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Laura Boulton Documentary Indian Recordings from Arizona, New Mexico, Oaxaca, Puebla, Mexico City & Yucatan, April - Oct. 1940

by Canary Records



Laura Crayton was born January 4, 1899, in Conneaut, Ohio, the youngest of four daughters in a farming family. She was trained as a singer from early childhood. She could read music before words and sang solo in an operetta at the age of three. In her 1969 memoir, The Music Hunter: The Autobiography of a Career (Doubleday), she wrote that. “A small fortune had been spent on the training of my voice and the nature of my career never seemed to be in doubt.” This sentence is from a single paragraph in which she summarized the first thirty years of her life, and one can feel some spiteful disregard for her family of origin as well as for her husband Rudyerd Boulton, (b. 1901; d. 1983) whom she married in 1925 shortly after each of them had graduated college. She took considerable pains never to mention him in her book.

Her husband was an ornithologist who had just been hired by the American Museum of Natural History when they were married. The couple moved in 1926 to Pittsburgh, where he took a position at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Laura Boulton’s life changed and took on meaning when, at the age of 30, she accompanied her husband on a four-month bird-gathering expedition to East Africa funded by the philanthropist Sarah Straus (b. 1861; d 1945) followed by another eleven months traveling through central and southern Africa. As Mr. Boulton gathered specimens for the Carnegie Museum, Laura Boulton collected musical instruments. An April 1930 article in the Pittsburgh Press announcing their return home said that she had to be coaxed back to America. “I hate to get back to dresses,” she said. “It was so restful to be away from the noise and the rush of the twentieth century in America. If I didn’t think I could return to Africa someday, I believe I would want to die.”

In 1931, they relocated to Chicago where he took a curation job at the Field Museum, and she studied anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her wish came true in 1931 when they returned to Africa. The following year, Laura Boulton began giving lectures on African music that included recordings she had made. They made another trip in 1934. On that trip she made a more concerted effort to record prolifically, using both a disc-cutting machine and motion picture camera, and when she returned home, she toured the U.S. for several years playing the recordings and movies, pointing out that “the music will be stimulating to modern composers.” By 1936, she had become famous both for being a “society” white woman was was not afraid of Africa and Africans and for consistently asserting that African music was both rhythmically more sophisticated than Western music and melodically inventive and engaging. “I don’t see why any woman couldn’t be an explorer,” she told the San Francisco Examiner in 1936. She was enthusiastic about African musical technology: “The music of the African Negro has had far-reaching and positive influence on the world. It has definitely contributed to the artistic life of the world. The Africans have forgotten more rhythm rules than other civilizations have ever known,” she said in 1938. The following year she said that African rhythms are “above our scope” and stated that African music suggests a basis for future developments for Western music.

In 1939, she began work on a set of commercial discs drawn from the 5,000 recordings recordings she had amassed with the purpose of influencing Western music. It was released in January 1940 with the title African Music: Rhythm in the Jungle by Victor Records as a six-disc set with an accompanying booklet. Reviews pointed out that both composer Igor Stravinsky and conductor Leopold Stokowski had taken a strong interest in the recordings.

Shortly thereafter, she suffered a back injury, and about the same time, her marriage dissolved. She later wrote, “Two of my close friends, brilliant women, had become embittered and had gone to pieces when the continuity of their lives had been broken. I was determined this would not happen to me.” She decided to throw herself into work, attending the first Inter-American Congress on Indian Life, held in Patzcuaro, Mexico, April 14-24,1940. A friend of hers who was a trustee and founder of the Museum of Modern Art in New York commissioned her to produce an album of Mexican Indian recordings during her trip. “Probably the hardest and certainly the loneliest thing I ever did in my life was undertaking this expedition, the first I ever organized completely on my own.”

Following the conference, she headquartered at an inn directly across from the studio of the painter Diego Rivera, who allowed her to photograph and record his collection of ancient instruments. While Boulton worked, Rivera chatted with her as he worked on his portrait of the actress Paulette Goddard, who was staying in the same inn as Boulton. (Rivera was newly divorced from Frida Kahlo and was having an affair with Goddard who was still married to Charlie Chaplin. In late June Rivera and Goddard fled Mexico in her private plane when Rivera was suspected of having been part of an assassination attempt on the life of Leon Trotsky, who had had an affair with Kahlo several years earlier.) In any case, on the recordings she made in Rivera’s studio (tracks 32-36), we assume that it is either Rivera or Boulton playing the instruments and that it is Rivera’s voice one sometimes hears faintly in the background. Rivera gifted her two sixth-century flutes which are now in the collection of Columbia University.

