“The first time I ever pursued a folk singer on a raft”: Sidney Robertson and John Stone

John Stone, photographed by Sidney Robertson (Library of Congress)

In August 1939, in the California gold-rush town of Columbia, the musicologist Sidney Robertson1 recorded this fascinating 94-second snippet of conversation with a fiddler named John Stone. The conversation deals with the technology of making and reproducing recordings, and with the future use of the records they were making that day. It’s not clear why Robertson recorded this conversation: perhaps it was a sound check, or a demonstration, or perhaps she had expected Stone to start playing and then left the machine running when he started to ask questions. In any case, it catches a great teaching moment, in which (to put it in internet-age terms) an unskilled user is introduced to a new information technology, and issues of preservation and dissemination of format-shifted documents are explored. Robertson was collecting folk music for the WPA California Folk Music Project, which she had launched the year before. She was a college friend of Robert C. Binkley, and had corresponded with him about his work with the Joint Committee and with the WPA. The relevance to this blog, then, is as an example of collaboration on the intellectual framework underlying the WPA’s local history programs.

JS: It’s something very interesting. Now anybody who records the sound of their voice, way years to come, you know, why they can be heard, even by their grandchildren.

SR: That’s the idea.

JS: Yes. They’d be after them kind of records; there’d be a great demand for them kind of records.

SR: I imagine there may be. The government is going to keep these, keep them on ice you might say; and they can never be sold, but never be played …

JS: Oh I see. They can’t … can they reproduce from them?

SR: Well, they can, it costs about $20 to make the mould from which they reproduce, and they never had enough money to do that, they just keep these; and I suppose that eventually a hundred years from now they may raise money enough to do that, or there may be a less expensive way to do that.

JS: I was thinking that this microphone could be … oh, that wouldn’t, ah, you’d have to have another … of course … play it on there, couldn’t they have another machine …

SR: Yes, you can, but you can only make six or eight copies that way, because playing this, every time you run the needle over it, it scratches the surface of it a little and makes some noise. See, this is soft stuff, it isn’t like the records that you buy, and every time you play it it takes some of the surface off. It isn’t quite as soft as wax, but it’s the same principle(?). And for that reason the life of it is [inaudible].

JS: Well, what I don’t know…

Robertson was recording on acetate disks provided by the Library of Congress. These had an aluminum core with a thin covering of acetate. The stylus cut a groove in the acetate, producing a long thin spiral chip which tended to curl around the stylus.2 The machine required skill and care to produce good recordings in the field. One of the other fortuitous recordings is a sound check for a needle which Robertson had accidentally dulled by recording close to the center of the disk, where the acetate was too thin:

Stone quickly grasps the technical potential to make copies by dubbing to a second machine, but he struggles to articulate it. He appears to be interested in the possibility of commercial recording (which I assume is what he is hinting at with with his comments about demand for recordings like these, and his question about reproduction). Robertson’s description of her pursuit of Stone in her field report (see below) suggests that he was not a man who came directly to the point.

Robertson distinguishes her government-funded project, with its limited resources but commitment to preservation and long-term public access, from commercial recording. She respects Stone’s right to know what will be done with his recordings, which is consistent with her criticism of John Lomax for exploiting the (mostly Black) performers he recorded in the South.3 At the same time, she seems to be steering him away from thinking of this as a potential commercial recording. She was not against commercial use of field recordings; on the contrary, she had written to Binkley a couple of years before that field recordings “should be victrola records oftener than they are”.4 For her it’s the longevity of the media (if not played) and of the government institution that will preserve them that is important.

Robertson did in fact make a copy of the California recordings, for Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress. In October 1939 Lomax, who was preparing a radio broadcast for CBS, wrote to Harold Spivacke:

P.S. Sidney Robertson has made a set of copies of her Gold-Rush records which were expressed to me some days ago, care of the library. Please rush them along, express-collect, care of the Hotel Albert as soon as they arrive, because they will contribute greatly to the success of my next performance.5

Presumably John Stone’s were among them.

