Category Archives: North America

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, August 27, 2019: The Stinson Banjo

John H. Buckbee (manufacturer). Banjo created for Charles P. Stinson. Late 19th century. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Clark and Sarah Case Family.

The Banjo at the Crossroads

The banjo is an instrument that sits at the crossroads of American culture. The legend of the crossroads is often framed in terms of a Faustian bargain—a site where deals are struck with powerful yet potentially malevolent forces. This fable’s best-known manifestation is set almost a hundred years ago when bluesman Robert Johnson is said to have visited a road-crossing in rural Mississippi to have his guitar tuned by a mysterious figure, usually thought to be the Devil. At the crossroads, Satan grants Johnson an otherworldly talent, and access to worldly pleasures, in exchange for selling his soul. Although the story was never related by Johnson himself it will forever be seen as a crucial part of his legend, where the crossroads’ perceived power as a liminal, transformative space, a space of both possibility and danger, resonates with audiences to this day.

This resonance may have something to do with how the origin story above aligns with the origin story of America—and how flexibly the crossroads narrative can be interpreted by different individuals and social groups. In Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition, Adam Gussow describes how the Devil-at-the-crossroads legend was born out of a collision between cultures, religious systems, and musical traditions not accorded equal status:

Some of the confusion on this [origin story] has to do with the way two different folklore streams, one from Europe (featuring the biblical devil, Satan) and one from Africa (featuring a pair of related crossroads trickster deities, Esu and Legba), seem to have fused on American soil, coalescing into a folktale that was well known in African American communities below the Mason-Dixon line. A Christian/Manichean worldview that understands the devil as the wholly evil antagonist who claims wayward souls doesn’t smoothly align with and subsume an African worldview that understands Esu and Legba as figures of constructive disorder who are also, when properly petitioned, teachers and guides.

In historical terms, much more than the guitar, the banjo is the best example of an instrument that’s forever been caught between colliding vectors of American culture—black and white, masculine and feminine, rural and urban, among others. The instrument served as a means of preserving and syncretizing various African aesthetics and belief systems among African-Americans, and also served as an emblem of cultural crossover and collaboration with Anglo-Americans; but equally, it was used as a tool of cultural exploitation, serving as an emblem of racist slander and stereotyping through its use in blackface minstrelsy in particular.
The following bibliographic sources deal with these overlapping currents in all their complexity—from the banjo’s seemingly inescapable linkage with slavery, to the near erasure of this linkage through white appropriations of and claims to the instrument, to the never-ending series of revivals and reclamations that navigate this rocky terrain—an instrument that perhaps more than any other tells the story of America, its potential and peril represented equally across a span of centuries. As always, the devil is in the details.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM. For more, see https://music.si.edu/.

Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, RILM

 

 

 

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Conway, Cecilia. “African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Conclusion.” In From Jubilee to Hip Hop: Readings in African American Music, edited by Kip Lornell, 15–22. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall Education, 2010.

The banjo has long signified at the crossroads of the South and today remains a symbol of the mountain musician. The 20th-century folk banjo tradition, indeed, has persisted most strongly among southern mountain whites who continue to play on homemade banjos. Importantly, this living tradition is the complex result of more than a century and a half of exchange between African Americans and others. But the early written records prove that, even a century before the exchange began, blacks had brought the banjo with them from Africa. With a homemade banjo, driving rhythms, and sliding notes, the distinctive aesthetic of African-American musicians shaped the playing styles and song forms of their identifiable repertory and influenced white musicians. Even though African Americans have played banjos for more than two centuries, researchers have located, interviewed, and recorded very few in this century. Thus, North Carolina musicians such as Dink Roberts, John Snipes, and Odell Thompson are historically crucial, for, like the African griots, they have been the “praise singers” and have carried on some of the most important aspects of traditional culture: genealogy, rites of passage, and healing. Their traditions and practices have provided a means for reaching beyond the written records to an understanding of a continuous strand of African-American musical culture, its impact upon white tradition, especially in the Southeast and in Appalachia, and its contribution to American folk music. (author)

 

Dubois, Laurent. The Banjo: America’s African Instrument. Cambridge: Belknap, 2016.

