Sidney Robertson Cowell, copying California Folk Music Project recordings for the Library of Congress. Photo taken in the project office on Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, California in early 1939. AFC 1940/001: P001.
Born Sidney William Hawkins in San Francisco, California. She earned her B.A., Stanford University in Romance Languages and Philology. In 1924 she married Kenneth Greg Robertson and, the same year, enrolled in Ecole Normale de Musique for piano study; attended her husband's courses in psychiatry at the University of Paris as interpreter; took seminars with Carl Jung in Zurich, Switzerland.
Between 1926 and 1932 she taught music at the Peninsula School for Creative Education, Menlo Park, California; also studied counterpoint and analysis with Ernest Bloch and the music of non-European cultures with Henry Cowell at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
She was divorced from Kenneth Robertson in 1934.
Between 1935 and 1936 she served as director of the Social Music Program, Henry Street Settlement, Lower East Side, New York. In 1936 she worked as music assistant to Charles Seeger, chief of the Music Unit, Special Skills Division (KL), in the Resettlement Administration in Washington, DC. In this capacity, began to collect folk music in Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina using a new portable sound recording device to produce acetate discs on aluminum.
Robertson served as regional representative of the Special Skills, Resettlement Administration in 1937, where she recorded Swedish, Lithuanian, Norwegian, and Finnish music at the 4th National Folk Festival, held in Chicago. Also collected recordings of Warde Forde and his family in northern Wisconsin (who moved to California to work in the CCC camps at the Shasta Dam, where they were recorded for this collection), and Serbian, Finnish, and Gaelic music in Minnesota. She worked briefly for the Farm Security Administration to help integrate new communities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan into existing community life. That same year she traveled to Washington, D.C., and California to explore plans for developing and funding folk song collecting projects through New Deal arts organizations. Began to do fieldwork for folk music research in California.
In 1938 Robertson received endorsement from the Music Division at the Library of Congress and 200 blank acetate discs for recording folk music in California, under the provision that the Library's Archive of American Folk Song receive the original field recordings. She also received agreement from the Music Division at the University of California, Berkeley, for co-sponsorship for their support in providing office space for her folk music project.
Through the sponsorship of the Library of Congress and the University of California, Berkeley, Robertson was able to apply for and receive official WPA (Works Projects Administration) approval for her California Folk Music Project through the Berkeley office of the Northern District of the WPA in California. As such, she received help from 20 persons on the labor rolls. The California Folk Music Project opened on October 28, 1938.
The California Folk Music Project was closed in 1940, due to lack of the renewal of WPA funds, which were intended to allow for the collection of Asian folk music during an additional two years. Compiled and published The Gold Rush Song Book with Eleanora Black.
She married the composer Henry Cowell in 1940.
Sidney Robertson Cowell published (with Alan Lomax) Bibliography of American Folk-Song and Folklore in 1942.
- Cowell, Sidney Robertson. The Recording of Folk Music in California. 1942.
- California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties (American Memory)