Support American RadioWorks with your purchases
  • News/Talk
  • Music
  • Entertainment
Song Catcher: Life Story
Densmore's Work Style

DENSMORE FREQUENTLY HAD TO COAX her Indian informants into performing for her phonograph horn. Some of the old, traditional men insisted it was better that their songs die with them than to disclose them for any gift less honorable than a horse. Densmore thought 25 cents sufficient.

Some Indians expressed deep foreboding that--by telling a white person about sacred rites, or by giving away personal songs and sacred objects-the owner would get punished by the spirits.1

One Lakota man, Chased-by-Bears, gave Densmore the sacred stone he carried with him. He hoped his grandchildren, and the white race, would understand old Indian ways better if his stone were kept safely in Washington. A few weeks later, Chased-by-Bears fell paralyzed by stroke. Densmore admitted to no misgivings about this chain of events:

In conversation with those who were considered authorities on the subject it was said he "should have known better than to sell a stone when he had only one."2

When Densmore interviewed Lakota elders about the sacred Sun Dance, some were profoundly reluctant to speak. Densmore told an audience of anthropologists that two of her informants soon died. "It seems as though they waited to tell me about it and then went away," she said. On some occasions, she would set the phonograph going before the subject realized, capturing an opening prayer the Indian might not have agreed to record. For Frances Densmore, securing the music in wax took priority.3

Yet Densmore clearly possessed a genuine respect for traditional cultures. She consulted closely with her informants to verify the accuracy of her notes and interpretations. And she recognized that a White American could not understand "what scenes of departed glory, what dignity and pride of race" the old men felt as they recalled their lives and traditions.4

1. "The Study of Indian Music," in Musical Quarterly, April 1915, 187-197.
2. Teton Sioux Music, 212-213.
3. Lecture on the Sioux Sun Dance, Anthropological Society of Washington, April 1913, 1944 typescript from original notes. NAA; Teton Sioux Music, 95.
4. Teton Sioux Music, 92.

Song Catcher