The banjo has been called by many names over its history, but they all refer to the same sound—strings humming over skin—that has eased souls and electrified crowds for centuries. This book invites us to hear that sound afresh in a biography of one of America’s iconic folk instruments. Attuned to a rich heritage spanning continents and cultures, the author traces the banjo from humble origins, revealing how it became one of the great stars of American musical life. In the 17th century, enslaved people in the Caribbean and North America drew on their memories of varied African musical traditions to construct instruments from carved-out gourds covered with animal skin. Providing a much-needed sense of rootedness, solidarity, and consolation, banjo picking became an essential part of black plantation life. White musicians took up the banjo in the 19th century, when it became the foundation of the minstrel show and began to be produced industrially on a large scale. Even as this instrument found its way into rural white communities, however, the banjo remained central to African American musical performance. Twentieth-century musicians incorporated the instrument into styles ranging from ragtime and jazz to Dixieland, bluegrass, reggae, and pop. Versatile and enduring, the banjo combines rhythm and melody into a single unmistakable sound that resonates with strength and purpose. From the earliest days of American history, the banjo’s sound has allowed folk musicians to create community and joy even while protesting oppression and injustice. (publisher)

 

Eacker, Susan A. and Geoff Eacker. “A Banjo On Her Knee. I: Appalachian Women and America’s First Instrument.” The Old-Time Herald: A Magazine Dedicated to Old-Time Music 8, no. 2 (winter 2002):http://www.oldtimeherald.org/archive/back_issues/volume-8/8-2/full-banjo-on-her-knee.html.

In an article titled “In Praise of Banjo-Picking Women” published over 10 years ago in the pages of The Old-Time Herald, Mike Seeger noted that in his fieldwork with “old-timers” in the Southern mountains, he had been told that their fathers and mothers played the banjo before the turn of the 20th century. Seeger went on to ask, “Why do we not have accounts of this—either visually or in the literature?” This article is a long overdue affirmation of Seeger’s findings and a response to his question. It was only after we began our research that we learned that most of these men had learned to play from a female relative. An extensive list includes such luminaries as Ralph Stanley, who learned to play clawhammer style from his mother, Lucy Smith. The fact that so many well-known old-time male musicians have been inspired and influenced by a female in the family should force us to rethink the ways in which banjo music in Appalachia has been promulgated and preserved. The evidence suggests that it was women who have historically kept old-time music—especially banjo and ballads—alive in the hills and hollers of the Southern mountains. The fact that 19th-century Appalachian women banjo players have remained invisible may be because mountain women and men were largely isolated and on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. As social historians can attest, the marginalized leave few records, which may help to answer Seeger’s question of why such accounts are hard to come by. What’s more, ballad collectors like Cecil Sharp were keen on establishing a Celtic connection between Appalachians and their Northern European ancestors. To this end they sought after unaccompanied ballads with British bloodlines. The banjo was not a link in their musical canon and mountain men and women were discouraged from playing this indigenous instrument, instead encouraged to pluck the dulcimer, erroneously thought to have come from Great Britain. (authors)

 

Eyre, Banning. “Banjo Adventure.” fRoots 31, no. 9 (March 2010): 29–31.

In 2005 Béla Fleck traveled around Africa with his banjo and recording gear, inserting the instrument into music from its point of origin. The trip resulted in a Grammy-winning album, Throw Down Your Heart: Africa Sessions(2008), and transformed Fleck’s philosophy of music-making. Fleck has also toured under the banner of the Africa Project, performing with a host of musicians he met in Africa. (Jason Lee Oakes)

 

Gussow, Adam. Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil & the Blues Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

The Devil is the most charismatic and important figure in the blues tradition. He’s not just the music’s namesake (“the devil’s music”), but a shadowy presence who haunts an imagined Mississippi crossroads where, it is claimed, Delta bluesman Robert Johnson traded away his soul in exchange for extraordinary prowess on the guitar. Yet, there is much more to the story of the Devil and the blues than these clichéd understandings—linked to culture, the struggle against racism, and the syncretization of European and African religions (especially in the Caribbean and in New Orleans). Thanks to original transcriptions of more than 125 recordings released during the past 90 years, the varied uses to which Black Southern blues people have put this trouble-sowing, love-wrecking, but also empowering figure are exposed. A bold reinterpretation of Johnson’s music and a provocative investigation of the way in which the citizens of Clarksdale, Mississippi, managed to rebrand a commercial hub as “the Crossroads” in 1999, claiming Johnson and the Devil as their own. (publisher)

 

John, Emma. “”White People Are So Fragile, Bless ‘Em”: Meet Rhiannon Giddens, Banjo Warrior.” The Guardian (July 23, 2018):https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jul/23/white-people-are-so-fragile-bless-em-rhiannon-giddens-banjo-warrior-cambridge-folk-festival.

