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Charles Fletcher Lummis: Catching Our Archaeology Alive

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Charles Lummis with guitar
Photograph of Charles F. Lummis playing guitar for his children, Turbese and Jordan, in the courtyard of El Alisal, Los Angeles, California, July 31, 1903.  | Image: Unidentified photographer; courtesy of the Braun Research Library Collection, Autry Museum of the American West.

Artbound revisits early Los Angeles to explore one of its key and most controversial figures: Charles Fletcher Lummis. As a writer and editor of the L.A. Times, an avid collector and preservationist, an Indian rights activist, and founder of L.A.’s first museum, Lummis’ brilliant and idiosyncratic personality captured the ethos of an era and a region. Watch Artbound's season eight debut episode, "Charles Lummis: Reimagining the American West," premiering Tuesday, May 10 at 9 p.m., or check for rebroadcasts here.

Charles Fletcher Lummis built a world with words.

Before the polymathic writer, editor, and preservationist would become a hyperbolic figure of Los Angeles history, he was a poet. And by many accounts, he wasn’t very good. Writing hackneyed love poems and odes to his cigarettes, Lummis wrote his first work, the "Birch Bark Poems," while at Harvard, during the height of the Romantic literary movement of the mid-1800s. But Lummis later found success as a journalist in Chillicothe, Ohio. When Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, offered him a job in 1884, he picked up his life and traversed the continent to venture to Los Angeles, by foot. Along his self-proclaimed “tramp across the continent,” he wrote letters that were widely read in the paper, earning him a reputation before he sauntered up to this distant outpost on the Pacific, whose population was under 15,000 at the time. 

When Otis met up with Lummis in a San Gabriel hotel, to walk the final ten miles with the bedraggled eccentric, the publisher later wrote: “It was needless to say that he did not come here for his health, and he could hardly be called a tenderfoot. He has joined the staff of the Times, and has come to stay.” Lummis was the Los Angeles Times’ first city editor. But after surviving his 143 day sojourn across wild terrain, it was a desk job that proved dangerous. Within a few months at the paper, he suffered a mild stroke, which ended his tenure at the Times. 

Lummis published “A Tramp Across the Continent” in 1892, recounting his outlandish trek. His journey was perhaps a connective tissue suturing the Anglo American world with cultures of indigenous peoples, the vestiges of the Spanish Empire, and the former territories of Mexico. It was a first contact filtered through Lummis’ experience, a perspective constrained by his New England upbringing and those late Victorian compulsions to catalog and report. His concepts of civilization were ensconced in the concepts of Eurocentric and neoclassical ideals that celebrated architecture and a culture’s ability to change a landscape, instead of working with it. Like Percy Shelley writes in his early Romantic poem “Ozymandias,” about an Egyptian artifact at the British Museum: “‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! / Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.” Like Shelley’s interest in ancient Egypt’s ability to build, Lummis’ attention was on Native Americans’ ability to create tangible things: baskets, clothing, or pueblo buildings. For many native peoples, the ephemerality of life was part of the beauty of living. Immortality wasn’t achieved by the things or artifacts of an empire left behind, but instead a person’s life was a short moment in an infinite existence intertwined with nature, which preceded one’s birth and continued after death.

Yet “Tramp Across the Continent” connected with the city-bound populaces in those years between the late Industrial Revolution and the beginning of Modernism, who dreamed of the freedom of native peoples espoused and exoticised by writers like Lummis. 

He later moved to New Mexico, and traveled through Peru, but returned to Los Angeles in the middle 1890s. He enlisted as an editor of a magazine called “Land of Sunshine,” which he relaunched as “Out West,” in 1901.   

Later, he would found the Southwest Museum as Los Angeles’ first institution, but in many ways, his magazine became his first museum, showcasing photographs of indigenous communities, dispatches by famed naturalist John Muir, and unveiling his version of the West to readers across the country. 

