The Ethnographic Experience: Sidney Robertson Cowell in Northern California

From 1938 to 1940, while in her thirties, Sidney Robertson, ethnographer and collector of traditional American music, single-handedly organized and directed a California Work Projects Administration project designed to survey musical traditions in Northern California. The result of the project was a remarkable, and quite modern, multi-format ethnographic field collection--the WPA California Folk Music Project. Not only did the project generate a wealth of musical and cultural documentation from a wide variety of groups at a certain point in California history, it also provided, through the ebullient presence of Sidney Robertson, 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.

In this presentation, Sidney Robertson will be referred to as Sidney Robertson Cowell because she married the American composer Henry Cowell in 1941, and because that was her name for the greater part of her life.


Sidney William Hawkins was born in San Francisco in 1903. Her family appears to have been quite well off and to have lived comfortably. As a child, Sidney was precocious, articulate, and inquisitive. She was given piano, violin, dancing, and elocution lessons from an early age and spent her summers in Europe. Sidney's interests were consistantly wide-ranging and included world music, psychology, history, literature, and Romance languages and philology.

When queried about her interest in folk music collecting, she once claimed, "The first ingredient was an itching heel," which she attributed, to some extent, to having accompanied her father as a child on long train and car business trips throughout the West. He would leave her for long periods of time where she was free to go exploring. Later she reminisced about it:

"He naturally felt a certain danger in the extreme gregariousness I had inherited from him, and so the stock warning for girls of that era became a daily ritual: Try not to lose your purse, Sidney, and NEVER talk to strangers. The trouble was I never met a stranger . . . ."

Sidney graduated from Stanford University in Romance languages and philology in 1924 at age 21. Later that year, she married Kenneth Robertson, a philosophy major, and traveled with him to Paris where he planned to take classes with Jung while she intended to study piano with Alfred Cortot.

Sidney Robertson Cowell, copying WPA California Folk Music Project recordings for the Library of
Congress in the University of California, Berkeley, office.
Sidney Robertson Cowell, copying WPA California Folk Music Project recordings for the Library of Congress in the University of California, Berkeley, office.

When they returned to California in 1926, Cowell found a job teaching music at the Peninsula School for Creative Education in Menlo Park. The progressive, experimental nature of the school allowed her to introduce Spanish and cowboy tunes and the modal Irish and English songs she loved to the children she taught.

She also studied music with Ernest Bloch and world music with Henry Cowell at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Sidney and her husband gradually grew apart and they were divorced in 1934.

In 1935 Cowell decided that she was leading too "self-indulgent" a life in California and wrote to the Henry Street Settlement in New York City to ask if there were anything she could do for them. They responded that there was an immediate opening for someone to organize social music in the community. Cowell moved to New York and began working with elderly Jewish immigrants from Central Europe.

In reminiscing about the development of her interest in folk music at this time in her life, Mrs. Cowell recalled late in her life: "I had for some time been worrying the question of folk song, like a dog with a bone, and particularly I was curious about American folk song: What was American about it? I knew only the Lomax 'Cowboy Songs' and a few tunes from my parents, but I had been so struck by the wild enthusiasm and persistence engendered among the youngsters at the Peninsula School by 'Home on the Range' that I was convinced there was some special affinity between the character of this song and the youngsters who went after it so hard."

While in Washington visiting friends in 1936, Cowell went to the Archive of American Folk-Song, as the Archive of Folk Culture was called at the time, in the Library of Congress' Music Division, to ask this very question. She also visited the office of Charles Seeger, who was in charge of the Music Unit of the Special Skills Division of the Resettlement Administration. One thing led to another, and shortly thereafter Cowell became Seeger's assistant. As she put it, "I got hooked on the work and the wonderful hopeful and dedicated New Deal, so when Charlie Seeger asked me to stay on, I didn't resist." At first she accompanied folk music collectors John A. Lomax and Frank C. Brown in Alabama and North Carolina to get a taste of how they conducted folk music fieldwork. It wasn't long before she began to travel on her own on recording trips throughout the South and later, the Midwest.

Once the Special Skills Division of the Resettlement Administration was liquidated late in 1937, Cowell began to lobby for WPA connections that would allow her to continue collecting on her own. In 1938, she traveled to her native California to organize a state-based project that she hoped would become a prototype for the collection of folk music across the country.


Cowell was eager to record the kinds of folk music being performed in California that had not received much attention. Among other things, she wanted to explore ethnic as well as English-language musical traditions. After pursuing numerous funding possibilities, she succeeded in convincing the Northern California WPA Office in San Francisco that her project was one that was appropriate for WPA consideration.

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. The project became one of the earliest attempts at conducting a large-scale ethnographic survey of American folk music in a defined region. 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.

Once the official sponsors were lined up, Cowell was able to apply for WPA funds to hire personnel. The trick within the WPA was to devise a project that could keep twenty staff persons busy--both to provide socially useful work to those on the relief rolls and to justify the hiring of a supervisor. With Cowell's ingenuity, a whole range of activities associated with the collection of folk music was proposed that convinced the Northern California WPA office that her project might succeed.

