California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties. Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell
California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties is a multi-format ethnographic collection that contains more than 35 hours of recorded folk music, as well as still photographs, drawings, and written documents. European ethnic, Spanish- and English-speaking communities are represented.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
- The Ethnographic Experience: Sidney Robertson Cowell in Northern California
- Glossary of Musical Instruments
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.
- The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
- Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
- Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930
- The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
Related Collections and Exhibits
- American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940
- American Variety Stage, 1870-1920
- California as I Saw It: First Person Narratives, 1849-1900
- Civil War Photographs, 1861-1865
- FSA/OWI Photographs, 1935-1945
- Hispano Music and Culture of the Northern Rio Grande
- Map Collections, 1500-2004
- The New Deal Stage: Federal Theater Project, 1935-1939
- Panoramic Maps, 1847-1929
- Southern Mosaic: The Lomax Southern States Recording Trip
Recommended additional sources of information.
- The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
- Folklife Sourcebook: A Directory of Folklife Resources in the United States
- Folklife and Fieldwork: A Layman's Introduction to Field Techniques
- A Teacher's Guide to Folklife Resources for K-12
Specific guidance for searching this collection.
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
**Note: Some folksongs portray stereotypes to varying degrees, and some contain profanity, while others clearly present a certain religious point of view.
California Gold covers several topics for historical exploration including the Works Project Administration, the immigrant experience, and the methodology used to gather folkways.
The Work Projects Administration
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Work Projects Administration (WPA) was created by the U.S. Government to provide jobs of all kinds including work for artistsand historians. The WPA California Folk Music Project was organized by Sidney Robertson Cowell, and it was under her direction that the materials found in California Gold were obtained.
Cowell and her staff recorded over 35 hours of folk music for the project. California Gold also contains photographs of some of the performers, notes and correspondence made during the project, and an interesting variety of musical instruments that were recorded, photographed, and sketched.
Questions for students to consider:
- What factors might have lead the U.S. government to establish the Work Projects Administration (WPA) in the 1930s?
- What other kinds of projects were initiated under the WPA?
- Why was it important to collect music or other art forms? Is it still important today?
The Immigrant Experience
A variety of national and ethnic groups settled the region of Northern California, and they are represented in the recordings of the collection. Students can get a glimpse of the beliefs and customs that these groups brought with them to their new home.
Browse the list of Ethnic, Cultural, and Language Groups to find photographs, songs, and transcriptions related to the music of these different peoples.
Cowell's notes on the record sleeve say, "Sung by Mrs. Avila's children's chorus for the Portuguese minister to Washington -- sung at his request since he knew it as a child." Why might this person want to hear a song from his childhood?
Ask students to imagine that they must move to another country, with no prospect of return. They are allowed to bring only one trunk. What kinds of things would they bring with them to remember their life here? What songs would remind them of home?
Sidney Robertson Cowell's correspondence provides an excellent sense of the way she worked. For an overview, take a look at The Ethnographic Experience: Sidney Robertson Cowell in Northern California.
For a first-person account, search on correspondence to find Cowell's written record of the project. For example, you'll find Instructions to WPA Staff, which includes guidelines for the WPA workers concerning the criteria for recording a song:
We want to preserve a song:
1) If it was widely current at a time, known to and sung by many people;
2) If it has been known to several generations in a family;
3) If it is an account of a true happening, with local details and place names, even if it was not known widely; or if it tells about the early days in general (lumber camps mining camps, the crossing of the plains; crimes, catastrophes; any local trade;)
4) If it is a special favorite and particularly good fun to sing.
From Instructions to WPA Staff, by Sidney Robertson Cowell, ca. 1938
The sound recordings in California Gold were gathered in less than two years, but the songs themselves cover a wide range of topics regarding American history.
Students can make an American history time line of songs. Students might search on Revolution, War of 1812, California gold rush, Civil War, World War I, and Prohibition. Students can also use the Subject Index to help them locate these and other related topics.
This collection provides students with an excellent opportunity to use visual, literary, and music sources to get a sense of what life was like for a particular group of people in California in the 1930s. Students can begin their research with the listing of Ethnic, Cultural, and Language Groups in California Gold. Selecting one of the group names will allow the students to explore the relevant sound recordings, photographs, drawings, and other materials collected by Cowell.
For example, in the listing for the Spanish group, students will find all manner of information about Spanish-Americans and their musical traditions. Compiling this information with further research, students can address these questions:
- What brought these people to this land?
- What were some of the cultural traditions that they maintained?
- How did the history of this group of people affect the history of the region?
Historical Analysis and Interpretation
Using the songs in the collection, students can compare and contrast points of view on different topics in American History.
For example, search on Civil War to find a listing of songs that were sung by the opposing sides. The Good Old Rebel is one represention of the southern point of view, while The Cumberland's Crew, is one representation of the northern point of view.
Or, students might analyze different points of view during the early 20th century concerning alcohol by searching on temperance, prohibition, and drinking songs.
After further research on their chosen topic, ask students to assume the role of members of the two opposing sides, and hold formal debates on the topic. You might also require students to be prepared to defend either point of view.
Historical Research Capabilities
Students can analyze a sound recording, asking questions such as:
- Who performed the song? When was it recorded?
- What is the point of view, background, and interest of the author? The performer?
- Does the song tell a story? What about? Where could you find more information about the subject matter?
For example, search on gold mines to find information regarding the California Gold Rush. Students can then choose one of the songs to analyze, such as The California Emigrant, (sung to the tune of "Oh Susannah"):
Like Argos of the ancient times,
I'll leave this modern Greece;
I'm bound to California mines,
To find the Golden fleece.
For who would work from morn to night
And live on hog and corn,
When one can pick up there at sight
Enough to buy a farm.
O California! that's the land for me,
I'm going to California the gold dust for to see.
Arts & Humanities
In conjunction with a music class or choral class, students could produce and perform a show of folk songs from California Gold. Many of the songs in the collection are represented by both a textual transcription as well as a sound recording of someone performing the song. In some cases, there is also a melodic transcription of the song.
Students could pick some of their favorite songs to perform, or they could choose a theme for their production. For example, they might decide to focus on humorous songs, children's songs, Spanish lullabies, or English ballads.
Snooky-oo-kums, performed by Mrs. Byron Coffin, Sr., 1939
Students can write their own words for a song. The song could be set to a folk tune found in the collection. Ask students to think carefully about the purpose and intended audience for the song. Is the song meant to tell a story? To make people laugh? To celebrate a particular event?
You might also ask students to collaborate on writing the lyrics for several songs that revolve around a particular theme found in California Gold. Students could then do further research on their topic, and make a museum display which included a recorded version of their songs.
From Verse to Prose
Students could study some of the ballads and write out the stories in their own words, as short stories or as plays.
Search on English ballads to find a number of tales told in music that could be transformed into prose. For example, students might listen to the recording and read the text to "Alonzo the Brave and the Fair Imogene," then rewrite the story with their own details or a different ending.
Foreign Language Study
California Gold contains many songs in a number of different languages. As a part of their foreign language study, students could be asked to learn the song in the original language, as well as translate the lyrics.
Search on Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Russian to find both sound recordings and transcriptions of songs in these languages.