"Tawi Mana" (The Song Maid): Natalie Curtis Burlin and her search for an American identity

Michelle Wick Patterson, Purdue University


Natalie Curtis (1876–1921) devoted her career to studying and popularizing the music of Native Americans and African Americans and forcefully asserting that the music of America's minorities would establish a cultural identity for the nation. Curtis, born into a cultured, upper middle-class New York City family, trained extensively for a career as a classical musician. She lived in an era of social and cultural ferment that led many to search for new ways to understand their society. In 1900, upon hearing the music of the native peoples of the Southwest, Curtis devoted herself to studying Indian songs. Unlike other researchers of her day, she published in popular media and argued that in these sources America could find a musical identity. Curtis soon expanded her studies to include other groups of Native Americans. This research culminated in the publication of The Indians' Book (1907), an extensive collection of native music and folklore, which led to further opportunities for research, publication, and speaking engagements. Curtis inserted aspects of native cultures into the Arts and Crafts movement and worked for reform of Indian affairs. Curtis conducted much of her research at Hampton Institute, a school for African Americans and Native Americans. She soon became an advocate for black music, publishing articles, promoting black musicians, and recording songs in the field. Negro Folk Songs (1917) resulted from Curtis's work on spirituals and work songs. Her interaction with Hampton's African students piqued her interest in their music as well. She published Songs and Tales from the Dark Continent (1920), based on her collaboration with two young men at the school. These two publications provide insights into ideas about race and culture in early twentieth century America. Curtis and her husband, the artist Paul Burlin, traveled to Europe in 1921. In Paris, soon after delivering an address on the folk music of America at a conference at the Sorbonne, Curtis was struck down by a car and died. Although her career was tragically cut short, Curtis's efforts to help Native Americans and African Americans and to incorporate the music and art into a national culture remain significant. ^




Major Professors: Donald L. Parman, Purdue University, Nancy F. Gabin, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Biography|American Studies|Black Studies|History, United States|Music

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