Robertson and Binkley

Robertson was an old Stanford friend of Binkley’s. She had become assistant to Charles Seeger at the Library of Congress in 1936, and had gone on field recording expeditions as part of her work for the Resettlement Administration: with John Lomax and Frank C. Brown in North Carolina in 1936, and solo in Wisconsin in 1937. She later co-authored American Folk Song and Folk Lore: A Regional Bibliography with Alan Lomax. In 1938 she obtained WPA funding to start the California Folk Music Project, based at Berkeley. In contrast to the Lomaxes’ free-lance methods, Robertson’s program was the first large-scale folk music collection project, employing twenty WPA workers to catalogue and transcribe. (For more on Robertson’s folk-music collecting, see Camille Moreddu’s research blog “Histoire d’une chasseuse de chansons”).

In this she was probably influenced by Binkley’s experience with WPA projects and by his ideas about local history. Robertson was close to the Binkleys at Stanford in the early 1920s and had kept in touch after Bob and Frances moved east in 1927; and when she moved to New York in 1935 the friendship was reestablished. In the summer of 1935, when Robertson had just arrived in New York to take up a position in charge of “social music” at the Henry Street Settlement, Binkley came down from Cleveland to teach a summer course at NYU, and he and Robertson discussed his current ideas on amateur scholarship and local history. After his death she wrote to Frances:

I value the memory of that summer especially – the afternoons & evenings I spent proofreading & etc. with Bob in his apartment because I really got to know him & his work – he had always seemed immeasureably older and grown up to me before, & I very very young.6

(She evidently helped him with the text of Realism and Nationalism, which was going to press.)

When she took up the Resettlement Administration job in the summer of 1936, she corresponded with Binkley in Cleveland about related WPA projects with which he was involved, including the Historical Records Survey which had launched the previous year, and to which Binkley was a major adviser. Binkley introduced her (by letter) to the HRS’s director Luther Evans. He sent her a copy of a talk he had given at a WPA regional conference in Salt Lake City a couple of weeks before (I haven’t found this text, but I think it was an early version of what became “History for a Democracy”).7 Robertson showed the paper to Seeger, who, she said, exclaimed half-way through reading it, “Oh, I must meet this man!”8 (Whether he ever did I do not know.) In the fall of 1935, after her collecting trip in North Carolina, she wrote to Binkley about her emerging vision of a national music project, which she linked to the program of the Historical Records Survey:

Briefly, I see a wonderful opportunity for a kind of historical records survey that no one has undertaken to do a complete job on: music as she is spoke, all over the country, today. Run-of-the-mill victrola records will give us a complete record of the urban music of the day; but there is a field which becomes vastier and vastier the more I delve into it, in American rural music. Most of the people who’ve worked in it have been, of dire necessity, such pikers.9

This introduced a detailed four-page description of the sort of project she wanted. Binkley responded by sharing the lessons he had gleaned from his own experience with large-scale WPA projects; for example:

Now the special point of view that ought to be carefully noted in any plan that involves the collection of folk music and that uses a nation-wide organization is the standardising and foolproofing of the procedure and technique, to permit the easy training of the people who will do the work and to guarantee that the value of the work will be ascertainable. Certainly we cannot make everyone a specialist à la Lomax or Brown, but if we can devise a working technique which will be so clear and uniform that people like Lomax and Brown can use the product, making their own allowance for imperfection in technique, we will have accomplished our object.10

In the same letter Binkley says he is circulating Robertson’s recommendations (from her North Carolina report) to the Joint Committee. It might be interesting to look for further evidence of their collaboration, in developing the intellectual basis of WPA historical work if not directly on projects, in the papers of the Joint Committee.

