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RG 30/156 - Frances Theresa Densmore (1867-1957)
Biography/Administrative History

Ethnomusicologist Frances Theresa Densmore was born on May 21, 1867 in Red Wing, Minnesota to Benjamin and Sarah (Greenland) Densmore. Her first exposure to the music she would later study was the distant singing of the Sioux tribe she heard as a child. From 1884 to 1887, she studied at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. After leaving Oberlin, she taught piano in St. Paul, Minnesota until 1889, when she moved to Boston for private lessons with composers Carl Baerman and John Knowles Paine (1839-1906) at Harvard University. During the year 1898, she studied with Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938) in Chicago. In 1924, Oberlin College awarded Densmore the honorary M. A. degree, and in 1950, Macalester College in St. Paul conferred upon her the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters. In 1954, she was awarded a citation for distinguished service by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Densmore's professional interest in the music of Native Americans dates from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. In 1905, she made her first visit to the Minnesota tribes, to a Chippewa village near the Canadian border, publishing her observations in the American Anthropologist (April-June 1907). In 1907, she began to record Indian music and successfully petitioned the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology for financial assistance. Thus began her fifty-year association with the Bureau, which paid her a yearly stipend and gave her the title of Collaborator.

During her years of service to the Smithsonian Institution, Densmore traveled throughout the country to remote Indian reservations and villages where she recorded on wax cylinders nearly 2,500 songs of the Sioux, Yuma, Cocopa, Yaqui, Pawnee, Northern Ute, and various other tribes whose culture already threatened disappearance. In all, she recorded the songs of some thirty Indian tribes. The entire collection was eventually transferred from wax cylinders to long-playing discs and named the Smithsonian-Densmore Collection of Indian Song Recordings. In addition to recordings, Densmore also collected hundreds of musical instruments, which are housed in the Smithsonian's museums.

Densmore's numerous monographs on Indian music were issued in a series of publications of the Smithsonian's Bureau of American Ethnology. The most important of these are Chippewa Music (1910), Chippewa Music--II (1913), and Teton Sioux Music (1918). Her other publications include The American Indians and Their Music (New York: The Woman's Press, 1936) and Cheyenne and Arapaho Music (Los Angeles: Southwest Museum, 1936).

Miss Densmore died on June 5, 1957 at the age of 90 in Red Wing, Minnesota.

Sources Consulted
Notable American Women: the Modern Period (Cambridge: the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980).
Student File of Frances Densmore (28).
Oberlin College Seal -