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.
Charles Samuel Myers, CBE (1873–1946), who coined the term shell shock during World War I, was among the psychologists whose work fed into comparative musicology and, later, ethnomusicology. He joined an anthropological expedition to the Torres Strait and Sarawak in 1898, and his studies of musical traditions in those places resulted in several articles.
“The ethnological study of music” presents a glimpse of how psychologists viewed ethnic music around the turn of the century. In this essay, Myers points out that unfamiliar music may seem as disorderly and meaningless as unfamiliar language, but in both cases sufficient study and habituation reveal inherent order and meaning. All music serves an expressive function, he states, and universal elements such as rhythm, harmony, scale, and tonal center may serve as bases for cross-cultural comparisons.
Myers goes on to argue that the documentation and study of non-Western musics is an urgent matter, as traditions are already becoming polluted by outside sources. Fortunately, he notes, the advent of sound recording has greatly facilitated this enterprise, making it unnecessary for the ethnographer to transcribe performances during fieldwork. Myers ends with step-by-step instructions and procedural recommendations for making field recordings with the Edison-Bell phonograph (above).
Numerous examples of the Freudian concept of repression may be observed in black cultures in Africa and the Americas. Though they do not use the Western term, these cultures involve a full awareness of repression and its attendant dangers for individuals and society, and they have developed therapeutic activities to mitigate it.
This according to the 1934 essay “Freudian mechanisms in primitive Negro psychology” by Melville J. Herskovits, which was included in Essays presented to C.G. Seligman (London: Kegan Paul International). While the word primitive has since been discredited, the piece is a milestone in the history of anthropology and is considered the first successful application of psychoanalytic theory in that field.
Herskovits explores how in many cases these therapeutic activities comprise satirical or insulting singing events that express what cannot be spoken directly, providing a release of repressed feelings in a socially supported framework. He discusses examples from Benin, Haiti, and Suriname, with particular attention to the Suriname Maroon lóbi singi ritual.
Usually performed by women, lóbi singi may comprise an exchange of insulting song verses, or it may involve a woman who socially redeems herself through singing satirical verses about her notorious past in alternation with a chorus of her peers; in both cases, social wounds are healed by the expression of repressed feelings.
This post is part of our series celebrating Black History Month. Throughout February we will be posting about resources and landmark writings in black studies. Click here or on the Black studies category on the right to see a continuously updated page of links to all of our posts in this category.
Top: In 1929, Herskovits contemplates ritual objects that he collected in Suriname.
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