NEW YORK FOLKLORE QUARTERLY
Vol. IX, No. 2, Summer 1953
“THE CURTIS COLLECTION
OF SONGS, I
Introduced by Otis F. Curtis, Jr.
THE Rev. William Willis Curtis, son of a Methodist “circuit-rider,” was born in 1845 at Waukesha, Wisconsin,
where the parents (Otis F. and Marilla Wright Curtis)
had gone from Hanover, N.H., when Wisconsin was still a
sparsely settled Territory. Young William’s education, begun at
Beloit College, was interrupted when at the age of nineteen he
enlisted with a Wisconsin regiment.
Upon leaving military service, William went to the Cattaraugus
Indian Reservation in New York State and remained
there for a year or two (1864–65). (His parents were for a time
associated with the Rev. Asher Wright as missionaries to the
Seneca Indians.) When he had served for a year or more as teacher
in the Reservation’s school, W. W. Curtis returned to Beloit College,
where he graduated in 1870 (M.A., 1874), and from the Chicago
Theological Seminary in 1873. While at Beloit he sang with
the college glee club and later was one of the “Gospel Singers”
led by P. P. Bliss.
After serving as minister of the “Church farthest north” in
Calumet, Michigan, the young man went with his wife as a missionary to Japan; first at Osaka and then in a pioneer mission on
the Hokkaido, at Sapporo. It is said that the non-Japanese natives,
the Ainu, were particularly pleased with him because, like
themselves, he wore a long, flowing beard. The high-wheeled
bicycle on which he travelled about the country probably had something to do with his reputation; perhaps the parishioners
thought that only the constant vigilance of a protective deity
kept him mounted and undamaged. Moreover, his music must
have been enjoyed: he tried to extend the practice of group-singing,
and he prepared the first hymnal used by Japanese Christians.
When in 1896 the ill health of Mrs. Curtis forced her husband
to retire from work abroad, Mr. Curtis settled in Oberlin,
Ohio, and joined his brother C. B. Curtis (father of Professor
R. W. Curtis of Cornell) in the work of the Industrial Missionary
Association whose efforts for Negroes was centered in a school
and farm at Beloit, Alabama. In the interests of this work W. W.
Curtis travelled widely throughout the United States; upon one
of his trips, in 1913, he died suddenly at the age of sixty-eight.
Having inherited his father’s passion for song, W. W. Curtis
sang his way down the years. Sometimes he led a singing school
for his community, sometimes he established and supported one;
but always singing was a feature of his own home and of the
homes established by his children. It is therefore not surprising
that he left behind him a scrapbook of 311 pages, most of them
in manuscript, a few filled with printed songs cut out from other
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