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Natalie Curtis Burlin

A Life in Native and African American Music

Michelle Wick Patterson

Publication Year: 2010

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.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press


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Title Page

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p. iii

Copyright Page

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pp. 5-7

Table of Contents

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p. vii

List of Illustrations

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p. ix

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pp. xi-xiv

I would like to thank the many people who deserve credit for their invaluable assistance and support during the writing of this book. My work here grew out of my dissertation research at Purdue University, and I would first like to thank the members of my committee. Donald L. Parman serves as a model scholar for me, and I deeply ...

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Introduction: Why Remember Natalie Curtis?

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pp. 1-13

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...

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1. An "Atmosphere of Culture and High Purpose": Family Influences in a Changing America

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pp. 15-35

Natalie Curtis, an “attractive and amiable child with large frank blue eyes, pink cheeks and golden hair,” was born in New York City on April 26, 1876, the fourth of six children of Edward and Augusta Curtis.1 Natalie and her siblings, Julia, Constance, George De Clyver, Bridgham, and Marian, grew up in a period of...

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2. "They Don't Know What Bliss Is!": Curtis's Musical Adolescence

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pp. 37-80

Natalie Curtis came of age in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. One is tempted to look at these formative years to discover clues as to why a privileged young woman from New York City would choose to study and promote the music of Native Americans and African Americans. Why did Curtis forsake a career in classical music to devote herself to musical traditions so unlike those of her youth? Were there seeds of change...

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3. "I Am Full of Plans": Curtis Discovers Native Americans and Their Music

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pp. 81-117

In the summer of 1903 Natalie Curtis excitedly wrote President Theodore Roosevelt to share her enthusiasm for Native American music and art and her proposal to preserve and promote these valuable treasures with “all educated persons.” Thanking the president for supporting her endeavors, Curtis exclaimed,...

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4. "The Pencil in the Hand of the Indian": Curtis and The Indians' Book

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pp. 119-164

"This is the Indians’ Book,” the southern Cheyenne leader Hiamovi, or High Chief, began his foreword to Natalie Curtis’s major work on Native American song and story. “Through this book,” he implored, “may men know that the Indian people was [sic] made by the Great Mystery for a purpose.” They had welcomed white “strangers” to the land divinely ordained for them...

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5. "The White Friend": Curtis and Indian Reform

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pp. 165-211

The Indians’ Book differed from similar collections of music and folklore in its insistence that it be used as a tool to improve the lives of Native Americans. Curtis desired to encourage the administrators and teachers in the Indian school system to end their relentless attacks on students’ cultures. She wanted government officials to better understand...

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6. Folk Songs of a "Very Musical Race": Curtis and African Amerian Music

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pp. 213-267

In the 1918 introduction to the second book of Negro Folk Songs Natalie Curtis explained her rationale for collecting African American spirituals and other songs. She had begun this work several years earlier at the request of “a group of earnest colored men” who asked her to “do for the music of their race...

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7. "The Spirit of the Real America": Curtis's Search for an American Identity

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pp. 269-322

On February 19, 1915, Natalie Curtis sat in the Academy in Philadelphia listening to the rehearsal of Ferruccio Busoni’s Indian Fantasy. Having once taken lessons with the great pianist, Curtis had supplied Busoni with a “few Indian melodies” that she thought appropriate for “greater development and expansion” in a larger work. Busoni’s Indian Fantasy,...

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Conclusion: Remembering Natalie Curtis

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pp. 323-329

On October 23, 1921, an automobile struck Natalie Curtis Burlin as she descended from a streetcar in Paris. She died two hours aft er the accident, without having regained consciousness. This tragedy shocked her family, friends, and patrons. At the time of her death Paul Burlin was painting in Marseilles at his studio and failed to join his wife before she...


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pp. 331-365


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pp. 367-390


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pp. 391-402

E-ISBN-13: 9780803230231
E-ISBN-10: 0803230230
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803237575
Print-ISBN-10: 080323757X

Page Count: 430
Illustrations: 12 illustrations
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 642692966
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Natalie Curtis Burlin

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Indians of North America -- Music -- History and criticism.
  • Burlin, Natalie Curtis, 1875-1921.
  • Ethnomusicologists -- United States -- Biography.
  • African Americans -- Music -- History and criticism.
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