Top of page

Documenting California Sounds and Communities

Share this post:

The following post was written by AFC’s Cathy Kerst.

Documenting California Sounds and Communities: The Story of Migration and Settlement from the New Deal Era to the Present

The Library’s newly-appointed Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, spent the afternoon of September 9 in the American Folklife Center, with the intent of experiencing some ethnographic materials in our archival collections. As a poet, performer, social activist, and teacher from California, Herrera was especially eager to explore ethnographic materials from the archive that document community-based culture, social issues, and ethnic diversity.

We reported more about the Poet Laureate’s visit in this previous post.  Here I’ll focus on one of the first collections he encountered: the W.P.A. California Folk Music Collection. I was privileged to introduce Juan Felipe to this collection, which was created by by a dynamic young woman folk music collector, Sidney Robertson Cowell, and recorded during the New Deal era from 1938 to 1940. A brief video was recorded of our conversation about this collection, which you can view in the player at the bottom of this post.


Cathy Kerst shows materials from the The WPA California Folk Music Project collection to Juan Felipe Herrera. Photo by Stephen Winick for AFC.

The WPA California Folk Music Project is a multi-format ethnographic collection that includes sound recordings, still photographs, drawings, and written materials documenting a variety of European ethnic and English- and Spanish-speaking communities in Northern California. The collection comprises 35 hours of folk music recorded in twelve languages that represents numerous ethnic groups and 185 musicians.

This elaborate New Deal project was conceived and carried out by folk music collector Sidney Robertson Cowell (1903-1995) for the Northern California Work Projects Administration. It was one of the earliest ethnographic field projects to document European, Slavic, Middle Eastern, and English- and Spanish-language folk music in one region of the United States.

From 1938 to 1940, while in her thirties, Sidney Robertson Cowell, ethnographer and collector of traditional American music, single-handedly organized and directed the California Work Projects Administration project designed to survey musical traditions in Northern California. The result of the project was a remarkable, and quite modern, field collection. Not only did the project generate a wealth of musical and cultural documentation from a wide variety of groups at a certain time in California history, it also provided, through the ebullient presence of Cowell, a vicarious experience of what it means to do ethnographic fieldwork. The value of this multi-faceted collection is that one is invited to hear the voices, see the faces, and sample the cultural context of the performers being recorded.

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.
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.

Cowell was eager to record the kinds of folk music being performed in homes and other venues in California that had not received much attention. Among other things, she wanted to explore ethnic as well as English-language musical traditions. The WPA Northern California Folk Music Project (1938-40) was the result of her efforts. It was co-sponsored by the Music Department of the University of California, Berkeley and the Library of Congress. Its scope was broad, in ethnographic terms, and went well beyond the 35 hours of instantaneous sound recordings she made on twelve-inch acetate discs. One third of the recordings represented English-language material, and the other two thirds, the music of numerous ethnic groups, primarily European, including Armenian, Basque, Croatian, Finnish, Gaelic, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian (including Sicilian), Norwegian, Russian Molokan, Scottish, and Spanish. There was music of Portuguese from the Azores, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Spanish-speaking settlers whose forefathers had come to California beginning in the 1600s. In addition, 168 photographs of the musicians and their instruments were made, and field documentation of many kinds and textures was gathered. It was an elaborately conceived project.

The Library of Congress supplied Cowell with 237 blank acetate discs, under the provision that the original copies of the sound recordings, once made, be returned to the library. Through the co-sponsorship of the UC-Berkeley Music Department, Cowell’s project received university support for space and equipment on campus.

The California Folk Music Project provides an excellent opportunity to survey the traditional music being performed and enjoyed by numerous and diverse communities of people in 1930s California. It also gives us a glimpse of the ethnographic style and character of an energetic and capable woman folk music collector who, through the existence of the WPA, had the opportunity to take charge of and carry out an ambitious folk music collecting project. Cowell’s successes in the California Folk Music Project fit well with the New Deal dynamism and creativity that generated similar cooperative efforts meant to document and validate the lives of exemplary, yet so often unsung Americans.

Best of all, much of the collection is online at this link on the Library’s website.

To put the California Cowell collection into perspective and to grasp it as a model for the study of the current experience of creative and quite diverse community-based music-making found in California, a project is being generated to expand on what has been collected in the past. The project’s focus is to investigate and document how immigration, notions of home, and settlement are embedded, encountered, and performed through musical expression, the creation of community, and the social interaction that ensues. The collective engaged in exploring these issues brings together the Alliance for California Traditional Arts (ACTA), Smithsonian staff at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and Radio Bilingüe, with others at the American Folklife Center and the Oakland Museum of California. To read an article describing the “Sounds of California” project that draws on the diversity, energy and prototype of the W.P.A. California Folk Music collection, go to:

View the video below.

(Note: The video can also can be viewed on the Poetry and Literature Center’s Casa de Colores site, at this link.  Brief memories of the poet laureate growing up in San Diego, enamored by folk music, and a poem inspired by his encounter with the California collection can also be found on the site.)

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *