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Victor’s “Indian Melodies” recordings

Written on: August 25th, 2017 in Museums News

By Valerie Kauffman, historic-site interpreter, Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs

After coming to the Johnson Victrola Museum as a historic-site interpreter last year, I began researching the history of a number of recordings made by the Victor Talking Machine Company in the early part of the 20th century. One of my interests was in finding out about Victor’s recordings of Native-American music.

Mountain Chief (Ninastoko), chief of the Blackfeet Tribe, listening to a song on a phonograph and interpreting it in sign language to the ethnologist Frances Densmore in Washington, D.C. in 1916.

Mountain Chief (Ninastoko), chief of the Blackfeet Tribe, listening to a song on a phonograph and interpreting it in sign language to the ethnologist Frances Densmore in Washington, D.C. in 1916.

What I discovered was that about the same time that Victor was founded in 1901, ethnologists and musicologists were working diligently to transcribe and record authentic Native-American music and language for scholarly use and for the enjoyment of future generations. For example, in the late 1800s, American ethnologist Francis La Flesche, along with Alice Fletcher, recorded 60 cylinder-records of the Omaha Indians for the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution. Later, ethnomusicologists Natalie Curtis Burlin and Frances Densmore recorded thousands of cylinder records between them covering the American-Indian peoples known as Blackfeet, Chippewa, Hidatsa, Hopi, Mandan, Menominee, Papago, Pawnee, Pueblo, Seminole, Sioux and Winnebago; as well as the Kuna people of Panama.

Ethnologist Francis La Flesche

Ethnologist Francis La Flesche

In keeping with public interest in Indian culture, Victor Records released a number of recordings of authentic Native-American music as part of its educational marketing genre. These recordings include “Gambler’s Song” and “White Dog Song” by the Glacier Park Indians (Blackfeet Tribe) recorded on May 23, 1914; and “Chant of the Snake Dance” by the Hopi Indian Chanters recorded in 1926.

Also passionately interested in Native-American music were composers like Charles Wakefield Cadman and Thurlow Lieurance who made trips to Indian reservations and communities to research, transcribe and record what were called “Indian Melodies” for themselves. They used the uniquely American sound of these melodies to compose musical scores and even operas. Other composers who wrote Native-American–inspired music include Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Victor Herbert, Edward MacDowell and Charles Sanford Skilton.

Charles Wakefield Cadman posing in his studio with several Native-American musical instruments.

Charles Wakefield Cadman posing in his studio with several Native-American musical instruments.

In celebration of the Native-American-themed programming that is taking place at the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs museums in September 2017, I have gathered together a small sampling of Victor recordings by Cadman and Lieurance that were inspired by “Indian Melodies.” I hope you enjoy listening to them.

Far Off I Hear a Lover’s Flute” by Charles Wakefield Cadman, recorded July 15, 1912
From the Land of the Sky Blue Water” by Charles Wakefield Cadman, recorded Aug. 8, 1925
By the Waters of Minnetonka” by Thurlow Lieurance, recorded on Nov. 16, 1917
Sioux Flute Serenade” by Thurlow Lieurance, recorded on Nov. 16, 1917

Thurlow Lieurance with Taos Pueblo Indians, 1913

Thurlow Lieurance with Taos Pueblo Indians, 1913

Victor Records label, "By the Waters of Minnetonka"

Victor Records label, “By the Waters of Minnetonka”


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