The California Folk Music Project

By Zhaoyang Liu

Ethnomusicology is the study of the music of different cultures. Pictured above is Sidney Robertson Cowell, who in the late 1930s, sought to create a collection of contemporary Californian folk music, particularly from immigrants. From 1938 to 1940, she and others traveled around the state, recording songs for the purpose of better-educating people about both the traditions carried on by folk music and the cultures of immigrant groups. She describes her goal in the instructions of her proposal to the Works Progress Administration:

“The purpose of this undertaking is to collect and preserve the old-time music now in circulation in California, particularly the songs which are fast disappearing and which, for the most part, have never been printed or even written down, but have been passed on from one performer to another by rote… Local pride in the preservation of the cultural things that belong to the old days should be stimulated wherever possible, particularly in the minority groups.”

If you wish to peruse the entirety of Cowell’s proposal, it can be found at the following link:

Cowell hoped that her recordings would allow for the traditions and stories captured by folk music to be remembered. She talks about this in a conversation from 1939 regarding the details of making sound recordings. The sound clip can be heard below.

Embedded below is a song called “Groong Jan” or “Dear Crane” (it is translated on the dust jacket as “Messenger Swallows”). It was sung by an Armenian-American, Vartan Shapazian, in Fowler, California. Cowell recorded the piece on October 30, 1939. A large number of Armenians began to immigrate to the United States around the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, many in an attempt to escape the genocide at home. They mostly settled in northeastern industrial cities, but there was a significant population that settled around Fresno, California. This particular song describes a crane solemnly bringing news of the genocide from home.

However, not all of the music that Cowell recorded was about immigrants’ relationships with their homelands. On occasion, immigrants would play American music on their native instruments. Embedded below is a recording of Joe Bedrosian playing ‘Yankee Doodle’ on the zurna, a wind instrument from central Eurasian countries such as Armenia. It was recorded on April 24, 1939, in Fresno, California.

Another example of immigrant folk music captured by Cowell is an Icelandic song dubbed “To a Friend in Winnipeg,” sung by Sigurd Bardarson. It was recorded on April 29, 1940, in Carmel, California. From the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, around a fifth of Iceland’s population moved to North America, with most settling in Winnipeg, the center of Canada’s Manitoba province. A lesser number immigrated to the United States. The song can be heard below:

Reflection Questions:

1. What can we learn from listening to the songs and instruments of immigrants? Do you think that appreciating the art and culture of an immigrant group is necessary to better understand and integrate them?

2. What was it like to hear Yankee Doodle played on the zurna? Do the images that come to mind feel any less American? Integration is a two-way road; the dominant society and the newcomers gradually become more alike as they grow more familiar with each other’s culture. How might this particular recording reflect that process?

3. Cowell believed that “Local pride in the preservation of the cultural things that belong to the old days should be stimulated wherever possible, particularly in the minority groups.” Do you agree with her? Some people believe that too much emphasis of put on preserving culture at the expense of fitting in. How would you respond?

4. Cowell and her interviewer, John Stone, speak in the embedded conversation about how her recordings may be popular in the future as grandchildren will want to discover the stories of their grandparents. What role does music play in keeping cultural traditions alive? What are the other ways people preserve culture across generations?

5. “Groong Jan” is about an atrocity that happened in the homeland of the immigrant that sung it. In what ways can music help immigrants feel connected to their homeland and the emotions of their friends and family at home?