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

The WPA California Folk Music Project

The WPA California Folk Music Project [1938-40] was the result of a joint effort of the Work Projects Administration, the Library of Congress, and the Music Division of the University of California, Berkeley. It was officially sponsored by the University of California at Berkeley and co-sponsored by the Archive of American Folk-Song, then in the Music Division, at the Library of Congress.

The California Folk Music Project, conceived and directed by Sidney Robertson Cowell, was intended to be a representative collection of folk music being actively performed in Northern California. The project was one of the earliest attempts to document the performance of English-language and non-Black, non-American Indian, ethnic folk music in 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.

Under the direction of Sidney Robertson Cowell, the California Folk Music Project employed an average of twenty persons at 2108 Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley from October 1938 through March 1940. On her own, Cowell researched and recorded the thirty-five hours of folk music in California representing sixteen English and foreign-language groups, primarily of European origin. She also supervised the personnel hired to catalog and index the collection, to research and classify the folk music from an ethnomusicological perspective, and to provide photographs of the performers and drawings of their folk instruments.

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 1920's, 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.

Cowell was most interested in organizing and conducting ethnographic and folk musical studies on a nationwide basis in order to engage in broader and more comprehensive fieldwork than was being done at the time. She discussed her plans with Luther Evans, an old Stanford friend who was then Librarian of Congress. He suggested that the WPA (Work Projects Administration) might be willing to fund her project. The WPA contacts Cowell made through Evans felt that such an undertaking could best be initiated on a state-by-state basis. In fact, Cowell was virtually promised WPA funding for a prototype of her collecting plan in any single state, providing she could get the necessary 50 percent for the equipment, supplies, and rent required for government projects of this kind. With such support, she was expected to devise work that could keep from twenty to forty people employed and also to be acceptable to at least three sponsors. Cowell chose to pursue the project in her native California, where she sought sponsorship for it through the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University late in 1937.

Cowell found a willing sponsor for her folk music collecting plans in California in the Music Division of the University of California, Berkeley, under the chairmanship of Albert Elkus. With Elkus's help, Cowell's project received university support for space and equipment. And, because she conceived her collecting project as multi-disciplinary in character, Cowell made contacts with interested faculty members in a variety of university departments. This group, drawn from the fields of music, anthropology, sociology, literature, and history eventually became the core of the Berkeley advisory committee that provided guidance for the project.

With the University of California as an official sponsor, Cowell was able to apply for WPA funds to hire personnel to assist her in the task of collecting and documenting Northern California folk music. Once WPA sponsorship of the project was established, the Folk Archive at the Library of Congress, then under the leadership of Harold Spivacke, chief of the Music Division, agreed to co-sponsor it by providing 12-inch acetate discs for the recordings the folk music and by offering cataloging assistance in organizing the collection. For additional non-labor items, which the WPA would not cover, such as catalog cards or travel expenses, the project received financial support from the California State Relief Agency.

Beyond illuminating the musical culture and experience of numerous cultural groups in Northern California, this collection gives an in-depth view of the process of conceiving and carrying out an ethnographic field project. Seen as a whole, it presents materials rich in ethnographic detail, brought together under the expert direction and documentary expertise of a significant woman ethnomusicologist and collector of folk music.

Custodial Divisions Housing the Collection

This collection was organized and described by archivists at Archive of Folk Culture at the American Folklife Center, the repository for the bulk of the collection; certain original materials remain in the custody of the Music Division and the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. The drawings of musical instruments are from the holdings of the Music Library at the University of California, Berkeley.