Print Page   |   Contact Us   |   Report Abuse   |   Sign In   |   Join SEM
The Founding of SEM
Share |

Past Presidents of SEM in attendance at the 25th Anniversary of SEM conference in Bloomington, Indiana, gather for a photograph. 1980. Front row, left-right: Gerard Behague, Klaus Wachsmann, Barbara Krader, David McAllester, Willard Rhodes; Back row, left-right: Nazir Jaraizbhoy, Bruno Nettl, Mieczyslaw Kolinski, William Malm, Mantle Hood.

The following article was written by founder Willard Rhodes on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of SEM in 1980. 

A Short History of the Founding of SEM

by Willard Rhodes

A quarter of a century is a short span of time by any standard, but for the Society for Ethnomusicology it is an occasion for celebration—the founding of the Society, and twenty-five years of achievement and continuing development of a humanistic discipline that recognizes music as a worldwide, basic, universal expression of man. In planning for the twenty-fifth annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology Alan Merriam and the program committee invited me as first president of the Society and senior of the three surviving founders to write a history of the founding of the Society, a piece that might serve as a point of departure for a continuing dialogue by other past presidents. I have a vivid memory of those early years, the conversations, and the letters that we exchanged, now archived in the Olin Library, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut. [Note: The SEM Archives have since been transferred to the University of Maryland.] A rereading of the Newsletters, numbers one through seven, has been a source of information that supports and confirms my memories long dormant.

The conception of the Society took place at the fifty-second annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Philadelphia, City of Brotherly Love, November 1953. David McAllester, an Instructor in Anthropology at Wesleyan University, and I, an Associate Professor of Music at Columbia University, attended the meeting and there for the first time we met a spirited young man who had just returned from his first field trip in Africa: Alan P. Merriam, Instructor in Anthropology at Northwestern University. The three of us found each other kindred souls with common interests—the music of the Indians of North America, problems of ethnomusicology, historical, theoretical and methodological, and above all, a need for association and communication with persons with similar interests. It was mutually decided that we should write a newsletter and send it to students and scholars wherever they might be. Without articulating concrete plans for the founding of a society it was clearly understood that this was our goal. However, I don’t believe that any one of us envisioned the Society as it exists today. We were too busy planning the immediate and necessary steps for action. As we discussed our procedure I suggested that we must invite Charles Seeger to join us. I had known Charles through our association in the American Musicological Society. In a memorial to Charles Louis Seeger in the AMS Newsletter Carleton Sprague Smith wrote: "His international preoccupation with the field was such that in 1935 he became Chairman of the Gesselschaft für vergleichende Musikwissenschaft which was suffering increasing repression under the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler. He had been a founding member of the American Society for Comparative Musicology in 1934 and had served as its president in 1945 and 1946.” The American Society for Comparative Musicology was formed to serve American scholars in the field of world music and to provide a continuing base for foreign scholars who were fleeing from Nazi Germany to seek refuge in the United States. Unfortunately the Society disintegrated after a few years leaving a void and, according to our first Newsletter, a small balance in the treasury that was to be given to the four founders to finance the mimeography and mailing of letters to interested persons. There is no record or memory that the money was ever received.

Alan and David agreed with me that we should lose no time in enlisting Charles’ support and accepted my suggestion that we go to New Haven where the American Musicological Society was holding its annual meeting, confident that we would find Charles there. From that point on we became a quartet, intent on working for the eventual founding of a Society for Ethnomusicology. Though geographically scattered we managed to function effectively by typing our letters in quadruplicate, thereby assuring unity in the approach to our goal. The mutual respect and affection that we had for one another created a halcyon ambiance that contributed to the success of our endeavors. Alan assumed the editorship of the Newsletter, David took charge of the mimeographing and mailing of the Newsletter, Charles was involved in the writing of a constitution, and I was concerned about our relations with the American Anthropological Association, the American Folklore Society, and the American Musicological Society.

In December 1953 the first Newsletter was mailed to 300 persons and institutions. It reported that a letter signed by Manfred F. Bukofzer, Frances Densmore, Mieczslaw Kolinski, David McAllester, Alan Merriam, Willard Rhodes, Curt Sachs, Charles Seeger, Harold Spivacke, and Richard Waterman, had been sent to approximately 70 persons. The policy of this initial effort was clearly stated as follows:

"It must be emphasized that the present effort is the prerogative of no individual or group of individuals rather, the project is conceived as the joint effort of all those interested in seeing contact reestablished among ethnomusicologists.”

