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Author and former AFC staff member, folklorist Catherine Hiebert Kerst. Photo by Stephen Winick.

Public Event Highlights Two Books and Major AFC Collections

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The authors of two new books, Sheryl Kaskowitz (A Chance to Harmonize: How FDR’s Hidden Music Unit Sought to Save America from the Great Depression—One Song at a Time) and Catherine Hiebert Kerst (California Gold: Sidney Robertson and the WPA California Folk Music Project), return this week to the Library of Congress to discuss the remarkable New Deal folksong collecting career of Sidney Robertson (later known as Sidney Robertson Cowell), whose recordings are held in the American Folklife Center. In her work recording songs for the federal government during the mid- to late-1930s, Robertson captured a diverse and multifaceted soundscape of the Great Depression. The conversation will be moderated by American Folklife Center’s Director Nicole Saylor and will include a selection of the songs from the collections. The event, which is sponsored by The John W. Kluge Center and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, occurs Wednesday, June 26, 2024 at 4:00 pm EDT in room LJ 119 of the Thomas Jefferson Building.

The event, titled “Government Song Woman: Sidney Robertson, Folk Music Collecting, and FDR’s New Deal,” brings together three of the most prominent experts on Sidney Robertson’s folksong collecting work. Catherine Hiebert Kerst is a folklorist, cultural researcher, and writer who worked for many years as Folklife Specialist and Archivist in the American Folklife Center, serving as the Archive’s point person for Robertson’s ethnographic corpus. Sheryl Kaskowitz is a Harvard-trained scholar of American music who began the research for her book as a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress in 2016. Nicole Saylor, the director of the American Folklife Center, conducted research on Sidney Robertson’s folk song collecting in the Upper Midwest before joining the Library of Congress.

A woman works with a disc recording machine.
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. Find the archival scan here.

The event will also be streamed as a Zoom webinar. We ask that both in-person attendees and those who plan to attend on Zoom register for the event. Find out more, and follow the link to register, at this link.

About the Books

Catherine Hiebert Kerst’s California Gold: Sidney Robertson and the WPA California Folk Music Project follows the California collecting of Sidney Robertson, who proposed and directed a New Deal initiative designed to survey musical traditions from a wide range of English-speaking and immigrant communities in Northern California. It offers a compelling cultural snapshot of a diverse California during the late 1930s at the height of the New Deal.

The 15-month Works Progress Administration California Folk Music Project spawned a remarkable multi-format ethnographic field collection, housed at the American Folklife Center: 35 hours of audio recordings of performances in 12 languages — including Spanish-Californian songs from the 19th century and some of the first California gold rush songs and recent immigrant recordings ever collected — with 168 photographs, numerous technical drawings and sketches of international musical instruments, correspondence, WPA field reports, and field documentation.

Kerst explores Robertson’s distinctive and modern approach to fieldwork and examines the voluminous ethnographic documentary materials she generated with WPA project staff to capture a cross-section of the music that people were actively performing in their communities. Kerst highlights some of the most notable songs, images and ephemera of the collection, capturing and contextualizing the diverse musical traditions that California English-language and immigrant communities performed during the New Deal era.

Native American women who performed a mission song in Spanish on June 4, 1939, collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell in Pala, California. The caption included with the photo in 1939 reads: “Left to right: Senoras Pico, Valenzuela, de la Golsh, Ortega, Myers, and Acosta.” There are, however, only five women visible on the photograph. Find the archival scan here.

The book includes transcriptions of the song lyrics in their original languages, along with translations into English, making it possible for the first time for listeners to read and understand the lyrics. Digital recordings of the songs featured in the book, along with the related photos, drawings, and manuscripts, are available on the Library’s website. The recordings transcribed in the book are also available via SoundCloud. In addition, the American Folklife Center recently released a new story map that explores the California Gold collection.

California Gold: Sidney Robertson and the WPA California Folk Music Project was published April 2 by the University of California Press in association with the Library of Congress. The book is available in the Library of Congress Shop and via booksellers everywhere.

A woman speaks at a podium.
Author Sheryl Kaskowitz speaks at the Library of Congress. Photo by Stephen Winick.

Sheryl Kaskowitz’s A Chance to Harmonize tells the story of the federal program Sidney Robertson worked for before her collecting in California. In the mid-1930s, President Roosevelt and his New Deal advisors launched a radical experiment to help Americans suffering from the economic devastation of the Great Depression, including Appalachian miners and other workers stranded after factories closed, city dwellers with no hope of getting work, and farmers whose land had failed. With enthusiastic support from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the government’s Resettlement Administration set up government homesteads in rural areas across the country, an experiment in cooperative living where people could start over. To boost morale and encourage the homesteaders to find community in their own traditions, the administration brought in artists to lead group activities—including folk music.

As part of a Music Unit led by Charles Seeger (father of Pete, Mike, and Peggy), Sidney Robertson traveled the country to record hundreds of folk songs. Music leaders, most notably Margaret Valiant, were sent to homesteads to use the collected songs to foster community and cooperation. Working almost entirely (and purposely) under the radar, the Music Unit would collect more than 800 songs which are now in AFC’s Resettlement Administration Recordings Collection. They would operate for nearly two years, until they were shut down under fire from a coalition within the government that deemed the homestead enterprise dangerously “socialistic.”

Emma Dusenbury, who sang many songs for Sidney Robertson’s Resettlement Administration collection, draws water from her well in Mena, Arkansas. Photo by Vance Randolph.

Despite its early demise, the Music Unit proved that music can provide hope and a sense of belonging even in the darkest times. It also laid the groundwork for the folk revival that followed, seeing the rise of artists like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Odetta, and Bob Dylan.

Recordings from Sidney Robertson’s Resettlement Administration collecting trips are available online as part of the Wisconsin Folksong Collection at the University of Wisconsin. We have also discussed and presented audio from the collection in many blog posts here at Folklife Today.

Note: This post draws on press releases from the Library of Congress and Sheryl Kaskowitz.

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