Laura Boulton

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Laura Crayton Boulton (January 4, 1899 in Conneaut, Ohio – October 16, 1980) was an American ornithologist and ethnomusicologist. She is known for the many field recordings, films, and photographs of traditional music and its performances and practitioners, and the traditional musical instruments, she collected around the world.


Boulton was born in Conneaut, Ohio. She studied voice at Western Reserve University and obtained a B.A. degree from Denison University. She married Wolfrid Rudyard Boulton, Jr., who was an ornithologist and lecturer at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on the ornithological staff of which she served in the early 1920s.


In January 1929 she began the first of a series of research expeditions which she was to accompany or lead over the next 50 years, and brought with her a cylinder recorder in order to record folk music as well as bird calls. This trip to Africa under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History, which lasted approximately three months, allowed Boulton to collect musical instruments and recordings from the indigenous populations of Egypt, The Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanganyika.

Over the next 50 years, she participated in dozens of international expeditions, compiling extensive collections of field recordings, films, photographs, and musical instruments. Her autobiography, titled The Music Hunter documents these travels, but offers little additional information. As stated in The Music Hunter, Boulton's mission was, “To capture, absorb, and bring back the world‘s music; not the music of the concert hall or the opera house, but the music of the people...”[1] She visited and collected musical data and instruments from (in addition to the aforementioned localities) Mozambique, Nyasaland, Rhodesia, Transvaal, Cape Province, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, Nigeria, Senegal, the Colony of Niger, Dahomey and other parts of French Equatorial Africa, the British Cameroons, the Belgian Congo, Ethiopia, and Ghana.

In 1929 she began graduate studies at the University of Chicago's anthropology department. She was to publish many articles and films, and helped to produce a multitude of museum exhibits related to the artifacts and data she gathered during her research; and performed a large number of illustrated educational lectures for students of music and anthropology.

Today Boulton’s large collections of traditional music materials are found at several institutions. The Columbia University Center for Ethnomusicology has the Laura Boulton Collection of Traditional Music, with approximately 30,000 field recordings and accompanying documentation, purchased for Columbia in 1964. Boulton served as curator of this collection from 1962 to 1972. Boulton’s liturgical music collection is found today at the Harvard University Archive of World Music, part of the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library. The Music Library has digitized this collection and made it available on the World Wide Web. The Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress contains wax cylinders, aluminum discs and reel-to-reel tapes of Boulton’s field recordings of traditional vocal and instrumental music worldwide, with accompanying catalogs and commentaries. The Smithsonian Institution Film Archives contains the originals of her film footage from 1934–1979, including collaborative films with the National Film Board of Canada. Smithsonian Folkways has the originals of recordings Boulton made for Folkways Records.[2]

From 1972–77, Boulton took her personal collection with her to teach at Arizona State University. This collection, later named “The Laura Boulton Collection of World Music and Musical Instruments” came to Indiana University, Bloomington in 1986 from Arizona State and the Laura Boulton Foundation. The musical mnstruments are housed at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, while the remaining materials are at the Archives of Traditional Music.

In 1977, Boulton started the Laura Boulton Foundation in New York City, a non-profit institution dedicated to supporting ethnomusicological research. Through the Foundation, Indiana University awards junior and senior Laura Boulton fellowships, designed for researchers to work with these materials.[3]


  • Boulton, Laura (1969). The Music Hunter: The Autobiography of a Career. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.


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