Below Artbound presents a full article written by “Chas” Lummis in the 1905 edition of “Out West,” with all of the era's idiosyncratic typographical follies intact. Lummis' article illuminates the way his travels informed the worldview that he’d manifest later, from his efforts to preserve Spanish folk songs and the missions to his crusade to keep the cultures of indigenous peoples intact. 

Out West edited by Charles Lummis
Out West edited by Charles Lummis

WHEN the Southwest Society of the Archaeological Institute of America began, as the very forefront of its scientific activities, to record on a large scale the old folk-songs of the South west, there were not lacking formal persons in the East to protest : "But that isn't archaeology you know."

To which the obvious and the actual reply was : "No, it isn't. But in ten years it will be, and as dead and gone as the rest. Out here we think it would be rather sensible and scientific to catch our Archaeology alive."

And that is what the Southwest Society has done, is doing, and will continue to do for so long as there shall remain a still-animate specimen to collect. It is, indeed, also uncovering and re-articulating the dry bones of the extinct humanities in its great field ; it has done, in its first year, at least as much for the archaeology and history of its region as any sister society ever did—and has in its hands the tangible results, for the greater glory of science and the benefit of this public. It has purchased, by special funds, a collection of old paintings related to the earliest history of California—a collection worth at least $10,000 to this community.* It has purchased what is in many respects the second-best collection in the world of Southern California archaeological artifects—and expects to have the matchless firstbest, also. But the greatest thing it has done in its maiden year has been to trap the Living Thing. It was barely in time. 

When I first stumbled upon the Southwest, more than twenty years ago, it was Different. The stark peaks, the bewitched valleys were as now. As now, except that the Old Life had not yet fled from them. Across those incredible acclivities, where distance loses itself and the eye is a liar, the prong-horn antelope still drifted, like a ghostly scud of great thistle-down, five hundred in a band. In the peaks, the cimarron still played ladder with the precipices ; in the pineries, the grizzly shambled snuffling ; and in green rincones where valley and foothill come together, and a spring issues of their union, there were lonely adobes, with a curl of friendly smoke from their potsherd chimneys—gray, flat little homes, bald without, but within warm and vocal of the Old Times when people sang because they Felt Like It.

Today the antelopes are gone, the cimarrones have yielded up their wonderful coiled horns to adorn the walls of those who didn't kill them ; the grizzlies are rugs for persons who couldn't shoot a flock of barns flying low ; and the songs are almost as near extinction. Never before in history has sophistication been so precipitate; never before has man been bumped from the Stone Age or the Patriarchal to the Age of Edison, as it were between two days. The same merciless obsession which wantonly exterminated our noble game—which slaughtered more bisons in twelve years than there are human beings in England—it has already all but exterminated the history, the romance and the science of what was, even within my own personal acquaintance, one of the richest regions on the globe for Anthropology all together ; an area of a million square miles as rich in prehistoric archaeology as Ancient Greece is, and incomparably more neglected. And besides the mummied past, it had the living human documents essentially contemporary with the oldest ruin. In other words, while, in Palestine, Science is groping in the dust that was Abraham, we in the Southwest talk with the patriarch himself. We have the monuments and the artifects—but we have also the very makers of them. It need not be said to any intelligent person that this counts. Suppose we could interview the man that compelled the Venus of Milo from cold rock to warm men's hearts forever? What do you think it would be worth if we had an absolutely authenticated photograph, or a phonographic record of the words—or of ten words—of Homer, or Caesar or Shakespeare? Or of a song they heard in their time? Why, a man could raise in New York in a week $10,000 per cylinder. Now, the phonographic records the Southwest Society is making are of less notorious individuals, but of time and race-types no less important. These songs are the very earliest American Classics—and Live Classics are quite as essential to science—and quite as interesting to mere human beings, as are Dead Classics. And they have the critical distinction that they are perishable—and perishing. Type has saved to us (thanks to our more provident forebears) the words of Greece and Rome, though we know not the tones nor even the accent : we have the syllables, but not the airs, in which "burning Sappho loved and sung." The art-objects, sealed in preservative dust, have kept very well for twenty centuries—and are safeguarded from vandals by intelligent governments. But our American Classics, whether of letters or of artifects, we must save in our very day, by our proper efforts—or our children's children will have nothing left of them. The speech is unwritten ; and our civilized government is permitting the monuments and ruins to be pillaged infamously to the six winds.

