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Folklorist Sidney Robertson and Her “California Gold”

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Sidney Robertson was one of the trailblazing American women of the 1930s and 1940s, the kind of life you’d associate with Martha Gellhorn, Dorothea Lange or Zora Neale Hurston.

Born into a wealthy California family (that lost its money in the 1929 stock market crash), she traveled Europe as a teen, spoke four languages, graduated from Stanford and played classical piano. She was a friend of John Steinbeck, took classes from Carl Jung and created a landmark folk music project. She got married and divorced. Working for various New Deal programs, she drove more than 300,000 miles crisscrossing 17 states while lugging hundreds of pounds of recording equipment, most of those miles alone with her dog and a sleeping bag.

All this before 40, all this before marrying the influential and innovative composer Henry Cowell and devoting the second half of her life to his career, when she became known as Sidney Robertson Cowell.

Her escapades and groundbreaking work is captured in “California Gold: Sidney Robertson and the WPA California Folk Music Project,” a new book by Catherine Hiebert Kerst, a former Library archivist who worked for years to catalogue and preserve Robertson’s work. It’s published by the University of California Press in association with the Library.

“It was so exciting to me because I had never heard of this woman’s work,” Kerst said in a recent interview, describing the moment in 1989 when she began work on the collection. “She was still alive when I started, living in upstate New York, and we corresponded back and forth. Her eyesight was going but she was still very sharp and that was incredibly helpful.”

The music Robertson collected while directing the California Folk Music Project from 1938 to 1940 for the Works Progress Administration is some 35 hours in 12 languages by 185 musicians. (The agency was renamed the Work Projects Administration during her tenure.) Her staff included nearly two dozen people, and they recorded in mostly the northern part of the state. They recorded Spanish and Portuguese settlers who had been there for ages and more recent immigrants from Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Hungary, Russia and others. She also recorded Dust Bowl migrants from the Midwest. The songs could be classified as sea shanties, fiddle dance music, communal singing or bawdy version of bar songs.

It was colorful work – she once heard a “horribly inflated pig used as a bagpipes by a Serb”) — and although she had been raised in a wealthy family, she delighted in finding her work in a very different part of the nation.

“One drinks a dozen varieties of coffee and wine in their (folk songs) pursuit, at the oddest hours and places, and in the oddest company,” she once wrote to a friend.

Black and white photograph of a woman in a mostly bare equipment room, working with a recording machine on a desk. She is wearing a dress and looking down at her work.
Sidney Robertson copying California Folk Music Project recordings at her offices in Berkeley, California, in 1939. The recordings were sent to the Library. No photographer listed. Prints and Photographs Division.

The recordings, made on acetate discs given to her by the Library for the project, have been preserved in what is now the American Folklife Center.

You can hear plenty of this online. Songs featured in the book are available on the Library’s website and via SoundCloud. The AFC features an online presentation of her career, including photographs, diagrams of various musical instruments and a StoryMap detailing her travels.

Her classical musical interests and progressive politics eventually led her to folk music and social work. Her federal career began in 1936 when she walked into the Library to ask “whether someone there could make clear to me what distinguished American folk song, from Spanish, Jewish or English, for instance.”

This led to work with the Resettlement Administration and, two years later, to her California work with another New Deal program, the WPA.

As a folklorist, she thought that America had its history written into the songs of working-class people and that immigrants formed a cornerstone of the national identity.

“America has her own boat songs and bandit songs, her Civil War songs and her love songs, stemming like the American race from many nationalities but after generations here stamped, in varying degrees, with the American mark.”

She also had pronounced ethical guidelines to treat her recording subjects as peers and partners. A stint early in her career working with influential folklorist John Lomax, whose recordings focused on Black people in the South, left her with mixed feelings. She regarded him as a “very warm, friendly, buffle-puffy of a man,” but was put off that when they worked with Blacks “he was acting as a plantation owner.”

At least she found Lomax to mostly be “very nice and extremely gentlemanly.” That was rarely the case with her male colleagues, as she was one of the rare women in the field in that era: “… this business of working with a lot of cross and worried men who dislike having a woman around or having to bother with her except In The Home (her capitalization) requires steady nerves, a thick skin and a sense of humor …”

She didn’t hesitate to put in the legwork herself. She lugged around a Presto recording machine, which used 12-inch acetate discs that recorded about five minutes per side. Recording sessions weren’t in studios, but in her subjects’ homes or local venues. She handled the recording machine, scribbled notes about the songs, took pictures and managed the singers and onlookers.

“She recorded popular tunes played by a band at a lively Mexican wedding, songs sung at a Hungarian New Year’s Eve party, and gold rush songs performed in noisy Tuolumne County bars,” Kerst writes. On another occasion, she noted that the recording was made on a dairy farm in “the milk house – occasional noises are due to milk running over cooling pipes.”

The WPA project, like the rest of the New Deal programs, was short-lived. The California work was done in under two years. After her marriage to Cowell in 1941, she made a few more folk music recordings – ranging from Appalachia to Nova Scotia to islands off the coast of Ireland – and published four albums from those works. She also collaborated with her husband on a book about Charles Ives, another influential composer.

Still, being married to such a famous man, particularly during the conservative turn of the country during the 1950s, meant that her star dimmed.

“She sort of became, and was very proud of being, ‘Mrs. Henry Cowell,’ ” Kerst says. “The ’50s were a time when forthright women were not supported for their forthrightness. I wish she had been able to get loose from that.”

The book is available in the Library of Congress Shop and via booksellers everywhere.

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