Songs of the Winter Season Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell

Sidney Robertson Cowell with disc recording equipment

Sidney Robertson Cowell, copying California Folk Music Project recordings for the Library of Congress. Photo taken in the project office on Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, California in early 1939. AFC 1940/001: P001.

There are many examples of songs of the winter season available among the online presentations from the American Folklife Center’s archive, but the largest group of these is found in California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties, a documentary project of the California Work Projects Administration headed by Sidney Robertson Cowell from 1938 to 1940. Cowell asked performers for seasonal songs whenever she had the opportunity to record.  But, because her project ran all through the year, she was able to document some of these seasonal songs at the time of year they were traditionally performed.  She was particularly interested in documenting the diverse ethnic groups in the region, some of whom had immigrated or migrated to California only recently. As a result, this collection is particularly rich in songs of Christmas and Epiphany, with a few songs about winter as well, performed in several languages.

Aurora Calderon, a Puerto Rican migrant to Oakland, California, sang two carols in Spanish for Cowell in April of 1939. “Si me dan Pasteles an Aguinaldo,” (“If you Give me Pasteles”) is a song local to Vieques Island, Puerto Rico. Pasteles are made of green bananas, vegetables, and stewed pork steamed in banana leaves. This is a song of carolers begging for a treat hot from the steamer. “Venid Pastores” (“Come Shepherds”), is on a common theme found in Christmas songs, the shepherds who followed a star to find their way to see the infant Jesus. Another singer from Puerto Rico, Cruz Losada, sang a song on the same theme, “La Estrella del Oriente” (“The Star of the East”).

Alice Lemos Avila

Alice Lemos Avila, who sang songs and assisted Sidney Robertson Cowell with collection and transcription of Portuguese songs. April, 1939. AFC 1940/001: P147.

Portuguese singer Alice Lemos Avila assisted Cowell, not only by singing, but also by transcribing and translating the Portuguese language songs she and her friends sang. Here she sings “Noite de Natal” (“Christmas Night”). Avila and a group of her friends demonstrated the lively tradition of caroling with two songs for Epiphany, “Noite de Reis” (Night of Kings) and “Santos Reis” (“Holy Kings”). [1] Also in Portuguese, Mary Silveira sang a Twelfth Night song from the island of Faial in the Azores, “Vinde Veis, Pastores” (“Come Kings, shepherds”) and a lullaby for the infant Jesus, “O Menino Jesus.”

At a New Year’s Eve party in Oakland, California on December 31, 1939, Mary Gaidos and a group of friends, sang songs for Cowell in their native Hungarian, including “Karacsanyi enek” (“Christmas Song”)  and “Pastorak orven deznek” (“The Shepherds are Rejoicing”).

In the fall and winter of 1938 Cowell recorded Anglo American songs from the Ford brothers, Warde, Bogue, and Pat, singers with a large repertoire whom she had previously recorded in their native Wisconsin. She found them in California working on the Shasta Dam construction project.  In the fall she collected “Footprints in the Snow,” a love song sung by Bogue Ford.  Then, in December, the brothers sang many traditional ballads for her during the Christmas holiday break from work. Most of these were not seasonal, but Warde performed a song about winter.  “Fair Charlotte,”  is cautionary ballad about a young woman who would not listen to her mother and bundle up for a sleigh ride to a winter dance because it would hide her fine clothes, leading to a tragic ending. This ballad, also known as “Young Charlotte” and “Young Carlotta,” is based on a poem by Seba Smith first published in 1843 in a Maine newspaper, The Rover, with the frightening title “A Corpse Going to a Ball.” [2]

George Vinton Graham was an elderly singer originally from Iowa who remembered many Anglo American songs and performed them on a guitar tuned like a violin. Although his voice was no longer robust, he was eager to share his songs and contacted Cowell, asking to be recorded. Among the many songs he sang were two ice skating songs: “Ice Skating Song” and “Fairy Bower.”

"Miss Fogarty's Christmas Cake" sheet music cover.

Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake,” sheetmusic by C. Frank Horn, 1883.

The only English language Christmas song Cowell collected in California was “Mrs. Fogarty’s Christmas Cake,” sung by Leon Ponce.  It relates the unforgettable qualities of fruit cake. The original song, “Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake,” was an Irish character piece performed in minstrel shows and on the vaudeville stage, written by C. Frank Horn and published in 1883. [3] Apparently Horn got the Irish spirit of the song right, because it has been recorded by Irish, Irish American, and Irish Canadian performers.  It has been passed on from singer to singer like a folk song, resulting in many variations. In the United Kingdom and Ireland it showed up as a nineteenth century song sheet with the title “Miss Hooligan’s Christmas Cake,” and, according to The James Joyce Centre, was performed by six-year-old James Joyce at the Bray Boat Club on June 26, 1888. In the tradition of comic folksongs, Leon Ponce added some embellishments of the occasion to the version he sang for Cowell. You will hear that he inserts his nickname, “Poncie,” into the first verse and Cowell noted that “Dick Weston, mentioned in the last verse, is a young man of 18 in whose shop the recording was being done.”

 

Notes

  1. Translations of these three songs may be found in the collection, California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties. No translations are available for the songs sung by Mary Silveira.
  2. This ballad may be found in Native American Balladry by G. Malcolm Laws (Philadelphia: The American Folklore Society, 1964, p.221, G17). In some versions it is the girl’s father who pleads with her to wrap herself in a blanket.
  3. What is known about the history of the song may be found in an article (full text), “Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake,” by Stanley A. Ransom, in Voices: The Journal of the New York Folklore Society (volume 33, Fall-Winter, 2007).

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