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Collection California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell

About this Collection

This online presentation, California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties, comprises 35 hours of folk music recorded in 12 languages representing numerous ethnic groups and 185 musicians. It includes sound recordings, still photographs of the performers, drawings of folk instruments, and written documentation from a variety of European ethnic and English- and Spanish-speaking communities in northern California in the 1930s.

This New Deal project was organized and directed by folk music collector Sidney Robertson Cowell for the Northern California Work Projects Administration. Sponsored by the University of California, Berkeley, and cosponsored by the Archive of American Folk Song (now the American Folklife Center archive), this undertaking was one of the earliest ethnographic field projects to document European, Slavic, Middle Eastern, and English- and Spanish-language folk music in one region of the United States. Cowell had hopes that it would provide a prototype for a national folk music collecting effort. With this, the scope of the project was broad, in ethnographic terms, and went well beyond the actual sound recordings. Photographs of the musicians in performance were made, as were scale drawings and sketches of some of the musical instruments. Among other things, a detailed check-list and a catalog of index cards were compiled for the recordings and research was done on the songs recorded. Fieldnotes were kept regarding the context of the performance and the background of the music and instruments, recorded on "Yellow Song Check-Lists" by WPA staff and on the dust jackets of the acetate discs by Cowell as recordings were being made.

In the transcriptions of text, capitalization and spelling reflect that of the original documentation.  Sidney Robertson Cowell was not familiar with some of the languages that she recorded and her spelling is approximate. Where the text was illegible, bracketed question marks represent the number of words that cannot be interpreted; e.g., "[???] while he [??]" means "[three unintelligible words] while he [two unintelligible words]." Where a good guess could be made, the word and a question mark have been placed in brackets, e.g., [malversation?]. Corrections are being made as research continues on this collection.

The still photographs in this collection were made by Sidney Robertson Cowell, WPA staff photographers, J. L. Hall, John Bateman, and possibly others. The originals are housed variously in the Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress; the Music Division, Library of Congress; or in the Music Library collections at the University of California, Berkeley. The blueprint drawings and pencil on butcher block paper sketches were made by WPA draftsmen Jos. H. Handon, G. McCarthy, and possibly others. The originals are housed in the Music Library collections at the University of California, Berkeley.

This collection provides a remarkable survey of living folk musical traditions found in Northern California during the late 1930s and 1940 in a wide variety of musical styles. It includes the folk music of immigrants who arrived in the United States from the turn of the century through the 1920s, American popular songs current from 1900 through 1940, not to mention old California songs from the gold-rush era and before, old medicine show tunes, San Francisco Barbary Coast songs, and ragtime.