Here was a literature really great—great in volume, great in its fibre. It was rich in religious feeling, rich in legend, rich in poetry and imagination and romance. But a careless civilization has swept tidal down upon it, even as upon the buffalo. We have killed off our schoolmasters without bothering to record the lesson ! What is left of that great First American literature is but scattered drift, lodged here and there upon the precarious memories of the aged remnants of a disappearing people. Yet even this is enormously worth saving. It can even yet be gathered up to full the volume of the Greek and Roman Classics. But whatever of it the United States has scholarship and sense enough to care to save, must be saved within a decade. Not only that—even three years from today would be too late to begin the task with any hope of accomplishing fifty per cent, of what can now be done.

Spanish Songs of Old California - Francisco Amate and Adalaida Kamp
(Left) Photograph of Francisco Amate [the Old Troubador] playing the guitar at El Alisal, Los Angeles, California, August 28, 1907. (Right) Photograph of of Adelaida Kamp at El Alisal, Los Angeles, California, circa 1890.  | Images: Charles F. Lummis; courtesy of the Braun Research Library Collection, Autry Museum of the American West.

For a thousand years, the aborigine has handed on from father to son, practically without variableness or shadow of turning, not only the Law and the Prophets, not only the folklore, but the cradle songs, the love songs, the ceremonial hymns, the war songs, the stirring chanteys they used to chorus as they worked together. And with every year they have made new songs as the spirit moved. For three centuries the Spanish pioneers of the Southwest have been similarly entailing the songs that came with their fathers from Spain—and also building up by themselves in their wilderness another wonderful fabric of native American minstrelsy. Both peoples were natural troubadours— both of that culture-stage in which song is the logical expression of feeling, and improvisation an every-day gift. There were no orchestras or prima donnas to rain hireling and vicarious melody alike on the just and the unjust. When a man wanted song, he sang it himself—and got more good of it than any deputy could furnish him. Under these circumstances of self-dependence and self-sufficing, native song flourishes most characteristically. Such people sing more than we who are civilized—and more sincerely. They were wise to take their joy at first hand. Some tribes were even smart enough to do their penitence as we do our music—they appointed one vicar to fast and pray and mortify his flesh for the whole village, while they sang for themselves and for him too ! 

We must not think of these songs as worthy of salvation only that scientists may dissect them for ponderous monographs. They are distinctly human in their value. We need them in our pleasure. If ever there is to be a real American music, these are the rock upon which it must be founded. Even the Indian songs are many of them of great delicacy, and many of great strength. Some of the war-songs, some of the race-songs, adequately harmonized, would be as stirring as the Marseillaise. Some of the lullabies, love-songs, dream-songs, are as tender as any we know.

And of course the Spanish musical development is fully up to any other in civilization. The finest "American" or European songs have none the better, in word or air, in grace and fire and wit, of innumerable old ditties of Spanish-America, while in rhythm we are generically inferior. We need these genuine, characteristic, heart-born and heart-reaching songs to enrich our impoverished repertories—how hard up we are, we scarce realize till we analyze the sort of commercial shoddy we are producing. The majority of our music today is made to sell ; the old songs were made to sing. They have that same haunting quality of "Annie Laurie," and "Nellie Gray"—but with a lilt and a patter all their own.