A profile and interview with the banjo player, fiddle player, and formally-trained opera singer. On her most recent album, Freedom Highway, Rhiannon Giddens pours fire and fury into powerful songs that target everything from police shootings to slavery, the civil rights era, and Black Lives Matter. Musically, the album reveals the breadth of her musical influences—including soul, blues, gospel, jazz, and zydeco—building on and expanding out from Giddens’s work with her Grammy-award winning group, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. In an interview, the musician reveals all about her mission to put the black back in bluegrass (and Shakespeare). She also describes her investigation into the history of minstrelsy, hoping to reclaim a genre that has become associated, in both the US and the UK, with blackface performance: “When you look into the minstrel band in the US and you see banjo, fiddle, and tambourine, you might think they’re all ‘white’ instruments. But the banjo is from Africa, there are one-string fiddles all over the world, and the tambourine comes from frame drums that were brought up from north Africa through the Middle East and Italy. That’s world music right there. Musical and cultural ideas have been crossing over forever. My projects are all going towards the theme, ‘We’re more alike than we’re different’.” (author)

 

 

 

 

Marks, Ben. “Strummin’ on the Old Banjo: How an African Instrument Got a Racist Reinvention.” Collectors Weekly(October 4, 2016): https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/how-the-african-banjo-got-a-racist-reinvention.

“What’s the difference between a banjo and a lawnmower? You can tune a lawnmower.” “What’s the difference between a dead skunk in the middle of a road and a dead banjo player in the middle of a road? There are skid marks in front of the skunk.” There are entire websites devoted to such banjo jokes, and though they may produce casual chuckles today, these jokes are actually rooted in the racist put-downs that were once directed at black banjo players in America. The latest banjo revival arrives at a weirdly bipolar moment in Western cultural history. On the one hand, the five-string banjo has never been more popular. Winston Marshall of Mumford & Sons plays sold out concerts with a top-of-the-line Deering banjo strapped over his shoulder, as does Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers. On Broadway, Bright Star, which was co-written by the funniest banjo player alive, Steve Martin, enjoyed a spirited, if brief, run. At the same time, racism in the United States hasn’t been so naked in decades. What, you might ask, does racism have to do with the banjo, an instrument that for most people is no more controversial than the banjo-heavy theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies? Race is actually central to any conversation about banjos, or at least it should be. That’s what makes the banjo so relevant in 2016. This article traces the history of the banjo, and the ways the instrument became bound up with both African-American identity and with the country’s virulent history of racism. (author)

 

McCollough, Sean K. “Hear John Henry’s Hammer Ring: Moving Beyond Black and White Images of Appalachian Music.” In Kaleidoscope of Cultures: A Celebration of Multicultural Research and Practice, edited by Marvelene C. Moore and Philip Ewell, 93–99. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2010.

Sometimes I feel that I have been put on this earth to teach people one simple fact; the banjo is from Africa. Or, more accurately, the roots of the modern American banjo are traceable back through early African-American instruments to instruments from Africa. It is a simple fact about a well-known American artifact, so simple that it seems it would be common knowledge. But perhaps because the banjo is primarily associated with styles of music such as bluegrass, which are played by mostly white musicians, its origins have been shrouded from the American consciousness. In fact, I am constantly amazed as I teach college classes and travel to public schools across the heart of Appalachia how many students (and teachers!) are not aware of this fascinating and provocative piece of American history. In my work, I am often called upon to talk about the history of Appalachian music or to perform “traditional” music from the region. These seem simple enough tasks on the surface, but simply knowing about the banjo’s origins complicates things. When I pull out my banjo or mandolin, I am often met with comments such as, “I love bluegrass. It sounds just like Celtic music. Doesn’t it?” Well, yes and no. This article examines how this comment misses the mark in a number of ways. (author)

 

Murphy, Con. “Stone & Sissoko.” fRoots 31, no. 5–6 (November–December): 19.

