying and preserving American Indian music was motivated by a desire to combat American Indian stereotypes, “There is danger that the future will form its opinions of Indians from the sentimental movies and the theater music… Neither the “love lyric” nor theater tom-tom music are genuinely Indian, in the best sense.” So, she went out in the field to record genuine songs which you can hear a sample of on the CFCH Smithsonian Folkways website. Learn more about her on SIA’s website.

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