I was shocked and saddened at the news that Mariana Whitmer shared in this forum yesterday, that the Society for American Music has lost one of its founding members and an important scholar of early American music. Kate van Winkle Keller, who died on 11 December 2018 at the age of 81, was a major contributor not only to American music scholarship, but also to our Society: she was an early member of the Board of Trustees, and from 1977 to 2000 served as our first Executive Director. In 1995 she was the recipient of the Society’s Distinguished Service Citation.
Kitty (as she was known) was a pioneer in the creation of data bases of information about music and musicians culled from large bodies of primary documents. She (and Carolyn Rabson) produced the National Tune Index (1980), which is now known as Early American Secular Music and Its European Sources, 1589-1839: An Index, and in 1997 completed (in collaboration with Mary Jane Corry and her husband Robert Keller) The Performing Arts in Colonial American Newspapers, 1690-1783. Both are online and represent extraordinarily valuable tools for research into early American music history. Her magnum opus, however, is Dance and Its Music in America, 1528-1789 (2007), an authoritative compendium of the history of dance and dance music in North America from the time of European contact through almost the end of the eighteenth century. She also wrote many articles and chapters on the topic and, in general, was a force to be reckoned with in the scholarship of both music (in general) and music for dance (in particular) in early America.
But I remember Kitty most as an ebullient presence, even upon first meeting her in 1980 when, as a master’s degree student, I joined the Sonneck Society (as SAM was then known). She was warm, welcoming, knowledgeable, and a perfect embodiment of what the Society stood (and stands) for: collegiality, encouragement, support, and passion for the history of American music. I worked closely with Kitty for several decades, as a member or chair of various committees, when I was on the Board of Trustees, and later while I was Secretary of the Society. I had her telephone number on my phone’s speed-dial, for I knew that I could always call her up to ask questions. She was inevitably cheerful and enthusiastic when I called, and we would catch up on each others’ lives, as friends and colleagues do, before turning to my questions—for which she usually had the answers. I also chaired the search committee tasked with hiring her successor, which helped to reinforce my understanding of what a major contributor she had been to the Society for so many years.
Kitty was still ebullient, enthusiastic, and cheerful when I last visited her about two years ago. She was also still thoroughly engaged in scholarship and, over lunch, described with excitement her various ongoing projects. The Society for American Music owes a great deal to Kate van Winkle Keller and should be forever grateful to her. Those of us who knew her will never forget her. Our sincere condolences to her husband, Bob, and to the other members of their family.
Katherine K. Preston
Past President, Society for American Music
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