A profile of the duo–Jayme Stone, Canadian banjo player, and Mansa Sissoko, Malian kora player. Their collaboration on the LP Africa to Appalachiais part of a recent movement returning the banjo to its assumed African source. The record brings together a series of updated West African melodies and occasional bluegrass standards. While it was released with little fanfare in early 2009, it has proven to be one of the year’s long-fuse albums, its subtle charms and subtle melodies creeping up and working their way into the imagination over the ensuing months. (author)

 

Shea, Andrea. “The Banjo’s Beauty, and its Cultural Baggage, is on Display in a New Digital Museum.” WBUR: The ARTery(April 17, 2019):https://www.wbur.org/artery/2019/04/17/banjo-project-digital-museum.

Marc Fields and his production team are inside historian and collector Jim Bollman’s storied Arlington home. Bollman sits patiently on a stool with his rare, pre-Civil War banjo balanced on his knee as they set up their shot. “This room has more banjo history packed per square inch than any place on earth,” Fields said. “It’s a place I came to when I first started this project and realized how much there is about the banjo which people don’t know about and which people should know about.” Fields said Bollman’s trove of 200-plus instruments, banjo-related artifacts, and cabinets of research provide a unique portal into America’s past. For more than 15 years, Fields has been on a quest to capture, share, and contextualize banjo history. Now his work is on display in a new museum. But you don’t need to leave the couch to visit because Fields’ archive-in-the-making, called The Banjo Project, is all online. The site celebrates the banjo’s beauty while tackling its cultural baggage. As ethnomusicologist Greg Adams puts it, “You can’t talk about the history of the banjo, if you can’t talk about racism, slavery, misogyny, appropriation, exploitation,” but the instrument has also been a tool for liberation, as scholar Rex Ellis of the National Museum of African American History and Culture points out. Examples of the latter include the careers of Gus Cannon, Lotta Crabtree, and Rhiannon Giddens. (author)

 

Winans, Robert B., ed. Banjo Roots and Branches. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018.

The story of the banjo’s journey from Africa to the Western hemisphere blends music, history, and a union of cultures. This anthology presents cutting-edge scholarship that covers the instrument’s West African origins and its adaptations and circulation in the Caribbean and United States. The contributors provide detailed ethnographic and technical research on gourd lutes and ekonting in Africa and the banza in Haiti, while also investigating tuning practices and regional playing styles. Other essays place the instrument within the context of slavery, tell the stories of black banjoists, and shed light on the banjo’s introduction into the African- and Anglo-American folk milieus. On the whole, a wealth of new information is offered to scholars of African American and folk musics as well as the worldwide community of banjo aficionados. (publisher)

 

Explore over 400 records on the banjo in RILM’s catalogue here.

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Filed under Black studies, Curiosities, Instruments, North America

A song to save the Salish Sea

 

On the coast of Washington and British Columbia sit the misty forests and towering mountains of Cascadia. With archipelagos surrounding its shores and tidal surges of the Salish Sea trundling through the interior, this bioregion has long attracted loggers, fishing fleets, and land developers, each generation seeking successively harder to reach resources as old-growth stands, salmon stocks, and other natural endowments are depleted.

Alongside encroaching developers and industrialists is the presence of a rich environmental movement that has historically built community through musical activism. From the WobbliesLittle red songbook (1909) to Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River collection (1941) on through to the Raging Grannies’ formation in 1987, Cascadia’s ecology has inspired legions of songwriters and musicians to advocate for preservation through music.

The divergent strategies—musical, organizational, and technological—used by each musician and group to reach different audiences and to mobilize action suggest directions for applied ecomusicology at the community level.

This according to A song to save the Salish Sea: Musical performance as environmental activism by Mark Pedelty (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016).

Above, an orca breaches in the Salish Sea, with Mount Baker in the background; below, Idle no More, one of the groups discussed in the book, at the River People Festival in 2014.

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Filed under Nature, North America, Popular music

Lead Belly and the folklorists

When Michael Taft of the American Folklife Center received a call asking if the Center would be interested in an old Lead Belly disc, it seemed impossible that there could be one that wasn’t already in their collection; but when Taft asked what was printed on the label and heard “Presto” he was intrigued. Presto was not a record company—it was a brand of recording blank that the Library of Congress had used for field recordings in the 1930s and 1940s.