Spanish Songs of Old California - Rosendo Uruchurtu
(Left) Photograph of Rosendo Uruchurtu playing guitar at El Alisal, Los Angeles, California, June 5, 1904. (Right) Photograph of Rosendo Uruchurtu playing guitar and using a wax cylinder recorder at El Alisal, Los Angeles, California, June 5, 1904.  | Images: Charles F. Lummis; courtesy of the Braun Research Library Collection, Autry Museum of the American West.

When, eighteen years ago, I began to realize something of all this, there was no royal road. I did learn by ear, and still retain faithfully, a great number of these unwritten airs and words—camping for months with Mexican sheepherders in the remote mountains of New Mexico for the purpose. But one poor and hardworking student can do little single-handed—and there was no "backing." Still, some of the songs I then acquired could not now be replaced. With the beginnings of the phonograph, such scholars as Dr. Washington Matthews, Miss Alice C. Fletcher, the lamented John Comfort Fillmore, and minor others, applied it to such work ; but they were handicapped by the backwardness of scientific interest and by the unsatisfactory medium. Their work is invaluable, and they have done what they could—but in any other country they would have been enabled to do more.

Now, however, the Wizard has well-nigh perfected his machine. Reasonably portable, the Edison Home Phonograph gives highly satisfactory results in recording and in reproducing. One can carry the same machine to an Indian camp, and take their songs ; and thence to a large auditorium and present them to a thousand people.

Furthermore, backed by a fast increasing public interest and by the authority of that Dean of our scientific bodies, the Archaeological Institute of America ; with the devoted assistance of a little corps of experts—and, no less important, perhaps, being in the very field where these songs are, instead of having to send costly expeditions for them—the Southwest Society confidently expects to compass the fullest, the most reasoned and the most interesting collection of folk-songs ever made anywhere. It will be its fault if it fails in this aim.

Already the Society has over 500 records—including no in no less than twenty-four Indian languages and 400 in Spanish. It is already a repertory of extraordinary range and richness. Among the Indian contributions—which are from tribes all over California, Arizona, New Mexico, etc., plains tribes, mountain tribes, valley tribes, pagan tribes, Mission tribes—are some as tender as the call of the mourning dove which one of them simulates. A nursery song of the tigerish Apaches is as sweet as the "Hush, my babe, lie still and slumber" which you and I heard in boyhood. Some of the Navajo war-songs, some of the Pueblo martial airs—like one at the ceremonial races of the Cacique—are so irresistible in their swing that I have caught whole civilized audiences keeping foot-time to the cylinder.

Spanish Songs of Old California - Rosa and Luisa Villa
(Left) Photograph by Charles F. Lummis of Luisa and Rosa Villa playing guitar, El Alisal, Los Angeles, California, November 6, 1904. (Right) Photograph of Rosa and Luisa Villa at El Alisal, Los Angeles, California, November 6, 1904.  | Images: Charles F. Lummis; courtesy of the Braun Research Library Collection, Autry Museum of the American West.

Of the Spanish folk-songs that were sung in this Southwest long before anyone of our speech had ever got within a thousand miles of this region, I can neither exaggerate, nor yet convey the inevitable charm. Schubert's "Serenade" is no more exquisite than some serenades of these simple old times. Some of the nursery songs are fully up to the best of Mother Goose ; while their airs are incomparably more "taking." There are battle-songs that anyone might march to ; and love-songs as passionate and lingering as Shelley's "I arise from dreams of thee."

There are songs of reminiscence for which we have no peers—beside "Don Simon," for instance, our "Old Resin the Beau" or "Old Oaken Bucket" (pretty good things by themselves) seem rather childish in word and in philosophy. Perhaps most interesting of all are the songs nearest the soil—the melodious whimsies of cowboys, shepherds, peons, rancheros, and all the other humble units of that lonely life. Strange as it seems to us, many of these songs are by people who could neither read nor write, and who didn't "know a note."

