Natalie Curtis Burlin: A Life in Native and African American Music

Natalie Curtis Burlin: A Life in Native and African American Music

Natalie Curtis Burlin: A Life in Native and African American Music

Natalie Curtis Burlin: A Life in Native and African American Music

Synopsis

Natalie Curtis Burlin (1876-1921) was born to a wealthy New York City family and initially trained for a career as a classical concert pianist. But in 1903, she left her family and training behind to study, collect, and popularize the music of American Indians in the Southwest and African Americans at the Hampton Institute in the belief that the music of these groups could help forge a distinctive American identity in a time of dramatic social change. Michelle Wick Patterson examines the life, work, and legacy of Curtis at the turn of the century. The influence of increased industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and shaken social mores motivated Curtis to emphasize Native and African American contributions to the antimodernist discourse of this period. Additionally, Curtis's work in the field and her actions with informants reflect the impact of the changing status of women in public life, marriage, and the professions as well as new ideas regarding race and culture. Many of the people who touched Curtis's life were among the intellectual, political, and artistic leaders of their time, including Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Lummis, Franz Boas, George Foster Peabody, and others. This well-researched and richly textured portrait of Curtis illuminates the life and contributions of an important early ethnomusicologist, meticulously portraying her within the social, intellectual, and political developments of the day.

Excerpt

In a paris cemetery on all SAINTS’ day in 1921, a small group of American and French artists and musicians joined the throngs of people marking the holiday to honor a recently deceased American woman they wanted to remember as saintly. the group met to honor Natalie Curtis, an amateur ethnomusicologist and writer on Native American and African American music who had died after being struck by an automobile after descending from a Paris streetcar. Her husband, the modernist painter Paul Burlin, described his sense of this gathering, a “strange indescribable feeling, hard to put into words.” As thousands “stood in reverence” in the cemetery, he recalled, “a sense of awe came over me, that we were following a saint!” Ideas of “sainthood” permeated the remainder of the memorial service. Alexandre Mercereau, a writer on art with an interest in “primitive” cultures, asked, “For in what does real saintliness consist if not in carrying without despair, throughout the long cavalry of life, the heavy cross of goodness, of perfection, of love.” Curtis had become a “permanent source of serenity amidst the terrible struggle of existence, of peace amidst the belligerent . . .

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