Cowell had an uncanny knack for unearthing WPA staff who could assist her in her project. One of her most valuable fieldworkers was a Mr. Devere, who had had a dairy route in Contra Costa County and who lead her to numerous fine contacts in that area. On her staff were also Portuguese and Spanish speakers familiar with their own musical traditions and an Armenian ethnomusicologist.

WPA photographer, Mr. Prater, in project darkroom, on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley.
WPA photographer, Mr. Prater, in project darkroom, on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley.

Cowell's main intent in collecting folk music in Northern California was to create an "objective" record of the music that could be studied and analyzed from a musicological perspective. She was, however, also keenly interested in capturing details reflecting the cultural background of the groups she recorded, the environment in which the music was performed, and the functions it served in community life.

The California Folk Music Project opened officially on October 28, 1938, on 2108 Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. Cowell sought out all the performers and researched and recorded all of the music herself. She supervised the WPA personnel hired to catalog and index the collection and to make photographs and scale drawings of the folk instruments. WPA workers produced "Yellow Song Check-Lists" of the sound recordings and a printed checklist of English-language California songs. They compiled bibliographies of many kinds and made photostats of California mission music and old San Francisco songsters from several library collections. The WPA staff also transcribed the texts of many English- and Portuguese-language songs and noted variants in the literature.

After seventeen months, plans for extending and expanding the California Folk Music Project had to be given up when the expected WPA funding was not renewed in time for the project to go forward. Cowell had hoped that the continuation of the project would allow for recording and documenting the performance of non-Western--and primarily Asian--music in Northern California. In spite of the fact that the project was not renewed, no other WPA field collection of folk music undertaken by a single person was so ambitious or wide-ranging as this one.

An ethnographic collection is never merely an objective grouping of sound recordings or cultural items--it reflects the personality, expectations, sense of humor, and point of departure of its collector. In this, the California collection is no different--and because of Cowell's fine documentary methods and lively prose, we have an excellent record not only of what she was looking for but also what she gathered as a result.

In many respects, the California collection is very "modern" in character and ahead of its time. Cowell was a perceptive ethnographer, eager to reflect upon what she recorded and to muse about what meaning the music she collected had for her performers. Furthermore, the fact that we have access to her insights through correspondence and fieldnotes in this collection gives her work an integrity notable in its time.

There is a sense of immediacy in what Cowell has written about the field situation and how she conceived her role as collector on this project. As she put it: "I never asked the singers to sing for me or for the government except as a preservation project. And I was never demanding of them if they didn't want to sing, we skipped it for the present, and almost without exception, they revived the subject later themselves. I was careful, just as a matter of good manners, not to say 'I want.'"

Part of Cowell's method, she considered, was purely a sensible or logical one, but it involved much more than that. It is clear that Cowell possessed a wonderful mixture of curiousity, true interest, ethical sensitivity, and pleasure that she was able to convey to the performers she asked to record. She once wrote:

"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 beautiul and important and that I wanted it preserved as it truly was for future generations to hear."

WPA California Folk Music Project employees at work in the University of California, Berkeley
WPA California Folk Music Project employees at work in the University of California, Berkeley office.

In 1936, Cowell had accompanied other folklorists on folk music collecting trips in the South while she was being trained for her Resettlement Administration work. They acquainted her with the basics of operating the recording machines and introduced her to their methods of collecting folk music.

Cowell's correspondence of the time reveals that she was appalled by how performers frequently were treated by their collectors. She was disturbed that performers would sometimes be ordered to sing. Cowell also observed that performers often were not asked for permission to publish or duplicate recordings. They were sometimes promised copies of recordings when assurances of following through could not be made for sure. Cowell found these practices highly unethical.

These first experiences seem to have played a significant role in the honing of Cowell's own ethnographic collecting methods and her distinctive ideas about interacting with and recording performers. Cowell honored any restrictions her performers had against duplicating their recordings. In her desire to keep other collectors from taking advantage of the performers she had recorded, she became very protective of their recordings, even long after they had been made. Cowell's ethical standards served her well. The respect she gave her performers earned their trust and appreciation and resulted in their cooperation with her efforts.

Cowell was keenly interested in documenting folk musical performance in its ethnographic context--not merely in recording individual songs as separate items, as had been done by many early collectors. Some of her folk music collecting notions and techniques, such as this one, were no doubt forged through discussions with Charles Seeger--though it seems that Cowell actually carried out many of the ideas that Seeger merely wrote or spoke about.

Cowell did seem to have had an excellent rapport with the persons she recorded in California. It remains remarkable that anyone could gain an entry, in such a short space of time, into the lives and performance styles of so many musicians. There were thirty-one English-language and seventy-five foreign-language performers recorded by Cowell during the project. In a paper entitled "Folk Music in California," begun during the WPA project, Cowell wrote: "How does one find songs? They are everywhere at hand. A man changing a tire on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley last month sang an old ballad as he worked, and was startled by an urgent request to repeat it so it could be written down. A receipt for a bill paid to a Railway Express delivery man was signed with a Basque name; this led to a whole nest of songs . . . And one man in Shasta County offered to 'outsing the gas tank' if he might ride along to Fresno."

