DeCora and Indian Art
American Folk Music
Collecting and Promoting
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
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
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.