Top of page

Collection Voices from the Dust Bowl: the Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940 to 1941

The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Collecting Expedition

The ethnographic collection created by Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin provides a glimpse of the everyday life and cultural expression of people living through a particularly difficult period of American history, the Great Depression and Dust Bowl era. The motivation for the Todd/Sonkin expedition to document life in the FSA migrant camps of California arose from a combination of circumstances. Charles L. Todd held a longstanding interest in balladry, acquired during his undergraduate studies of English literature. He also had a more general interest in folk music. Todd held firmly to the premise that folksong was a form of journalism carried out orally. Ultimately, however, it was John Steinbeck's portrayal of the San Joaquin Valley migrant camps in a pamphlet entitled "Their Blood is Strong" that inspired him to investigate the camps firsthand.

In 1938, Charles Todd planned a trip to visit his mother and stepfather, an avocado rancher, at their home in California. Still a graduate student at the time, he decided to do a little work to underwrite the expenses of his summer vacation. Todd procured a freelance assignment to write an article for the magazine Common Sense (precursor of The New Republic). The article gives an overview of the historical, economic, and social context in which this collection was created. A later article, published in the New York Times Magazine, provides further contextual information. It was also during this period that Charles Todd met Robert Sonkin, while they were both working in the Department of Public Speaking at the City College of New York. Sonkin, whose work was in speech, approached the project from a different perspective than did his partner. According to Todd, "[Sonkin] had this passion for Americana. He was a great linguistics man, fascinated by American speech."

While visiting the camps, Todd became aware of the intangible possession the migrants had brought with them: their cultural heritage and in particular, the ballads and other folksongs they performed and enjoyed. Todd eagerly contacted Alan Lomax, then Assistant in Charge of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, to arrange support for a recording expedition to the camps. Lomax subsequently agreed to make the Archive's resources available.

Charles L. Todd prepares to record using the Presto disc recorder, California, 1941.

In 1940 and 1941, the Archive provided Todd and Sonkin with a Presto disc recording machine, recording discs, needles, and batteries. At first the team used acetate-on-aluminum discs, but as the war effort got underway and aluminum became scarce, they were forced to switch to heavier, more fragile acetate-on-glass recording discs. The recording equipment used by Todd and Sonkin was the latest technology at the time, yet at a weight of approximately eighty pounds, the Presto disc recorder was hardly what we would consider portable today. The recorder worked by engraving tracks into the acetate coating of the discs with a stylus. Due to the fragility of the glass discs, some of the recordings made by Todd and Sonkin have not survived. Thus, in this online presentation, there are some song texts, fieldnotes, and recording log entries for which there are no corresponding recordings. Unfortunately, among the lost discs were those containing recordings of the only Spanish-language musical performances documented by Todd and Sonkin.

Along with the equipment, the Archive provided the team with instructions on how to go about collecting material. In a letter dated July 20, 1940 (see correspondence 1940-1941, image 4), Alan Lomax outlines a methodology for documentation. In addition, Todd and Sonkin received the WPA Folksong Questionnaire and training in the use of the recording equipment. Thus armed with equipment and trained in collecting techniques, Todd and Sonkin set off on the first leg of their expedition. In July and August of 1940, they visited the Arvin, Shafter, Visalia, Firebaugh, Westley, Thornton, and Yuba City FSA Camps. Due to the constraints of the school calendar, Todd and Sonkin were forced to return to New York at summer's end to resume their duties at the City College of New York. In August and September of 1941, the pair returned to California to visit the Shafter, Arvin, Visalia, Porterville, and El Rio FSA Camps. Their first stop, the Arvin Migratory Labor Camp, is notable both as the first camp of its kind in California and as the camp where John Steinbeck worked on The Grapes of Wrath.

The conditions under which Todd and Sonkin made the recordings in this collection were not always conducive to the production of the studio-quality sound that listeners today have come to expect. Along with conversations and musical performances, Todd and Sonkin could not help but record a variety of ambient sounds that, in conjunction with the fieldnotes, provide an aural portrait of the migrant camps. In venues such as sewing rooms; ironing rooms; arts and crafts sheds; nurseries; camp libraries; recreation halls; and residential units including tents, metal shelters, and "adobes"; they carried out their documentation efforts. In addition, the recordings were made at various events including "literary" evenings at Visalia; social gatherings in people's homes; Saturday night dances; camp council meetings; camp court proceedings; and two "folk festivals," multi-camp events arranged for the benefit of the researchers. Throughout the recordings we hear children playing, doors slamming, trains passing by, and the hum of "desert coolers" -- described by Sonkin as electric fans covered with wet burlap -- that operated at public gatherings for the comfort of participants and spectators.

Ambient noise was not the only problem Todd and Sonkin had to contend with, however. Because their equipment was battery-operated, the mechanism would occasionally speed up during the recording session. This effect can be heard on some of the recordings in the collection. Securing supplies, such as recording discs, and batteries, was another problem. Fieldworkers had to request additional supplies from Washington and then await their arrival. In addition, many of the performers wanted copies of their recorded performances, which Todd and Sonkin were not always able to provide. Finally, there was the problem of the fragility of the glass recording discs as mentioned above.

Todd and Sonkin were not the only ones drawn to document the plight of the Dust Bowl refugees. According to Charles Todd, the camps were "full of Ph.D. scholars and do-gooders studying the real people." Much to his dismay, he learned that some of the songs they recorded chronicling the plight of the Dust Bowl migrants had been composed by an unidentified "Ph.D. from Vassar". Other researchers preceding Todd and Sonkin in the field were Resettlement Administration workers -- such as Margaret Valiant, who also made recordings of musical performances in the migrant camps and elsewhere -- and writers such as John Steinbeck. Contemporary with Todd and Sonkin were FSA photographers, such as Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, and Arthur Rothstein, as well as myriad journalists. In his later capacity as assistant camp manager at the Tulare FSA camp, Charles Todd was afforded the opportunity to see both Margaret Bourke-White and Arthur Rothstein at work photographing life in the camps. Some of the Rothstein photos are included in this online presentation.

A final difficulty encountered by Todd and Sonkin in the field was that of oral communication. Although both worked in the City College Speech Clinic at the time, they were frequently perplexed by turns of phrase employed by the migrants. For example, the performers referred to the songs they had created to tell the stories of their displacement and subsequent experiences as "migracious" songs. Charles Todd relates that he thought the performers were identifying these numbers as "My gracious!" songs, but he later realized that they were referring to their migratory, or "migracious," experiences.

Telegram to Mrs. Roosevelt
Telegram to Mrs. Roosevelt

Neither the 1941 fieldnotes nor any reports summarizing the expedition are contained among the items in this collection; thus, we have no clear picture of how the fieldwork was concluded. We do know that the collecting expedition achieved a degree of notoriety because Todd and Sonkin were invited to the White House to play some of their recordings for the President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt in September 1941. From the correspondence we may surmise that Robert Sonkin returned to his teaching post at the City College of New York. We know that Charles L. Todd returned to California in 1942, and worked as associate manager of the Tulare Migrant Camp in Visalia. As World War II wore on, Todd, Sonkin, Alan Lomax, and many of the migrant workers were subsumed by the war effort either through conscription or through work in the defense industry.