WPA Music Collector Sidney Robertson Discovers California Gold

Courtesy, Sidney Robertson Cowell Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

From 1938 to 1940, Sidney Robertson directed and carried out a remarkable ethnomusicological survey—the WPA California Folk Music Project. Born in San Francisco in 1903, Sidney had grown up in a privileged home punctuated by high cultural activities and training that included yearly trips to Europe in her teens. She played the piano and taught music at the Peninsula School for Creative Education in Menlo Park during the mid-1920s where she became aware of the enlivening effects that folk tunes and folk dance had on her young students. In the early 1930s, Sidney became disillusioned with her “self-indulgent” life among progressive artists and intellectuals on the West Coast. She wished to engage in socially useful work as the Depression worsened. She traveled East in 1935, eventually making contact with Charles Seeger, musicologist, professor and composer, who was then the head of the “Music Unit” in the Special Skills Division of the Resettlement Administration. Joining his RA staff, she learned how to make recordings, traveling widely on her own collecting folk music.

In 1937, at age 34, Sidney returned to her native California and sought support for continuing to collect the folk music that fascinated her. By working with the WPA’s Northern California office in San Francisco and nurturing contacts at the Library of Congress and through her New Deal connections, Sidney conceived and planned the contours of an ambitious project to document the diverse musical culture in the state.

WPA California Folk Music Project staff at work in UC-Berkeley office on Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, California, 1938
Courtesy, Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress supplied Sidney with 12-inch blank acetate discs for recording and became the central repository of the materials she collected (currently at the Library’s American Folklife Center in Washington, DC). The University of California, Berkeley provided supplies and office space on campus for the twenty staff Robertson handpicked from the California relief rolls, as required by the WPA. The UC Berkeley Music Library holds an array of materials from the Project, including photographs of the musicians, sketches and technical drawings of many of the musical instruments and documentation predominantly researched by WPA staff.

Sidney was eager to hire unemployed individuals who would be helpful to her in her research while she was seeking out performers and recording them. She was able to engage professional photographers, draftsmen and researchers seeking work, plus a variety of others who could assist her in making connections with the cultural groups whose music she would collect. From October 1938 through early 1940, Sidney recorded 35 hours of music from over 180 performers, two thirds from European and Middle Eastern cultural backgrounds and the remaining third from English-language performers.

Mr. Franks playing an English guitar, Manuel Lemos and Alberto Mendes playing Portuguese songs on violas d’arame. Richmond, California, 1939
Part of California Folk Music Project. Courtesy, Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center.

In an article penned for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1938, Sidney highlighted California’s rich cultural diversity and history—its Native heritage, early Spanish and Portuguese arrivals, well before many English speakers had settled there. She wrote: “the inroads of settlers drawn by the discovery of gold contributed strains from the five continents and the seven seas . . . How can we believe that these successive waves of hard-working citizens contributed nothing to California beyond the work of their hands? What traditions came with them? What were they thinking and feeling? . . . Their songs will tell us, if we can find them.”

Blueprint, Portuguese viola, W.P.A.
California Folk Music Project collection. Courtesy, Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center.

Sidney considered her recordings to be representative of a cross-section of the very diverse and lively music that was actively being performed in California, whether generated by speakers of English, recent immigrants or migrants who had arrived from elsewhere in the US during the Depression. Much of what she documented in California had received no attention before. Consistently, she sought to counteract the anti-foreign sentiment of the times, determined to demonstrate the state’s rich and varied cultural make-up by focusing on the performance of traditional music.

New Deal initiatives, such as the WPA California Folk Music Project and the activities of the RA’s Music Unit, served to validate the musical traditions of exemplary, yet so often, unsung Americans in radical ways. They also preserved the creative artistry of those they recorded for future generations.

Learn more about the WPA California Folk Music Project, with links to recordings, photographs, drawings and sketches and much more.

WATCH the Living New Deal webinar, “Folk Music and the New Deal: Collecting the Hidden Soundtracks of the Great Depression,” featuring Sheryl Koskowitz and Catherine Kerst.

Catherine Hiebert Kerst, former Folklife Specialist and Archivist in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, is author of the forthcoming book, California Gold, Sidney Robertson and the WPA California Folk Music Project (UC Press, April 2024).