That policy has prevailed to the present, and the success of this scholarly society is to be credited not to the founders but to the many members who have worked selflessly in the interests of the Society. To name all who have rendered significant service to the Society as officers, councillors, editors, committee members, and hosts to our annual meetings, would read like a membership list and I shall not attempt to name them here.

The Newsletter brought a prompt response from our European colleagues who contributed news of their activities. We were conscious of the tradition we had inherited from those pioneers in the study of world music: Ellis, Abraham, von Hornbostel, Sachs, and Kunst, and were dedicated to continuing research and publication in this humanistic discipline. Newsletter No. 4, April 1955 noted "the 472 names and addresses listed below represent but a fraction of the individuals and institutions with a serious interest in ethnomusicology.” Encouraged by the increasing interest in the Newsletter, we believed that we now had enough support to form a society. We communicated with the program committee for the Boston meeting of the American Anthropological Association and asked for a session devoted to papers on ethnomusicology for which we would be responsible. The request was granted and Newsletter No. 5, September 1955, announced an organizational meeting for the purpose of forming an ethnomusicological society, November 18th, 1955, at the Copley Plaza Hotel, Boston, where the AAA was holding its annual meeting. It was at the session devoted to papers that I read a paper, "Toward a Definition of Ethnomusicology,” which was published in the American Anthropologist, Vol. 58, No. 1, pp. 457-463. The organizational meeting was attended by eighteen persons who were united in their support for a society. The following officers were elected: President, Willard Rhodes, Vice President, Mieczslaw Kolinski, Secretary-Treasurer, David McAllester, Editor, Alan Merriam. A report of this meeting appeared in the Newsletter, No. 6, January 1956, which was published by Wesleyan University Press and was given a new format with the Society’s logo of the little flute player. The founders and the Society are deeply indebted to Wesleyan University for the generous help during the lean years. As long as Wesleyan University served the Society as its publisher we enjoyed an annual subsidy of $500.00 which we now acknowledge with deep gratitude.

Immediately after the founding meeting of SEM I went to Princeton, New Jersey, where the American Musicological Society was holding its annual meeting. I was fortunate in being able to sit in the final session at which Dick Waterman read a paper on his recent field trip to Australia. Our friend, William Lichtenwanger, was Chairman of the session and graciously recognized me to make an unscheduled announcement of the founding of SEM. Two distinguished musicologists, Otto Kinkeldey and Curt Sachs, who were sitting in the front row, received this news cordially and welcomed the "born again” Society in its field. There had been rumors that some AMS members were planning action in ethnomusicology and I was concerned that they should be informed of our newly founded Society which would not transgress or poach on the traditional territory of historical musicology. We have always had friendly relations with AMS and many persons are active members in the two Societies.

The first annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology was held in conjunction with the Fifth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences in Philadelphia, September 5, 1956. Melville Herskovits was Program Chairman. It was at this meeting that Professor Herskovits suggested that the hyphen be removed from ethno-musicology. His suggestion was adopted after some discussion. Curt Sachs was named Honorary President of the Society. I was happy to announce a grant of $500.00 to the Society from the Research Institute for the Study of Man (RISM), a most welcome gift at that time. Up to the time of organization we had financed the operation from our own pockets. David and I once made a personal appeal to the Wenner-Gren Foundation for a small grant to continue the work of the four founders but it was refused by an officer whose name I do not recall. To the credit of the Wenner-Gren Foundation it must be recorded that Director Lita Osmundsen hosted a two-day symposium on ethnomusicology at the Wenner-Gren House in New York to which a number of our members were invited.

It was at this first annual meeting in Philadelphia that many of us met for the first time two future presidents of the Society: Klaus P. Wachsmann, former Director of the National Museum in Kampala, Uganda, and Mantle Hood who had returned from his study with Jaap Kunst in Amsterdam and was teaching at the University of Los Angeles. Both men read papers at this meeting.

In reviewing the past twenty-five years of SEM I wish to pay tribute to our late friend and colleague, Alan P. Merriam, and to David P. McAllester, who in their successive editorships of our Journal, Ethnomusicology, set a model for their successors, and also to Charles Louis Seeger, our late Honorary President, for his wise counsel and guidance in the writing of a constitution which with its revisions serves us today. And again, to the many members who have served the Society so well through the past twenty-five years I offer my heartfelt thanks. Having sketched in brief the activities that led to the founding of the Society for Ethnomusicology, I leave the continuation of the history to the other past Presidents.

Sign In

Featured News