Sidney Robertson Cowell was an independent song catcher, among the nation’s first and most perceptive ethnographers who recorded a large body of ethnic music between 1936 and 1957. She spent most of her 30s traveling alone throughout the United States collecting music from lumberjack camps, dance halls, and chain gangs. She was a contemporary of the great folk music pioneers Charles Seeger and Alan Lomax. Yet there are scant published accounts of her life and work. Most mentions of her are found only in her correspondence, folk music journals, or are embedded in literature about her famous husband, American composer Henry Cowell.
More than one hundred hours of song recordings and thousands of pages of her field notes are housed at the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress. She is credited with starting the country’s first large-scale folk music collecting effort, the WPA Northern California Music Project. Sidney’s 1937 recordings in the Upper Midwest appear to be the first documented examples of ethnic music from groups beyond African-Americans and Native Americans.1
The quality of her work stands out for several reasons, in particular her openness to recording all kinds of musical forms and her progressive (some might argue overly protective) stance on musicians’ rights. She was also among the earliest collectors to employ the use of extensive note taking, a field technique that gives her work an integrity notable in its time. She wrote lively prose that put the songs and the musicians in cultural and social context. Not only did she note the physical surroundings but also was quick to muse about the meanings the music had for the performers.
Sidney’s passion for song collecting eventually led her to head the W.P.A. Calfornia Folk Music Collection Project — widely regarded as the first large-scale effort to collect ethnic recordings in a region. The Project officially opened on Oct. 28, 1938 at 2108 Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. She sought out performers and recorded all the music herself. She also supervised a staff of roughly 20 WPA catalogers and transcribers. Song collecting was a hard life, with low wages and innumerable hours spent working. Still, Sidney seemed to love it. But in 1940, after 17 months, she was forced to shut down the project because expected WPA funding was not renewed. That funding had been targeted to finance a two-year effort to collect Asian folk music.2
The same year, 1940, Sidney’s personal life was taking a turn. She became engaged to American composer Henry Cowell while he was serving a sentence in San Quentin Penitentiary on sexual misconduct charges. She was instrumental in his release, hand-carrying a letter to the governor that explained: “This was a case which might have been handled medically from the beginning, but ... It was handled otherwise. Now, however, Mr. Cowell’s rapidly expanding professional activities and our happy marriage seem to me to offer every proof that rehabilitation is complete.”3The engagement seemed a sign that Cowell was on the road to recovery. Henry wrote to Harmony Ives about it:
I wish to tell you and Mr. Ives of my forthcoming marriage to Sidney Robertson, to take place very soon. …I am sure you will be happy for me over this event, to which I look forward with such intensity. (Sidney) is a musician, plays the piano well, and has collected folk songs throughout the country. She is very successful in being on friendly terms with country people, and wins them over completely. She is thirty-seven years old, of old American stock, with a bit of New Orleans French blood.4
Harmony responded by letting Henry know that Charles Ives had decided to resume speaking to him. The authorities had a change of heart as well. Cowell was quickly released and later fully pardoned. Sidney and Henry wed in 1941 and moved to New York.
The two grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and first met when Sidney was 14, six years Henry’s junior. She studied world music with Henry for a time at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Born in 1903, Sidney was a “precocious, articulate, and inquisitive” child who took music lessons at a young age and spent her summers on family trips throughout Europe. She graduated from Stanford University in 1924 with a degree in romance languages and philology.
As adults, Sidney and Henry traveled in the same social circles and both had strong ties to ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, which would last a lifetime. In 1910, Henry became a student of Charles Seeger, who was then chair of the Music Department at University of California-Berkeley. Their conversations about music led to Cowell’s “remarkable” book, New Musical Resources, and a series of similar “radical” works including the Quartet Romantic and Quartet Euphometric.5 By 1936, Seeger was in charge of the Music Unit of the Special Skills Division of the Resettlement Administration. He hired Sidney as his assistant. To train her on the recording equipment, he sent her out with John Lomax on a two-week trip to western North Carolina in 1936. From there, she began making frequent solo trips and executing Seeger’s ideas about folk music collecting.Sidney and Henry’s marriage in 1941 marks the beginning of a 25-year collaboration that would alter both of their career trajectories. As for Sidney Robertson Cowell, whom from then on preferred to be called Mrs. Henry Cowell, she still made occasional song collecting trips with Henry, but most of her time was spent helping him with his publishing obligations.
There are scant published accounts of Sidney’s life post-1941. Most published accounts are in books written about Henry’s life. In the first chapter of The Whole World of Music, A Henry Cowell Symposium, editor David Nicholls echoes other Cowell scholars’ treatment of Sidney primary in the context of her influence on Henry:
Where Sidney Robertson Cowell fits into all of this is hard to tell. It would be logical to assume that marriage to Sidney (in 1941) provided Cowell with the emotional and domestic security which his earlier life had manifestly lacked. This may in turn have had a ‘settling’ effect on his music. Equally logical would be the assumption that Sidney’s work as an ethnomusicologist supplied stimuli which complemented and extended Cowell’s own earlier experiences of music other than those of the Western art music tradition. And … in later life Sidney claimed that Henry’s interest in hymns and fuguing tunes was principally attributable to her. Whatever the truth of the matter may be, it is surely no coincidence that the near quarter-century of the Cowell’s marriage was also the most stable and
productive period of Henry Cowell’s working life.6
Henry’s productivity was bolstered by Sidney’s ability to write for him at length. In A Celebration of American Music, edited by her friend Ruth Crawford Seeger, Sidney had this to say about her role in Henry’s career:
When Henry Cowell and I married late in 1941, Henry
sometimes introduced me as his “helpmeet,” a Victorian view
of my role that I never thought to question. Henry mentioned, and so did
some of his friends, that Johana Harris was considered the ideal composer’s
wife. Johana not only ran a complicated household that included the training
of Roy’s live-in student copyists and an occasional resident piano
pupil of her own, but she raised a family and gave successful recitals
of her husband’s piano and chamber music.
