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A black and white up-close photo of Lottie Espinosa playing her guitar
Lottie Espinosa seated with guitar, Pacific Grove, California, ca. 1939. Part of the AFC's collection, California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties.

Celebrating California Gold: AFC’s New Story Map on the Northern California Folk Music from the 1930s Collection

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We are excited to announce California Gold: Sidney Robertson Cowell, 1930s California Folk Music, and the American Folklife Center, a new Story Map that follows the folk music collector, Sidney Robertson Cowell (Sidney Robertson at the time), on her 1930s trip to document musicians, singers, and their families and communities in California. The Story Map was co-created with AFC Folklife Interns Elisa Alfonso and Bryan Jenkins, who designed its multi-city journey, and selected the many images and recordings to enjoy along the way.

Between 1938-1940, Robertson directed the California Folk Music Project, which was supported by the Works Progress Administration and the Library of Congress. Soon after, the project documentation became a Library archival collection, now stewarded by the AFC, and has since been digitized and made available as the California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties online presentation, which comprises 40 hours of traditional music recorded in 12 languages, and represents 185 musicians from diverse communities across California, though predominantly in the northern part of the state.

And what’s extra exciting is that the Story Map coincides with the publication of the Library of Congress and University of California Press book, California Gold: Sidney Robertson and the WPA California Folk Music Project, by former AFC Folklife Specialist Catherine Hiebert Kerst!

Click here to enjoy the California Gold Story Map


I wanted to convince people that I shared their tastes and values and that I liked and understood them. This is what has made a wide variety of people willing and even anxiously determined that I should know and record the best they had. It carried often past the language barrier to simple people who knew only that I found their music beautiful and important and that I wanted it preserved as it truly was for future generations to hear. 

–Sidney Robertson (from “The Ethnographic Experience: Sidney Robertson Cowell in Northern California”)

Black and white photo of Sidney Robertson at a record player in her office
Sidney Robertson copying California Folk Music Project recordings for the Library of Congress in the project office, Berkeley, California, ca. 1939. Find the image here.

Robertson’s work provides significant insight into a rich array of living folk music traditions across the state at that time, including the musical traditions, practices, and instruments of many immigrant communities, who arrived in the U.S. from the turn of the 20th century through the 1920s.

In her 2017 lecture entitled, Sidney Robertson Cowell & the WPA California Folk Music Project, 1938-1940, Kerst notes: “Robertson was remarkably uninterested in finding the very oldest songs, but rather wanted to document what people were actually singing in their homes, their communities, their churches, and at festivals and celebrations, often in context.”

While Robertson documented musicians and communities across the state, as one can explore in an interactive map in California Gold, the Story Map mainly follows her journey through San Francisco, San Mateo, Oakland, Carmel, and Fresno, where we get to learn about the many artists she met and recorded. The musical traditions, songs, and instruments that were documented in these cities include those of Russian Orthodox, Icelandic, Croatian, Hungarian, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Armenian, and Basque communities. For example, in Oakland, Robertson was able to record Puerto Rican singers Aurora Calderon, Elinor Rodriguez, and Cruz Lozada, and songs important to them, such as the beautiful “Bolero Sentimental,” as performed by Rodriguez.

A black and white photo of Puerto Rican women singers seated at a table
A photo of (left to right) Aurora Calderon, Elinor Rodriguez, and Cruz Lozada, collected by Robertson, ca. 1939. Find the image here.

In an August 1938 letter to Harold Spivacke, Head of the Library’s Music Division, Robertson ends with the note: “…but just let me touch folk songs and immediately everything in connection begins to act as if it were possessed – including me.”

So, click on through to the California Gold Story Map to delve into the musical and culturally diverse soundscapes of late 1930s California. And be sure to pick up a copy of Kerst’s new book, California Gold: Sidney Robertson and the WPA California Folk Music Project. Stay tuned for more about Kerst’s book on Folklife Today!

The mainly orange book cover of Kerst's book California Gold which features a close-up photo of a musician's hand playing an instrument
The cover of Catherine Hiebert Kerst’s California Gold: Sidney Robertson and the WPA California Folk Music Project.

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