The disc included a song never heard elsewhere, and it provided the key for identifying the recording session. Titled Todd blues, the song was an improvisation that referred to “Mister Todd” and “Mister Sonkin”—Charles Todd (left) and Robert Sonkin (below left), who collaborated on several field recording trips for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and 1940s.

This blues took the form of a humorous lament on the departure of one of the partners: “Mister Todd went away, Lord, just after Christmas Day/He’s going to California…Mister Sonkin sitting here with his head hung down.” These lines clearly place the recording on 20 January 1942, when the pair recorded Lead Belly in New York City, shortly before Todd left for a new job in California.

This according to “A new old recording by Huddie Ledbetter” by Michael Taft (Folklife Center news XXIX/3 [summer 2007] pp. 13–15).

Today is Lead Belly’s 130th birthday! Below, Pete Seeger recalls meeting and performing with the great singer-songwriter.

 

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, Humor, Jazz and blues, North America

John Hartford’s mammoth collection of fiddle tunes

 

John Hartford’s mammoth collection of fiddle tunes (Franklin, TN: StuffWorks, 2018) comprises 176 of Hartford’s original compositions. Most of these tunes are previously unpublished and unrecorded, taken from Hartford’s personal music journals.

Compiled and narrated by the fiddler Matt Combs, John’s daughter Katie Harford Hogue, and the musicologist Greg Reish, the book illuminates Hartford’s creative process through original tune compositions, his own reflections on the fiddle, and interviews with family and fellow musicians.

The volume includes more than 60 of Hartford’s personal drawings—ranging in theme from steamboats and the river, to fellow musicians, home and everyday life—as well as several never-before-seen photographs.

Above, a page from the book: Hartford’s Annual waltz as part of a holiday card and invitation to his 1980 wedding; below, the composer performs the song and tune.

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American popular music

In 2017 the University of Oklahoma Press launched the series American popular music to explore the evolution of folk, blues, gospel, country, rock, jazz, and soul by looking at the ways music relates to the land and people. The primary focus is on music identified with Oklahoma, Texas, and surrounding regions, following regional influences to the farthest extent of their reach.

Of particular interest are individual artists and how they express their ties to land and people uniquely and collectively. This series therefore considers the role that music plays in the lives of artists and the communities that identify with them, and demonstrates how the business of music has shaped their careers and legacies.

The inaugural volume, Sing me back home: Southern roots and country music by Bill C. Malone, presents the story of the author’s working-class upbringing in rural East Texas, recounting how in 1939 his family’s first radio, a battery-powered Philco, introduced him to hillbilly music and how, years later, he went on to become a scholar on the subject before the field formally existed. The book draws on a hundred years of southern roots music history, exploring the intricate relationships between black and white music styles, gospel and secular traditions, and pop, folk, and country music.

Below, Joe Thompson, one of the musicians discussed in the book.

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Filed under New series, North America, Popular music

Ben Stonehill, zamler

 

Born in 1906 in Poland, Ben Stonehill (Steinberg) immigrated with his large family to Rochester, New York, while still a young child; in 1929 he moved to New York City, where he eventually became proprietor of a small floor-servicing business.

A fluent Yiddish speaker who cherished his cultural heritage, Stonehill was also a devoted zamler, a collector of folklore. In 1948 he learned of a major gathering point for new refugees: the Hotel Marseilles in upper Manhattan.

Lacking recording equipment but determined to pursue his mission, Stonehill took a sales job at a local wire-recorder dealership and emerged from the showroom with a salesman’s demonstration model. Nearly every weekend that summer he hauled this machine by subway from his home in Queens to the Hotel Marseilles to record songs and stories from the hundreds of survivors he encountered in the hotel lobby.

Stonehill documented an unparalleled cross-section of music then current among Jewish displaced persons (DPs), from traditional Hasidic nigunim to prewar folk and popular songs in Polish, Yiddish, and Russian; from Soviet propagandist ballads to Zionist pioneer anthems; from songs recalled from ghettos and camps to lyrics relating the experiences of recent DPs. His inventory eventually listed 1054 separate titles.