If there ever was anywhere any kind of a song that has not its representative here, I cannot remember it. There is every sort—from the most religious to the most dare-devil ; from the tenderest to the most cynical ; from the most despairing to the most jubilant. And for real wit, Tom Moore was the last man to write English songs of anything like the same category—and his English songs were Irish ! Doubtless something of the dry and seasoned wit which distinguishes Spanish above all other modern languages, was grafted upon the peninsula by the Celts in their ancient duration there. We of to-day have innumerable "funny" songs, and a few humorous ; but our humor is rather bludgeoned, and no kin to the deft, razor-edged but unmalicious quality of the Iberian. 

None but the student can realize the astounding rapidity with which all these songs are disappearing. The old people who knew them are dying off ; the younger generation (with that unreasoned mimicry which is obliterating national characteristics everywhere) forget—or even look down on—the musical inheritance of which any people might be proud, and learn our "ragtime." Within even ten years the "mortality," so to speak, among these songs has been almost incredible. Reasoning from personal experience—and hundreds of times I have found songs forgotten by the very people who had taught me them a decade earlier—this loss must approximate fifty per cent ! Worst of all, the rate is rapidly increasing, for reasons obvious after what has been said.

Spanish Songs of Old California - Manuela García and Arthur Farwell
(Left) Photograph of Manuela Garcia, 1886-1927. Handwritten caption on verso: "SRTA. MANUELA C. GARCIA/ FOLK-SONG SINGER." (Right) Photograph of Arthur Farwell, October 30, 1904. Handwritten caption: "OCT. 30, 1904 ARTHUR FARWELL."  | Images: Charles F. Lummis; courtesy of the Braun Research Library Collection, Autry Museum of the American West.

The Southwest Society has been so fortunate as to ferret out and enlist a number of those who still remember. Some are old, some are only old-fashioned enough to care. A poor old washer woman, proud of her race, was a perfect bonanza of the early California songs ; while a rich young matron, a famous toast, equally cherishes this her inheritance. A blind Mexican lad has been one of the staunch props of the work ; and several brave young women who could hardly afford the sacrifice of time, have contributed to science far more in proportion than docs many a rich "patron." The most extraordinary achievement has been that of Miss Manuela C. Garcia, of Los Angeles, who has sung the records of no less than 140 songs, with the full words ! Few can do that in any language, from sheer memory. Doña Adalaida Kamp, of Ventura, comes next with sixty-four records. Credit and gratitude belong also, in generous measure, to the Misses Luisa and Rosa Villa, Don Rosendo Uruchurtu, Mrs. Tulita Wilcox Miner, Don Francisco Amate, and many others. These records, by the way—or several score of them—have been phonographically presented to California audiences aggregating several thousand people, and invariably with a cordial welcome. Some of them are now being reproduced before the Eastern Societies of the Institute. 

The Institute not only authorized the necessary expenses for recording the songs, but sent out Mr. Arthur Farwell, one of the best-equipped experts, to transcribe them. After about four months of hard work, he has transliterated some 300. The task is a most difficult one, and wholly beyond the average trained musician who has not had this specific experience. 

This work must be completed ; then the words must be translated—all literally, and those of the most important examples also metrically, that they may be "singable" by "Americans." A volume of four or five hundred of the Spanish songs (first, as of more universal appeal), arranged, translated and with critical notes, will make a rather respectable monument for the work of the youngest Society of the Institute in its first year. It is hoped also to issue a collection of say fifty of the choicest numbers, harmonized, as .a popular edition. Next year a large volume of the Indian songs may well follow ; then another in the Spanish—and repeat.

It is to activities of this sort—and like the saving of the Caballeria Collection of paintings, and of the Palmer-Campbell archaeological collection (see another page), that the Southwest Society invites the co-operation of good Americans everywhere. The more its membership, the more rapidly and thoroughly its work can be prosecuted—and the more will be saved to the public of the fast-vanishing treasures of American Archaeology.

*See OUT WEST, September, 1904, for a lavishly illustrated article on these paintings.

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