Juan Felipe Herrera visits the American Folklife Center and discusses the WPA California Folk Music Project Collection with curator Cathy Kerst. View the webcast, read the Poet Laureate’s poem response, and learn more about the collection from the curator.
As a teen in San Diego, California, I would run to the upstairs floor of the main library on 9th and E Street, gather folk albums, and lock myself up in a music room with a phonograph in front of me. That’s how I first heard Bob Dylan, Josh White, Peter Paul and Mary, and the glass-shaking soprano folk pioneer Joan Baez. When I visited the American Folklife Center Reading Room, I was ecstatic to see a Presto 6D model instantaneous disc recorder—the kind of recorder that Sidney Robertson Cowell used to capture the songs of working-class life, with guitars and fiddles and banjos with some vittles on the side, for the WPA California Folk Music Project. Her machine gave us the dreamy and rough voices of our early American travelers, who carried their instruments in a sack and their voices over railroad tracks, from my home state all the way to our library and you.
In the below poem I imagine Cowell’s recorder as a keeper of the music and words of our pioneers—its incredible glowing microphone into which singers and speakers poured their voices. Without devices like the Presto 6D, and ethnographers like Sidney Robertson Cowell, I would not have dreamed enough to be a poet. Now it is time for you to dream, sing, and write—I hope you find something to address, through your poetry, in the Library’s WPA California Folk Music Project collection.
i Go w/You
black box fizz
electric cord mic chrome
juice across galaxy now you &
me we sit 2 gather
& i speak you listen
then you speak
Juan Felipe Herrera
21st Poet Laureate of the United States
The WPA California Folk Music Project is a multi-format ethnographic collection that includes sound recordings, still photographs, drawings, and written materials documenting a variety of European ethnic and English- and Spanish-speaking communities in Northern California. The collection comprises 35 hours of folk music recorded in twelve languages that represents numerous ethnic groups and 185 musicians.
This elaborate New Deal project was conceived and carried out by folk music collector Sidney Robertson Cowell (1903-1995) for the Northern California Work Projects Administration. It 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.
From 1938 to 1940, while in her thirties, Sidney Robertson Cowell, ethnographer and collector of traditional American music, single-handedly organized and directed the California Work Projects Administration project designed to survey musical traditions in Northern California. The result of the project was a remarkable, and quite modern field collection. Not only did the project generate a wealth of musical and cultural documentation from a wide variety of groups at a certain time in California history, it also provided, through the ebullient presence of Cowell, a vicarious experience of what it means to do ethnographic fieldwork. The value of this multi-faceted collection is that one is invited to hear the voices, see the faces, and sample the cultural context of the performers being recorded.
Cowell was eager to record the kinds of folk music being performed in homes and other venues in California that had not received much attention. Among other things, she wanted to explore ethnic as well as English-language musical traditions. The WPA Northern California Folk Music Project (1938-40) was the result of her efforts. It was co-sponsored by the Music Department of the University of California, Berkeley and the Library of Congress. Its scope was broad, in ethnographic terms, and went well beyond the 35 hours of instantaneous sound recordings she made on twelve-inch acetate discs. One third of the recordings represented English-language material, and the other two thirds, the music of numerous ethnic groups, primarily European, including Armenian, Basque, Croatian, Finnish, Gaelic, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian (including Sicilian), Norwegian, Russian Molokan, Scottish, and Spanish. There was music of Portuguese from the Azores, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Spanish-speaking settlers whose forefathers had come to California beginning in the 1600s. In addition, 168 photographs of the musicians and their instruments were made, and field documentation of many kinds and textures was gathered. It was an elaborately-conceived project.
The Library of Congress supplied Cowell with 237 blank acetate discs, under the provision that the original copies of the sound recordings, once made, be returned to the library. Through the co-sponsorship of the UC-Berkeley Music Department, Cowell's project received university support for space and equipment on campus.
The California Folk Music Project provides an excellent opportunity to survey the traditional music being performed and enjoyed by numerous and diverse communities of people in 1930s California. It also gives us a glimpse of the ethnographic style and character of an energetic and capable woman folk music collector who, through the existence of the WPA, had the opportunity to take charge of and carry out an ambitious folk music collecting project. Cowell's successes in the California Folk Music Project fit well with the New Deal dynamism and creativity that generated similar cooperative efforts meant to document and validate the lives of exemplary, yet so often unsung Americans.
Catherine Hiebert Kerst
Folklife Specialist/Cataloger, American Folklife Center