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Biography of Natalie Curtis Burlin

Name: Natalie Curtis Burlin
Bith Date: April 26, 1875
Death Date: October 23, 1921
Place of Birth: New York, New York, United States
Nationality: American
Gender: Female
Occupations: ethnomusicologist, pianist
Natalie Curtis Burlin

Natalie Curtis Burlin (1875-1921) was an American ethnomusicologist who began the movement to transcribe the traditional songs of Native American tribes. She also published a four-volume collection of African American spirituals. Her work helped preserve the folk songs of both groups.

Born Natalie Curtis in New York City on April 26, 1875, Burlin attended the prestigious National Conservatory of Music there, intending to become a concert pianist. She also studied in France and Germany with some of the best-known musicians of her day, including Arthur Friedheim, Anton Seidl, and Ferruccio Busoni.

Fascinated by Native American Music

While visiting Arizona in 1900, Burlin abandoned her plans for a concert career. The Native American culture she discovered there, and particularly its music, so entranced her that she decided to focus exclusively on transcribing, collecting, and preserving the tribes' songs and stories. Given the state of Native American culture at the time, she was convinced that they would be lost without an active effort to preserve them.

By the beginning of the twentieth century all the tribes of the western United States had been forced onto reservations. There the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs pursued a relentless assimilation policy: Native American children were forced to attend government schools, where they had to cut their hair, adopt western dress, and speak only English. They were also forbidden to sing any native songs; anyone who did so, even an adult, was likely to incur the authorities' wrath.

In 1903 Burlin established a base on the Hopi reservation in Arizona, where she used an Edison recorder to capture the tribal songs on wax cylinders; often, however, she found it simpler to work only with pencil and paper. To her dismay, though, she found that many Native Americans were reluctant to sing for her, fearful that to do so would bring punishment. "[W]ill not the superintendent be angry if you do this thing?" asked one chief in The Indians' Book. "Are you sure that you will not bring trouble upon us? White people try to stop our songs and dances, so I am fearful of your talk."

Fought to Record Native American Songs

Burlin also had to tread carefully. The Natalie Curtis Burlin website contains her reminiscence that "[A] friendly scientist on the reservation advised me that if I wished to continue my self-appointed task of recording native songs (which were at that time absolutely forbidden in all the government schools), I must keep my work secret, lest the school superintendent in charge evict me from the reservation!"

Burlin was so dismayed by the conditions under which the Native Americans were forced to live that she became determined to force a change. Capitalizing on a family friendship with President Theodore Roosevelt, she went to the White House to bring the Native Americans' plight to Roosevelt's attention and explain the need to preserve their native art and culture. Burlin's plea was successful, as detailed in the preface to The Indians' Book: "Thus, for example, the singing of Indian songs in the Indian schools came to be not only officially permitted, but encouraged.... Congress ... found funds sufficient for a short-lived effort to record officially the music of the various tribes. At last the Indian child in the government school and the adult on the reservation were allowed a freedom of racial consciousness and a spiritual liberty theretofore almost tyrannically denied."

Called Tawi-Mana (song maid) by the tribes, Burlin was given official permission to record Native American songs, and Roosevelt himself became personally involved in the project, eventually traveling to the reservation in 1913 for the Hopi flute and snake ceremonies. The visit was detailed in "Theodore Roosevelt in Hopi Land," an article Burlin wrote for Outlook magazine.

Published The Indians' Book

The Indians' Book, published in 1907, was a collection of songs and stories gathered from 18 tribes. Lavishly illustrated with photographs and artwork contributed by Native American artists, it contained Burlin's meticulous handwritten transcriptions of songs, although she noted in the chapter on the Hopi Native Americans that "[t]o seize on paper the spirit of ... [such] music is a task as impossible as to put on canvas the shimmer and glare of the desert." The songs were interspersed with stories of Burlin's travels among the Indians, illustrating not only the unique aspects of each tribe's culture but their humanity.

Burlin held herself to a strict standard, refusing to add or delete anything from the songs she transcribed. The book's title reflected her overwhelming belief that she was only "the white recorder," as she called herself. She described her technique in the chapter on Hopi Indians: "[I]n rhythmic monotone the old man crooned beside me. Long and diligently I worked.... It was no light task to fix the chant in musical notation. I saw the question in the chief's eyes: 'I have sung the song; why does it take so long to make those black marks on the paper?' And I said, 'Lolomai [Very Good One], you know that when the Hopi sets a trap for the blackbird, sometimes it is long before he can catch his fluttering prey. Your song is a wild blackbird to me, and it may be that the sun will move far along the sky before I have captured it.'"

Once transcribed and recorded, the Native American music brought to light by Burlin caught the attention of other musicians. One of them, her former teacher Ferruccio Busoni, used a collection of Native American melodies as the basis of his Indian Fantasy. The piece was first performed in 1915 by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by the famous director Leopold Stokowski. The Natalie Curtis Burlin website quotes her reaction: "With the first bars of the orchestral introduction ... the walls melted away, and I was in the West, filled again with that awing sense of vastness, of solitude, of immensity."

Became Interested in African American Music

Burlin's work with Native Americans convinced her of the need to promote minority rights in American society. Although she continued to travel in the American West and remained a lifelong advocate for Native Americans, Burlin broadened her scholarly focus in the years following The Indians' Book publication. Around 1910 she began to record and transcribe African American music at the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, a university established in 1868 to educate former slaves. The famous philanthropist George Foster Peabody, who funded much of her work, was a trustee at Hampton. Like Burlin, he wanted to expand educational opportunities for blacks.

