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New York Folklore Quarterly, Vol. IX, No. 2, Summer 1953

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Vol. IX, No. 2, Summer 1953

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 sources....

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