California Gold covers several topics for historical exploration including the Works Project Administration, the immigrant experience, and the methodology used to gather folkways.
The Work Projects Administration
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Work Projects Administration (WPA) was created by the U.S. Government to provide jobs of all kinds including work for artistsand historians. The WPA California Folk Music Project was organized by Sidney Robertson Cowell, and it was under her direction that the materials found in California Gold were obtained.
Cowell and her staff recorded over 35 hours of folk music for the project. California Gold also contains photographs of some of the performers, notes and correspondence made during the project, and an interesting variety of musical instruments that were recorded, photographed, and sketched.
Questions for students to consider:
- What factors might have lead the U.S. government to establish the Work Projects Administration (WPA) in the 1930s?
- What other kinds of projects were initiated under the WPA?
- Why was it important to collect music or other art forms? Is it still important today?
The Immigrant Experience
A variety of national and ethnic groups settled the region of Northern California, and they are represented in the recordings of the collection. Students can get a glimpse of the beliefs and customs that these groups brought with them to their new home.
Browse the list of Ethnic, Cultural, and Language Groups to find photographs, songs, and transcriptions related to the music of these different peoples.
Cowell's notes on the record sleeve say, "Sung by Mrs. Avila's children's chorus for the Portuguese minister to Washington -- sung at his request since he knew it as a child." Why might this person want to hear a song from his childhood?
Ask students to imagine that they must move to another country, with no prospect of return. They are allowed to bring only one trunk. What kinds of things would they bring with them to remember their life here? What songs would remind them of home?
Sidney Robertson Cowell's correspondence provides an excellent sense of the way she worked. For an overview, take a look at The Ethnographic Experience: Sidney Robertson Cowell in Northern California.
For a first-person account, search on correspondence to find Cowell's written record of the project. For example, you'll find Instructions to WPA Staff, which includes guidelines for the WPA workers concerning the criteria for recording a song:
We want to preserve a song:
1) If it was widely current at a time, known to and sung by many people;
2) If it has been known to several generations in a family;
3) If it is an account of a true happening, with local details and place names, even if it was not known widely; or if it tells about the early days in general (lumber camps mining camps, the crossing of the plains; crimes, catastrophes; any local trade;)
4) If it is a special favorite and particularly good fun to sing.
From Instructions to WPA Staff, by Sidney Robertson Cowell, ca. 1938