Camille Lucie Nickerson (1888-1982) was an Afro-Creole woman, pianist, composer, arranger, scholar of Louisiana folk songs, arts administrator, and professor at Howard University from 1926-1962.
Nickerson was born into a musical family in New Orleans in 1888. Her mother, Julia Ellen Nickerson, played the violin and cello, taught music, and organized and conducted a “ladies’ orchestra.” Her father, William Joseph Nickerson, was a violinist, bandleader, and music educator. He taught music at Southern University, and Jelly Roll Morton was among his students. Camille was the pianist in the Nickerson Ladies Orchestra, which her father conducted. After earning a Bachelor of Music degree from Oberlin Conservatory in 1916, she taught at her family’s music school in New Orleans, the Nickerson School of Music, and also began a successful concert career.
In 1917 she founded the B-Sharp Music Club with the goal of promoting “Negro Music.” The group gave monthly concerts of classical music, spirituals, and Afro-Creole songs and also raised money for the NAACP. In 1921, this group established the New Orleans chapter of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM). Nickerson would go on to hold the offices of Secretary, Vice President and ultimately, in 1944, President of NANM.
In 1926, Nickerson accepted an invitation to join the faculty of the School of Music at Howard University in Washington, DC, where she taught piano, pipe organ, and methods of teaching until 1962. In 1928, following her father’s untimely death, Camille devoted herself in earnest to collecting, studying, and creating arrangements of Afro-Creole folk songs. In 1931 she received a Rosenwald Fellowship, which allowed her to spend a year collecting and transcribing Afro-Creole music. As a result of this work, she earned a Master of Music degree in 1932 from Oberlin Conservatory with a thesis titled Afro-Creole Music in Louisiana: A Thesis on the Plantation Songs Created by the Creole Negros of Louisiana.
In addition to collecting and transcribing folk songs, Nickerson created and published her own arrangements of these songs. Some arrangements are for voice and piano, while others are for choir. Publishing her arrangements of these songs helped ensure that they would be available to future generations. For example, Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer and pianist William Bolcom’s 2003 album Battle Pieces includes Nickerson’s arrangements of “Michieu Banjo” (an accompaniment to the bamboula, a lively couples dance) and “Chère, Mo Lemmé Toi” (a Mardi Gras Day love song) for piano and voice. The Library of Congress holds a manuscript copy of one of Nickerson’s original compositions, “The Women (God Bless Them, We Pray),” dated 1918.
Nickerson also promoted recognition and appreciation of Afro-Creole music by concertizing. From the 1930s into the 1950s, she toured and gave lecture-recitals as “The Louisiana Lady,” performing her arrangements.
Camille Nickerson died of pneumonia at Howard University Hospital in 1982, and Howard University holds the Camille Lucie Nickerson Papers Collection in its Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.
If you would like to learn more about the music and culture that Camille Nickerson worked to document and share, the NLS Music Section has the following titles to offer you:
- Music of the Bayou (DBM00099)
- Classic Sounds of New Orleans (DBM03981)
- Musical Gumbo: The Music of New Orleans (LPM00626) by Grace Lichtenstein and Laura Dankner
- Real Cajun Fiddle (DBM01321) Learn to play the Cajun fiddle.