From the 1890s through the 1950s, Frances Densmore researched and recorded the music of American Indians. Through more than twenty books, 200 articles, and some 2,500 Graphophone recordings, she preserved important cultural traditions that might otherwise have been lost. She received honors from Macalester College in St. Paul and the Minnesota Historical Society in the last years of her life.
Densmore came from a successful middle-class family with New York roots that moved west with the growth of America. She was born in Red Wing on May 21, 1867, to Benjamin and Sarah Greenland Densmore. Her father, a civil engineer by training, and his brother Daniel had started Red Wing Iron Works the year before Frances’s birth.
The Densmore family believed in education and wished their daughters to be self-reliant. They supported Frances as she furthered her musical education at the Oberlin (Ohio) Conservatory of Music. The Densmores also acted on their beliefs of tolerance towards others. Both Benjamin and Daniel volunteered during the Civil War to serve as officers with U.S. “Colored” (African American) troops.
The Densmores’ Red Wing home faced the Mississippi River and Trenton Island, next to the Wisconsin shore. The family could see campfires of eastern Dakota hunting parties on the Island and hear their drums. That intrigued the young Densmore. She later heard American Indian and Filipino music when she visited the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. That same year, she read A Study of Omaha Indian Music by Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1838–1923). Densmore contacted Fletcher, an ethnologist whose work had drawn praise.
Encouraged by Fletcher, Densmore began her own studies. In December 1895, she spoke about American Indian music to the Schubert Club of St. Paul. As part of the presentation, she played Omaha music on the piano while a club member sang. Densmore would make similar presentations over the next decade.
In 1905, Densmore decided to conduct her own field studies. She enlisted her younger sister, Margaret, to assist her. They traveled to Grand Marais and Grand Portage on Lake Superior’s north shore. The Densmores made contact with some Anishnaabe (Ojibwe). Frances explained her interest in their music and, after a lengthy conversation, the men agreed to share their songs.
Her work soon earned the respect of Frederick W. Hodge, editor of the Smithsonian-backed American Anthropologist. Hodge published one of Densmore’s articles. He would help get funding for her American Indian music studies.
In 1907, the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) paid Densmore $350 to record Ojibwe songs. The BAE later published more than a dozen of her studies on various American Indian tribes. Fieldwork, writing, and lecturing kept the Red Wing researcher busy, and her reputation as an ethnomusicologist grew. The BAE increased its support. Densmore earned as much as $3,000 per year, enough for a comfortable lifestyle.
Margaret quit her job as a teacher and became Frances’ full-time assistant. The two lived together in Red Wing, where Margaret proved a valued aide and consultant.
The sisters survived the loss of Frances’s BAE business arrangement in April 1933, when America’s Great Depression brought hard times. Densmore spent long hours organizing her considerable notes and records on American Indian music and customs. The sisters owned the family house and some securities upon which to live, while Frances earned a modest income from grants and lecturing.
Margaret Densmore died in 1947. The steadfast Frances labored on in Red Wing. She had written and published more than twenty books and 200 articles based on her wide-ranging research. She also preserved some 2,500 Graphophone recordings of American Indian music. She donated her records to the National Archives and the Minnesota Historical Society.
Densmore received accolades for her work late in her long life. St. Paul’s Macalester College awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1950. The Minnesota Historical Society presented her with its first “citation for distinguished service in the field of Minnesota History” in October 1954.
Angell, Madeline. Red Wing: Saga of a River Town. Minneapolis: Dillon Press. 1977.
Archabal, Nina Marchetti. “Frances Densmore: Pioneer in the Study of American Indian Music.” In Women of Minnesota: Selected Biographical Essays, edited by. Barbara Stuhler and Gretchen Kreuter, 94-115 St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1998.
Biederman, Mary. “Dr. Frances Densmore, 1867–1957.” Goodhue County Historical News 27 (November 1971): 1–2, 3.
Curtiss-Wedge, Franklyn. History of Goodhue County, Minnesota. Chicago: H.C. Cooper & Son, 1909.
Densmore, Frances. The American Indians and Their Music. New York: The Woman’s Press, 1936.
——.“The Dakota and Ojibwe People in Minnesota.” Roots 5 (Winter/Spring 1977).
——.“Prelude to the Study of Indian Music.” Minnesota Archaeologist 11 (April 1945).
Densmore Papers. Collections of the Goodhue County Historical Society, Red Wing, Minnesota.
Frances Densmore Papers, 1926–1939.
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Essays, addresses, and articles prepared by Densmore, and discussion regarding Dakota and Ojibwe music.
Jensen, Joan M. “Frances Densmore Gets the Depression Blues.” Minnesota History 62, no. 6 (Summer 2011): 216–227.
Johnson, Frederick L. Goodhue County, Minnesota: A Narrative History. Red Wing, MN: Goodhue County Historical Society, 2000.
——Uncertain Lives: African Americans and Their First 150 Years in the Red Wing, Minnesota Area. Red Wing, MN: Goodhue County Historical Society, 2005.
“News of the Society.” Minnesota History 34 (Winter 1954): 176.
Hofmann, Charles, ed. Frances Densmore and American Indian Music: a Memorial Volume. New York: Museum of the American Indian, 1968.
"Miss Densmore and Indian Music (reprinted from the Washington Star)," in Music News 8 (July 14, 1916): 14-15.
Rasmussen, C[hristian] A. A History of the City of Red Wing, Minnesota. Red Wing, MN: Privately published, 1934.
Wahlin, Mary Lee. “Red Wing Woman Given Further Recognition for Life Work in Indian Music.” Red Wing Republican Eagle, March 5, 1956.
Petersen, Karen Daniels. “Papers Relating to Frances Densmore.”
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Biographical and professional information on Frances Densmore (1867-1957), a Red Wing native and authority on American Indian music, contained in materials compiled by Karen Daniels Petersen, a Minnesota researcher and writer on American Indians who was acquainted with Densmore.
In 1893, Frances Densmore, a Red Wing native educated at Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory, reads a study of American Indian music by ethnologist Alice Fletcher. That work leads her to confer with Fletcher and embark on a lifetime of recording and writing about the music and customs of American Indians.