The following year, Burlin and the violinist David Mannes founded the Music School Settlement for Colored People in New York, intending, as the website explains, "to preserve and develop black music and provide musical education for children." Her efforts did not stop there, however. In 1912 Burlin was among a group of musicians who sponsored the first concert featuring black musicians at Carnegie Hall. The audience ranged from well-known professional musicians to everyday folks who simply loved music; music editors from the New York papers were also in attendance. Burlin was thrilled with the 125-member Clef Club orchestra directed by James Reese Europe. The website quotes her: "It was an astonishing sight, that Negro orchestra ... Europe uplifted his baton and the orchestra began (with an accuracy of 'attack' that many a great band might envy) ... [A]s one looked through the audience, one saw heads swaying and feet tapping in time to the incisive rhythm, and when the march neared the end, and the whole band burst out singing as well as playing, the novelty of this climax--a novelty to the whites, at least--brought a very storm of tumultuous applause."

In 1917, Burlin married Paul Burlin, an artist who was also enchanted by the beauty of the American Southwest. They were married in Taos, New Mexico, which had already become known as an artists' colony, thanks in part to Natalie Burlin's efforts. The couple created "The Deer Dance," a pageant based on Pueblo Indian ceremonies. Burlin--now Natalie Curtis Burlin--based the music on native songs, and her husband designed sets and costumes.

Published Negro Folk-Songs

In 1918 Burlin, in association with the Hampton Institute, published the first of four volumes entitled Negro Folk-Songs, each one a collection of songs for a male quartet. Books I and II were collections of spirituals; Books III and IV were, as noted on the title page, "work- and play-songs." As she had with The Indians' Book, Burlin strove to record, not change, the music she heard, noting in the foreword to the first volume: "These notations of Negro folk-songs are faithful efforts to place on paper an exact record of the old traditional plantation songs as sung by Negroes.... I have added nothing and I have striven to omit nothing." True to Burlin's philanthropic ideals, all proceeds from the volumes went to the Hampton Institute.

As she had on the Native American reservations, Burlin used her Edison recorder to capture the songs' intricate harmonies and rhythms. "I lack entire faith in the study of wax records afar from the live voice of the singer," Burlin noted in the Foreword to Book II, " ...[but] the phonograph with its wealth of recorded detail ... [is] an invaluable adjunct to the higher spiritual task of assimilating the folk-idiom and translating it mentally into terms of notation."

Her interest in the Negro Folk-Songs books led Burlin to study the roots of black American music. She spent a year working with two African students at Hampton, one a Zulu from Natal (now South Africa), the other from Portugeuse East Africa (now Mozambique), recording their songs and learning about the religions and cultures of their respective societies. She intended to include these African songs in the American volumes, but decided instead to publish them separately as Songs and Tales from the Dark Continent in 1920.

Challenged White Hegemony

The Burlins moved to Paris in 1921. Her husband, who had begun to explore abstract and expressionist art, found the cultural climate in the United States too restrictive and chafed at the criticism he encountered even from fellow artisits. He found the European arts community more supportive. The move was a welcome one for his wife, whose earlier studies in Paris had made her familiar with the city. It also enabled her to attend the International Congress of Art History, held that year in Paris, as a delegate.

For all of her care and concern for the peoples she studied and whose rights she promoted, Burlin's views, seen with the clarity of historical distance, seem condescending. She referred to the Native Americans as "simple people" and "children of the desert" and portrayed their culture in an unrealistic and idealized light. Her views of African Americans could be considered patronizing: "The Negroes possess an intuitive gift for part-singing," she noted in the foreword to Book I. "This instinct, transplanted to America and influenced by European music, has flowered into the truly extraordinary harmonic talent found in the singing of even the most ignorant Negroes of our Southern States." It "makes one wonder at the possibilities of the race," she mused in Book IV.

In her day, however, Natalie Curtis Burlin was ahead of her time in her advocacy for the rights of all peoples and all cultures. The preface to The Indians' Book quotes her fervent belief that "only when we admit that each race owes something to the other, only when we realize our vast mutual human indebtedness, may we hope for ... interracial ... tolerance, understanding, and co-operation ...." Speaking to the Congress of Art History, she railed against "the everlasting monopoly of the white race," and praised the "12 million Negroes who are 'good enough' Americans to die for American ideals in our wars." She defended America's multicultural heritage, saying, "All America is not New England, but an agglomeration of races with a rich and diverse folklore."

The speech, unfortunately, would prove to be one of her last public pronouncements. Only a few weeks later, on October 23, 1921, she was struck and killed by a speeding automobile in Paris while stepping off a streetcar.

Further Reading

  • Burlin, Natalie Curtis, The Indians' Book: An Offering by the American Indians of Indian Lore, Musical and Narrative, to Form a Record of the Songs and Legends of Their Race, Dover, 1968.
  • Burlin, Natalie Curtis, Negro Folk-Songs: The Hampton Series, Books I-IV, Schirmer, 1918-1919.
  • "Natalie Curtis Burlin," http://www.nataliecurtis.org (February 12, 2003).
  • "Natalie Curtis Burlin," Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=137709&=0&=burlin= (February 12, 2003).
  • "Natalie Curtis Burlin," Women in American History, Encyclopedia Britannica, http://search.eb.com/women/articles/Burlin_Natalie_Curtis.html (Februray 12, 2003).

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