Title: “‘Henry’s Koreans’: Defining California’s “Folk” in Sidney Robertson’s California Folk Music Project, 1938–1940.” Society for American Music annual meeting, Sacramento, CA, March 2015.
Abstract: Sidney Robertson’s California Folk Music Project was by far the most diverse collection made for the WPA. She aimed not only to define “California” folk music, but also to record the music of communities that fell out of the much-coveted Anglo-American folk song canon, including the Asian music she knew through Henry Cowell. Despite her pluralistic intentions, Robertson was forced to pare back the scope of her collection. This paper examines what she was able to record—and what she had to exclude—and the broader implications for defining national identity in terms of race and culture during the Depression.
Title: “The Folk by Committee: Interdisciplinary Negotiations, Fieldwork Practices, and Constructed Identities in Government-Sponsored Folk Music Collecting in the 1930s.” Society for Ethnomusicology annual meeting, Pittsburgh, PA, November 2014.
Abstract: Beginning in the mid-1930s, government fieldworkers equipped with instantaneous disc recording machines canvassed the nation in search of folklore, including folk music, for the purpose of documenting the lives of ordinary U.S. citizens during the Depression. Through programs such as the Federal Music, Theatre, and Writers’ Projects, and the WPA Joint Committee on Folk Arts, collectors such as Herbert Halpert, Zora Neale Hurston, Stetson Kennedy, and Sidney Robertson collected thousands of songs that were subsequently deposited in the Archive of American Folk Song (AAFS) at the Library of Congress. Among the people overseeing and counseling these fieldworkers were Benjamin A. Botkin, George Herzog, John and Alan Lomax, and Charles Seeger, each of whom had strong opinions on the nature of the work they were doing. Through the use of primary source materials and archival research, as well as contemporaneous and more recent scholarship on the function and utility of folk song collecting, this paper examines the complex relationships among these principal characters, the intersections and divergences among their fieldwork philosophies, and the role that the Archive played in shaping folk song collection practices—and folk identity—in the United States in the 1930s and beyond.
Title: “Passing Tones: The representation of Race in the Folk Song Recordings of the Florida Federal Writers’ Project.” Society for American Music annual meeting, Lancaster, PA, March 6, 2014.
Abstract: In the mid-1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project began preparing its landmark American Guide Series, a set of tour guides designed to provide useful information for the curious traveler and to document the history of a particular state or region. Folklore—and folk songs in particular—were included as a display of local color. In the case of Florida, this prospect proved to be far thornier than had been expected. This paper investigates two Florida FWP workers, Zora Neale Hurston and Stetson Kennedy, in order to illuminate the ways that race was portrayed, and reinscribed, by the pens of the FWP.
Title: “Documenting ‘the Folk:’ Government-sponsored Folk Music Collecting in California Under the Auspices of the New Deal.” Annual meeting of the Northern California Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA, March 3, 2012.
Abstract: In the 1930s, under the auspices of the New Deal, government sponsorship of folk song collecting reached its pinnacle. This music was viewed by the FDR administration as an important marker of cultural and regional identity. Sidney Robertson’s WPA folk song project in California represents one of the most diverse collections made during this time. Between 1938 and 1940, she recorded nearly 1000 songs from a myriad of native cultural groups from across Northern California in order to uncover what might constitute a “California” folk song. At roughly the same time, with so many disaffected Americans flooding into California in search of relief from widespread poverty and hunger, folklorists Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin documented migrant workers in the state’s resettlement camps. This paper juxtaposes these two collections in order to understand how folk song was used to negotiate identity in the contested space that was 1930s California.
Title: “‘Anybody Can Be a Folklorist:’ Recording ‘the Folk’ for Roosevelt’s New Deal.” Hour-long paper presented for a colloquium sponsored by the Music Department of the University of California at Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA, September 26, 2011.
Abstract: In 1935, at a time when the unemployment rate in the U.S. was well over twenty percent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt implemented the largest jobs recovery act in the history of the United States in the form of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In this second phase of his “New Deal,” FDR sought to combat directly the rampant unemployment that heretofore he had been unable to remedy. Instead of merely providing relief funds as had previous New Deal programs, the WPA was set up to put people back to work by providing government-funded jobs from across a variety of different fields, including public works projects, administrative jobs, and employment in the arts. One of the central endeavors of Roosevelt’s New Deal was documenting the lives of ordinary people from across the nation. Government-sponsored fieldworkers canvassed the country in search of folklore, and some of the most coveted items were “authentic” regional folk songs. These fieldworkers worked largely under the auspices of the WPA arts projects collectively known as Federal Project No. 1, or “Federal One,” which included the Federal Arts Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Writers’ Project, and the Historical Records Survey. Folk music collecting was not relegated to any one of these projects, nor was it limited to musicians. With assistance from the recently created Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, folklorists, linguists, writers, and musicians collected thousands of songs from across the nation and in doing so helped define “the folk” as a central characteristic of “American-ness” at one of the most challenging moments in the nation’s history. This colloquium will focus on four folk music projects in particular: Sidney Robertson Cowell’s WPA California Folk Music Project (1938–40), Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin’s Migrant Worker Collection in Farm Security Administration camps (1940–41), the statewide folk music recordings made by the Florida Federal Writers’ Project (1939–40), and Herbert Halpert’s Southern States Recording Expedition for the WPA’s Joint Committee on Folk Arts (1939).