Natalie Curtis Burlin Center for American Culture Studies


  1. Introduction

  2. Preserving Indian Culture

  3. Angel DeCora and Indian Art

  4. Arizona With Roosevelt

  5. Busoni's Indian Fantasy

  6. African-
    American Music

  7. Defending American Folk Music

  8. Natalie's Legacy

  9. Endnotes

  10. Readings

Collecting and Promoting
African-American Music

Starting about 1910, Curtis began recording African and African-American music at Hampton Institute in Virginia. Curtis enjoyed a long association with Hampton, where George Foster Peabody, who financed much of her work, was a trustee and benefactor. Hampton had been established after the Civil War as a training school for blacks; the school later served Indians also. It was through her work at Hampton that Curtis produced her two major works after The Indians' Book. These were Negro Folk-Songs, 1918-1919, and Songs and Tales from the Dark Continent, 1920.

Curtis worked to promote opportunities and education for black musicians. In 1911, she helped found the Music School Settlement for Colored People at 257 West 134th Street in New York City.

The purpose of the school was to preserve and develop black music and provide musical education for children. In collecting, writing, and organizing concerts, Natalie Curtis worked with some of the major African-American musicians of the time, including R. Nathaniel Dett, J. Rosamond Johnson, Will Marion Cook, James Reese Europe, Roland Hayes, Robert Russa Moton, and Henry T. Burleigh.

On May 2, 1912, Curtis and associates organized an historic concert by black musicians at Carnegie Hall. In the audience were many well-known white musicians and music lovers and musical editors from New York papers. Curtis describes the astounding performance of the 125-piece Clef Club orchestra under the direction of James Reese Europe:

It was an astonishing sight, that Negro orchestra ... that filled the entire stage with banjos, mandolins, guitars, a few violins, violas, cellos, double basses, here and there a wind instrument, some drums, eloquent in syncopation, and the sonorous background of ten upright pianos. ... Europe uplifted his baton and the orchestra began (with an accuracy of "attack" that many a greater band might envy) a stirring march composed by the leader. It was the "Pied Piper" again, for as 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.13

During this time when she was working with African-American music, Curtis continued traveling in the West, collecting Indian folklore, and advocating Indian rights. In August 1913, Curtis and a party of associates converged with Theodore Roosevelt's party at Hopi in Arizona for Snake and Flute ceremonials (the occasion of the gasoline quest mentioned earlier). Both Curtis and Roosevelt wrote accounts of this Arizona gathering for Outlook magazine. During the visit, the two held extensive discussions about preservation of Indian culture.

Around the time of World War I, the area of Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico, where Curtis had gravitated, became a favorite haunt of artists and writers. Probably Natalie Curtis's popular Indians' Book was in part responsible for luring them to the Southwest.

In 1917, Curtis married artist Paul Burlin in Santa Fe. Burlin was one of the first artists drawn to the Southwest for its landscapes and Indian subject matter. Together, the Burlins conceived "The Deer Dance," an American Indian dance pageant. Natalie wrote music and Paul designed sets and costumes for the production. "The Deer Dance" was based on elaborate Pueblo ceremonial dance-dramas Curtis had studied; its music was adapted from original Pueblo deer, buffalo, and eagle songs.14

 Paul Burlin


The Burlins moved to France in 1921. Paul's new efforts at modern art had met with vehement criticism in the States, and he hoped to get support in Europe, which he did. Burlin spent 12 years as part of the Paris art community, where he painted and exhibited.15

Natalie too was very much at home in France. She knew the language, the people, and the culture, and she had friends in Paris. Visiting Paris in the fall of 1921 was Alice Klauber, an artist and art collector from San Diego, California, and one of the founders of the San Diego Museum of Art. The two had spent time together in San Diego and in Santa Fe and had shared the 1913 Hopi trip. Alice and Natalie enjoyed lunches and sightseeing with one another in Paris,16 and both were members of the American delegation to the International Congress of Art History in fall of 1921 at the Sorbonne.

So it was that the move to France gave Natalie Curtis the chance to make her extraordinary and almost mythic presentation at that conference.



Copyright 2002-2004, Alfred R. Bredenberg