The Cowells would go on to write an acclaimed biography of their friend, Charles Ives, painting him as a pioneer, a rebel, and a genius in American composing. Cowell scholar Michael Hicks suggests that by doing so, they were also “drawing the blueprint for how they wanted Henry Cowell himself to be remembered.” 8 Cowell is best known as the avant-garde creator of “tone clusters,” playing with fists and forearms on the piano keys, and as the originator of playing inside the piano, directly on the strings. He was an innovator in new musical techniques and compositional technologies.
The Ives biography, Charles Ives and His Music (1955), was largely written by Sidney. At first, Henry set off to interview Ives, who no matter what he asked, replied at length about something else. “Henry soon felt this was a waste of his time and handed me his pencil and notebooks saying, ‘You try!’”9 She did, and eventually found herself embroiled in helping Ives cull his memory and find his papers. When the book editors wanted to meet, Henry sent Sidney.
Her name appeared as coauthor only after the editor suggested it be added. “For the first time in our various collaborations he (Henry) gave a grudging reply: ‘Well, if you think you should….’ There was no way for Henry to understand that I had produced anything beyond dates, lists of works, and an index. He couldn’t have any idea at all of the struggle for insight and synthesis that the book had demanded of me; apparently only the music was real to him.” The book publisher’s photographer had to make two trips to shoot publicity photos of the couple because the first thirty-six shots showed Henry looking detached, not at Sidney or at the book. Sidney attributed the detachment to Henry’s huge feelings of loss over the death of Ives, who died before the book was published. She wrote, “I think he thought of a first book about Ives as a more nearly adequate return for what Ives had done for him and for music. It was a gift that nobody else could make and he didn’t want to share it.” 10
As demand for his music increased, Henry began to assume that Sidney would write at length for him. Shortly after the Ives book in 1954, Henry signed a contract “without the slightest intention of writing the book himself.” Sidney said that when she protested, he was taken aback. “He seemed unable to understand that every obligation he undertook automatically became mine,” she wrote. But after fifteen years, a day came when Henry handed her a few scribbled sentences on the back of an old envelope with the understanding that she would turn it into a 1,500-word article under his name. “To my surprise, my energy for being somebody else abruptly failed me and I found I had gone on strike: I was suddenly unable to raise my arm to take the envelope.”11 It was then, Sidney wrote, that their literary collaborations came to an end.
Henry died in 1965. Throughout widowhood, which lasted longer than their 25-year marriage, Sidney’s devotion remained intense. She spent the rest of her life reconstructing and guarding Henry’s legacy. She held tight his papers with the hope that a definitive biography would precede their release. She even talked for 100 hours into a recorder about Henry in an attempt to write the biography herself. She later abandoned the project and delegated the job to others. Hugo Weisgall was the first selected, but he eventually backed out.
In 1969, four years after Henry’s death, Joscelyn Godwin published a dissertation that alarmed Sidney, who had the manuscript suppressed.12 Since then others have taken up the charge, all of whom did so pre-2000 without access to his papers. According to Cowell scholar Michael Hicks, the “post-Godwin writers neither attempted or provided a holistic vision of Cowell’s life and music. Nor did they always challenge Sidney by looking for second opinions.” 13 Joel Sachs, who started the task in the late 1980s, is still working with Oxford University Press toward publication. 14
Following the marriage, Sidney did make occasional field trips. Between 1950 and 1954 she continued her 15-year study of songs from members of the Ford-Walker family. In 1956, Folkways Records released “Wolf River Songs,” which included songs recorded by three generations of the family. Other trips took her among Portuguese fishermen in Provincetown, Mass. and Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, to record Gaelic songs from Hebrides Islanders. For fourteen months, the Cowells traveled to several Asian countries to assess grant requests made to the Rockefeller Foundation. Sidney made recordings throughout the trip. Those recordings are now some of the Library of Congress’s first recordings of Iranian, Thai, Pakistani, and Malaysian folk or classical music.15
Sidney died on February 23, 1995 in her hillside home in Shady, New York. In an obituary written by H. Wiley Hitchcock, he described Sidney as someone who “savored life to the utmost. Others might find reason for complaint or lament; she never indulged in either one. As she puts it in one tale of her chapbook, she was “well schooled in refusing worry over circumstances (she) couldn’t change.” 16
1. Brett Topping, “The Sidney Robertson Cowell Collection,”
Folklife Center News 3/3 (July 1980): 4.