In seeking to make folk music recordings in California, Cowell wondered whether she could identify characteristics that were distinctive to the state. She said it seemed difficult not to find an Iowan or an Oklahoman every time you scratched a California singer.

When writing about the variety of folk music existing in California, Cowell mused about the history of settlement patterns, so frequently reflecting economic pressures elsewhere and leading people to the state. She was also well aware of the amazing legends that brought groups or individuals to the state seeking the sun, oranges, gold, or other California wonders. She once wrote that, "It is not possible to visualize accurately the pattern of folk music in California unless these facts are recognized. The situation with respect to traditional music among English-speaking people in the state is exactly like that of newcomers from Europe and the Orient. Each group sings the songs it brought along from somewhere else--most of it not 'Californian' in nature."

Consequently, Cowell's aim became that of exploring the heterogeneous folk music traditions in the state and collecting as many samples from as many different groups as she could. California Folk Music, for her, came to be defined in the widest possible sense as any music, song, or dance tune, which was orally transmitted and current in the years when she was collecting in the state.

The recordings Cowell made are wide-ranging in character and offer a truly ethnographic perspective of northern California folk music. Cowell was eager to record ethnic music and her California collection is remarkable in this respect. In fact, before the field recordings she made in the Midwest in 1936-37 and then in California, there are few examples of ethnographically-documented recorded ethnic music made in the United States that include much beyond African American, Native American, French, or Spanish music.

Cowell's California recordings are also varied in style and origin, not adhering to strict folk music collecting guidelines of the time regarding whether a song was considered authentically "traditional" or not. She did not restrict what her performers felt should be recorded. Cowell's open-mindedness along these lines allow us to hear both popular and traditional melodies performed at the time, and in this regard, she offers us a cross-section of home-grown musical traditions for the groups she recorded.

Among the English-language songs, one finds, for example, tunes from the California Gold rush era, Barbary Coast songs, ragtime melodies, Cornish sailors' shanties, and popular songs from the turn of the century. There is also music of recent migrants from the Midwest, such as the Ford brothers from northern Wisconsin, who came to work in the CCC camps at the Shasta Dam.

Included in the collection of foreign-language recordings are examples of Hungarian salon music "composed" in the early part of the century. There are also recent Icelandic songs about emigrating to Vancouver collected side by side with Old Norse rimur said to stem from the twelfth century in Iceland. The collection includes lovely traditional Gaelic love songs, Hungarian Christmas carols, lively Armenian dance melodies on a variety of instruments, Spanish-Californian mission music, Dalmatian oral epic, and melismatic Russian Molokan hymns from a San Francisco congregation. Cowell sought to represent what people were actively performing--not just their memories of it.

In the California project, she also took advantage of a variety of contexts that allow us to hear where and how the music she recorded was being performed. For example, Cowell recorded popular tunes played by a band at a Mexican wedding, songs sung at a Hungarian New Year's Eve Party, and Gold Rush songs performed in noisy Tuolumne County bars.
WPA Draftsmen making construction drawings of folk instruments at the Shattuck Ave. Berkeley office of
the California Folk Music Project.
WPA Draftsmen making construction drawings of folk instruments at the Shattuck Ave. Berkeley office of the California Folk Music Project.
She frequently asked performers to introduce themselves and the songs they were singing, an innovative idea at the time. Fieldnotes jotted hastily on the dust jackets while instantaneous recordings were being made, are evocative and illuminating. When George Vinton Graham forgot his words while singing, Cowell jotted down that "Mr. Graham's gravity was disturbed by the antics of the photographer."

Cowell made detailed notes regarding the quality of the recordings, such as that "All the McCready recordings have a hum, due to fan in Arizona Bar--the fan brought the temperature down to 90 degrees at 6 p.m." While recording Sam Blackburn singing "She's More To Be Pitied Than Censured," Cowell noted that the record was made "in the milk house--occasional noises are due to milk running over cooling pipes." This is invaluable information for us now, and informative, as well. Many folk music collections from this era simply lack these kinds of vital documentary comments.

It should be noted that there are a handful of recorded songs in this collection, made by both English- and foreign-language performers, that contain offensive ethnic or racial stereotypes, slurs, or caricatures. As has been mentioned before, Cowell collected the music that people were singing, without restriction. To her credit, however, she frequently draws attention, in dust jacket notes, to the fact that a specific song contains offensive lyrics. These materials have not been included in this online presentation of the collection.

The Northern California WPA Folk Music Collection does not only provide a set of recordings representing a range of traditional and popular music collected during a specific era. This collection, taken as a whole, also tells much about the details of ethnographic fieldwork at its best during the New Deal era of the late thirties.

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.

Chronology of the life of Sidney Robertson Cowell.

California Folk Music

am Jun-27-97