Boulton made further recordings at the National Museum in Mexico City before traveling to Merida, Yucatan where she recorded slit drums at the museum. Accompanied by the American ambassador Oscar Straus (the grandson of Sarah Straus who had sponsored the Boultons’ first trip to Africa), she traveled to Puebla and Oaxaca to make field recordings of ceremonial and village musics. She was especially impressed with the music of the Yaqui people in Puebla. When she traveled further north to Arizona, she encountered a Yaqui community who had migrated. She played some of the recordings she’d made in Puebla for them and saw her audience deeply moved, some of them weeping with a desire to return home.

After returning to the U.S. in late June and giving a couple of lectures in Indiana and Vermont, Boulton got a commission from the Department of Indian Affairs to continue recording through July in Arizona and New Mexico. She headquartered mainly in Taos at the home of the heiress of the Dodge car company whose social circle included the writer D.H. Lawrence and the painter Georgia O’Keefe. She met Ramon Hubbell (b. 1891; d. 1957), a second-generation trader in, among other things, Indian rugs and art, who acted as her guide in New Mexico to gather recordings. In late August 1940 Boulton appeared on a radio quiz show alongside S.J. Perelman, Jimmy Durante, and Rube Goldberg. (She won, syndicated columns reported, "without seeming to try.”) She traveled again to Gallup, NM in September and Tuscon, AZ in October, by which time she had begun presenting her Indian recording at public multi-media events.

The results of her 1940 recordings were compiled in two albums, much like the African collection, as six-disc sets released by Victor. The Arizona and New Mexico material was issued in February 1941 with an epigraph by Leopold Stokowski:
“The music of our Indians is of high cultural value to all of us in the United States who are interested in rhythm and melody — when it is primitive, exotic, and remote from the conventional melodic and rhythmic patterns. Each tribe of our Indians has its own music based on its own scales or frequency relations. Often this music is sung and played with ceremonial dances which have to do with the ritual of their religion. Their life is close to nature, picturesque, colorful, and their music has these same qualities.”
The Mexican material was released in 1942 and included an epigraph by composer Aaron Copland:
“Blessings on the phonograph! How otherwise can we hear the music of other civilizations than our own? Therein lies the fascination of these records. They give us a glimpse into the primitive musical world of the Mexican Indian. And they show us the source from which the Mexican composer of today derives his inspiration.”

These quotes, objectionable though they are today, were written in an era when Indians remained the archetypal "bad guys" in American popular culture and remained that way for another two decades.

She toured the project, giving lectures with sound and films, through the U.S. during the whole first half of 1941 before receiving a commission from the Canadian government to record and film folk culture there, resulting in a new, more elaborate, more sophisticated, and far-reaching project, starting in August 1941. Over several more decades, she continued to travel and record across Europe, Asia, and Africa. The Indian albums were licensed to Folkways Records in 1957 and reissued as 33rpm LPs. Various sections of her work were acquired by Harvard University, the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Culture, the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Arizona, and Indiana University. Columbia University holds the majority of her papers and tens of thousands of recordings. Boulton died October 16, 1980, in Bethesda, Maryland while, at the age of 81, arranging another music-gathering journey. She is buried in Maricopa County, Arizona, where she taught from 1972-77.

Boulton was one generation younger than the American ethnographic recording pioneer Frances Densmore (b. 1867; d. 1957) and one generation older than the field recordist and broadcaster Henrietta Yurchenco (b. 1916; d. 2007) and, for that matter, the folklorist Alan Lomax (b. 1915; d. 2002). Her work, at present, faces a certain kind of snobbery because, in part, of its now-outdated methodology and a frankly sexist view of her as a “socialite” dabbler in foreign cultures. As "musical anthropology," as it was then known, has transformed into Ethnomusicology, a dim view is sometimes taken of work that is seen as too "public facing." But students of music and musicology will be well-served in the future by studying what her life was like, to fill in the blank spaces she left by accident or with intent, and to explore and repurpose the material that she gathered for the sake of the memories that we call “heritage.” She was, in my view, much more right than she was ever wrong. She was, at heart, a true believer in listening to music from outside one's immediate experience and finding commonality among us all.


released August 27, 2023

Track titles, tribes / language-groups, and locations are those assigned by Laura Boulton ca. 1940.
Where she has given a relatively specific or accurate title, we have given preference to it with the more general title that she assigned in parentheses.

Locations of recordings:
1. Hoteville, Arizona
2. Zuni, New Mexico
3-4. Lukachukai, Arizona
5. Taos, New Mexico
6-7. San Ildefonso, New Mexico
8-9. Santa Ana, New Mexico
10-11. Parker, Arizona
12-13. Sells Agency, Arizona
14. Gila Crossing, Arizona
15. San Carlos, Arizona
16. Mescalero, New Mexico
17-20. Teotitlan, Oaxaca
21-22 Honey, Peubla
23-31. Tlaxcala, Puebla
32-36. Mexico City
37. Ticul, Yucatan
38. Merida, Yucatan

Transfers, restorations, and notes by Ian Nagoski

Films made in Canada the following year can be seen here:


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early 20th century masterpieces (mostly) in languages other than English.

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