Robertson Cowell was a talented writer who told her stories better than
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the text to read her accounts of her collecting in Wisconsin.
and Mrs. Robert Walker of Crandon, Wisconsin, ca. 1937. Photo by
Sidney Robertson Cowell. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Used
Sidney Robertson was lured to the Wisconsin Northwoods in 1937 by the
prospect of finding “Kaintucks,” woodsmen who had followed
the lumber industry up from Kentucky to Wisconsin. When large-scale logging
died out in the state, the lumber companies moved their camps to Idaho
and the Pacific Northwest. “Too old and discouraged,” many
of these transplanted workers did not want to move yet again, Sidney said.
in the Rhinelander and Crandon area, these lumberjacks brought with them
the old-time music of the Appalachian Mountains. And on weekends throughout
the summer of 1937, Robertson would make several trips to north-central
Wisconsin to seek out those songs. Not only did she find a trove of lumberjack
tunes, but she also captured rare French-Canadian fiddle tunes and dramatic
historical ballads about everything from the sinking of the Titanic to
the end of prohibition. In all she captured almost 50 tunes in Wisconsin, which reside in the
Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress.
began collecting songs in Wisconsin while working for the Special Skills
Division of the Resettlement Administration formed in 1935. RA was a New
Deal initiative aimed at relocating impoverished farm families and poor
city families devastated by the Depression. To soothe tensions within
these artificially created communities, the government set upon folksong
as a means of unifying the people. A lead proponent for making folksong
central in resettlement was ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, who headed
up efforts for the Special Skills division. This initiative sent a fleet
of fieldworkers, including Robertson (Seeger’s assistant), into
rural American to capture the nation’s unique musical tradition.
The Special Skills division eventually folded and Robertson was transferred
to the Farm Security Administration, which carried on much of the Division’s
work. By this time there was government interest in song collecting but
no money for it. At the time of the Wisconsin recordings, Robertson was
stationed out of Austin, Minnesota as a relief worker helping Resettlement
clients adjust to community life. Song collecting was done on weekends
and during short leaves.
Brusoe with his loving cup in a WLS radio publicity photo, ca. 1930.
Photo courtesy of Bruce Brusoe.
first recording trip to the Rhinelander-Crandon area was in July to capture
more tunes from champion fiddle player Leizime Brusoe, whom she first
recorded months earlier at the 4th National Folk Festival in Chicago in
May 1937. She described him as “a fine old fiddler who can’t
read a note, who used to play for dancing school in Quebec 40 years ago—quadrilles,
etc., some of them the ancestors of southern fiddle tunes.” On other
collecting trips to the area, Robertson set up her huge recorder in the
side rooms of bars or at “a small match-box of a cabin on a perfectly
round, tiny lake, grassy on my side and fringed with pine to the water’s
edge across from me…” she wrote. “Most of the oddest
and most interesting specimens among the jacks and Kaintucks came to see
me and sing and tell stories.”
wasn’t a Kaintuck who would prove to have the best ballad recall.
Warde Ford, a New York State transplant to Wisconsin, had a keen memory
and could sometimes recite a song after hearing it only once. Robertson’s
1937 recordings of Ford would mark the beginning of a fifteen-year folksong
relationship that would go on at intervals in Wisconsin, California, and
in Berlin, Germany. Robertson estimates that she recorded around 200 songs
from Ford, “at least two-thirds of them long ballads about historical
Ford, just before leaving Crandon for California, ca. 1938. Photo
by Sidney Robertson Cowell. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Used with permission.
met Ford in the county welfare office, where she had gone to find leads
on out-of-work Kentucky loggers. She explained to Ford, a temporary clerk
in the office, that she was on the hunt for old songs. He said he knew
some and would gather them that evening. It was only after two or three
trips to Crandon that Robertson discovered that Ford was a singer himself.
He had been too shy to reveal his abilities, as he explained to her, she
hadn’t asked him directly.
spent so much time collecting songs from Ford that she was known around
Crandon as his "girlfriend." He had different jobs around town,
including one looking after horses owned by the wife of the local undertaker.
A few times Robertson would join Ford in the barn, with her typewriter
on a coffin, so that he could dictate texts while polishing the saddles.
One of their most vivid collaborations occurred during a long car trip
where the singer sang almost the entire trip without repeating the same
job with the undertakers was the source of many strange experiences and
at least one song-gathering foible. Aside from Warde Ford, the best living
singer in his family was his uncle, Charlie Ford. Robertson arranged to
record him several times, but inevitably something would always go wrong.The culmination of Robertson’s recording work with Warde Ford and
Ford’s family (especially his uncle, Robert Walker) was a 1956 release, Wolf River Songs, on Smithsonian Folkways Records. By the time
the Folkways project started, Warde Ford had enlisted in the army. “I
had a merry time chasing him across the United States to make good quality
recordings of the songs for commercial use,” she later recalled.While stationed in the Midwest, Robertson was not only recording in Wisconsin
but also in neighboring states. It was there that she found less conventional
folk tunes. Her musical finds in Minnesota became the government’s
first recordings of Swedes, Norwegians, Lithuanians, and Finns in the
Resettlement job ended in the fall of 1937, and she traveled west to her
home state of California to begin what would result in a massive and pioneering
collection of ethnic music. Those materials have been digitized and are
available through the American Folklife Center website, California
Gold. Throughout her career, Robertson, unlike many of her contemporaries,
remained interested in everything from traditional to popular music. It
was this openness to a musician’s full repertoirea that helped make
her an innovator in her field. Her 1950s recordings were the first Iranian,
Thai, Pakistani, and Malaysian folk or classical music deposited in the
Archive. Her 1937 Wisconsin recordings brought attention to the state’s
rich musical heritage. Her work would inspire Alan Lomax to send fieldworkers
into Wisconsin to capture the state's rich musical heritage. Once such
fieldworker was Helene Stratman-Thomas, who set out three years after
Sidney and recorded nearly 800 tunes from Wisconsin musicians. Efforts
continue today to record the ethnic music of the state’s diverse
people. Many recent folk music recordings are accessible at the Mills
Music Library or through the Center
for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures.
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