In 1964 Stonehill realized a long-held dream by delivering a lecture on folksong at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. The following year, terminally ill, he abandoned his book-in-progress and bequeathed his recordings (by then copied to magnetic tape) to YIVO, the Library of Congress, and other collecting institutions. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum acquired a set from the Library of Congress in 2005.

This according to Ben Stonehill (2008), part of the Holocaust Museum’s series Music of the Holocaust.

Above, Stonehill around the time he began his recording project. One of his recordings can be heard here; a Library of Congress presentation about his life and work is here.

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, North America

The Old-Time Herald turns 30

October 2017 marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of The old-time herald!

Since the fall of 1987, when Alice Gerrard created, laid out, and hand-mailed the first issue, the magazine’s articles and interviews, news and reviews, festival guides, and discussions have become part of the glue that holds the old-time music community together.

Above, a cover from 1990; below, Ms. Gerrard performs in 2014.

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Square dance and cultural politics

In 1988 the U.S. Congress convened four panels of witnesses for and against proposed legislation that would designate square dance as the National American Folk Dance.

Leaders of the nationwide network of recreational clubs that perform what is generally referred to as modem Western square dance campaigned for the bill’s passage, presenting numerous petitions with thousands of signatures gathered from their membership; opponents included recognized African American, Hispanic American, and Native American dance performers, as well as professional folklorists and one square dance caller not affiliated with the sponsoring organizations.

Proponents of the legislation cited the historical depth of square dance in the U.S.—“This form of dance alone can claim a development from the earliest days of our nation, through expansion of our population across the land”—and cited the genre’s association with “old-fashioned values” rooted in the “melting-pot of the dances which our ancestors brought with them when they settled in this nation.”

Witnesses for the opposition noted the absence of people of color from this picture, and generally argued against the whole idea of designating a national dance—“I can’t see how any one dance could be singled out as our National Folk Dance when we are a pluralistic society, a land of geographic, racial, cultural, and religious differences,” testified a representative of the Makah people. “I believe choosing one, any one, would give birth to feelings of resentment and animosity.”

Although the bill was defeated, similar debates continue to this day.

This according to “Reflections on the hearing to designate the square dance as the American folk dance of the United States: Cultural politics and an American vernacular dance form” by Colin Quigley (Yearbook for traditional music XXXIII [2001] pp. 145–57). Below, Bob Dalsemer, the one square dance caller who testified for the opposition.

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Filed under Dance, North America, Politics

Frances Densmore’s legacy

In Frances Densmore’s broad sweep through Native American communities, practicing what is now considered salvage anthropology, she worked with more Native American cultures than any anthropologist of her time.

After Densmore’s passing in 1957, others found it difficult to assess the results of her decades of work or to fit them into histories of various types. She had participated actively in communities of musicologists, anthropologists, and other professional women, as well as with Native communities as she pursued her social science. These communities were historically imbricated.

Densmore saw her work as the single focus of a lifetime. That work, over time, became but one part of a larger cultural context within which musicologists and anthropologists as a whole, as well as women anthropologists in particular and Native American writers, examined her work.

This according to “Gone but not quite forgotten” by Joan M. Jensen, an essay included in Travels with Frances Densmore: Her life, work, and legacy in Native American studies (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015, pp. 242–83).

Today is Densmore’s 150th birthday! Above, with Susan Windgrow (Maka Waste’ Win/Good Earth Woman), ca. 1930; below, Sitting Bull’s favorite song, recorded by Densmore from a man who had learned it by hearing it sung repeatedly by Sitting Bull himself.

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Harry Smith’s grand collage

The power of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American folk music, which turns 65 this year, lies squarely in its use of collage.

Smith’s decisions in sequencing and juxtaposing the 84 songs encouraged a play of sounds and lyrical content that calls attention to similarities and differences, opening multiple meanings and allowing for many possible interpretations.

By privileging collage over narrative, Smith created a complex and nuanced work of social commentary. Through collage, the Anthology captures the ongoing negotiation of the various voices—past and present, black and white—taking part in the reconstruction of U.S. history. These voices remain audible today.

This according to “Collage, politics, and narrative approaches to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American folk music” by Dan Blim, an essay included in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American folk music: America changed through music (Abington: Routledge, 2017, pp. 82–99).

Above, Smith ca. 1965; below, selections from volume II of the six-volume set.

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