The Resettlement Administration had the mission of promoting both urban and rural resettlement, as part of the solution to the economic mess. Farmers were to be moved off of exhausted land to new settlements where they could at least find employment (Steinbeck’s Okies ended up in this group); slumdwellers would be moved to new planned greenbelt communities. The program included a utopian plan to produce integrated communities, and music and the arts were intended to support this. Songbooks for communal singing were produced and distributed. The folksong collecting work assigned to Robertson in 1936-37 was a result of this ideal. Binkley, too, had the ideal of promoting loyalties to local communities, as a counterweight to toxic nationalism. He wrote in “History for a Democracy”:

If I am able to see that my own community can have its own values, its own traditions, preserved intact from the past and projected into the future, and at the same time participate securely in the life of a larger community, such as the state or nation, then I shall also be able to envisage the life of my nation as a thing having secure values, both past and future, but yet cradled within the larger compass of the world. World history alone will not make of us world citizens. We must see the whole relationship — local, state, regional, national, and international all the way from the top to the bottom.11

With that schema in mind, it was natural that the RA program should appeal to him. He gained a picture of the RA mission from George O’Neil, the Department of Agriculture official who recruited Robertson for the RA. Binkley wrote to his brother Charles:

I take very seriously the hope for what Tugwell calls a “third economy” – to lift out of the present arrangement of property and exchange a community of communities who will be, in a sense, an economic state within a state. These resettlement communities are to exchange products outside the ordinary nexus of cash exchange. They will make their own market, protected from the other market not by tariffs but by a special arrangement of credits analogous to that which is used in holding together the units of a great corporation. If the scheme can be realized, it will be better than anything found anywhere else. Resettlement community A will produce shoes, resettlement community B vacuum cleaners, perhaps, etc., and different kinds of food, of course, following the geographic adaptability. This is the sketch of the future I get from George. But it is of course essential that none of the words associated with “socialism” shall be used in giving an account of the scheme.

He stopped there, and when he took the letter up again he could not help mocking his own earnestness:

Picking up this letter with the preceding sentence I would suggest further that “nudism”, “paleontology,” “surrealisme” and other pertinent words be avoided also, or used with care, and that free associations should be brought under control.12

He drafted a piece for the New Republic supporting the “third economy” of the resettlement communities, called “Eighty Billions of Undisclosed Public Debt?”, but the editor Bruce Bliven declined to publish it without modification to the conclusion that resettlement communities could be self-supporting above the subsistence level.13 Binkley did not return to the Resettlement Administration in the writings I’ve looked at, and this is the furthest left his political position swung during the Depression, so far as I have found.

Two years later, when Robertson’s California project launched in October 1938, she wrote to Binkley asking for a copy of the Manual:

If you and Frances are living surrounded by stacks of unused Manuals on Methods of Reproducing Research Materials, I would like to raise my hand in request for one. I borrowed your mother’s, but haven’t liked to keep it indefinitely, and it is endlessly valuable in what I’m doing. All the research project supervisors here at the University have been wanting to borrow it …….. it really is swell. If you do not have extra ones handy, let me know where to write for a copy and the price, pliz, so I can order mit check ….. I wouldn’t beg like this except in a highly virtuous cause!14

The Manual has a short section on sound recordings by the linguist Miles L. Hanley, but Robertson had already mastered field recording; she was probably more interested in the Manual’s coverage of microphotography, since, she reports in the same letter, her project had a budget for microfilming songbooks. A letter from Binkley’s mother describes a visit from Robertson to the family’s ranch in Lake County in September 1939, on her way to microfilm a book (unidentified) in the museum at Lakeport.15

Robertson maintained her friendship with Frances after Bob’s death in 1940 and Robertson’s marriage to Henry Cowell a year later. A letter she wrote to Frances in 1942 provides useful information about the process of seeking a pardon for Cowell.16 On a visit to Frances in Boulder in 1947, Cowell wrote a short piece for her son Tom (the medieval musicologist Thomas Binkley), who played baritone in his high school band at the time.17

Pursuing Johnny Stone

Robertson judged the sessions with Stone a success. Here is his version of “Love Somebody”, recorded on Aug. 6, 1939:

(For more of Stone’s recordings see the session lists.)

The lengths to which Robertson went to bring Stone to the microphone are documented in her field reports:

July 30: To Columbia, Tuolumne County, to record more songs from the miners I had met on my first trip, and to locate others. Leon Ponce and Aaron Morgan both added a few items to their previous contribution; and after considerable inquiry and forays up and down mountains we located the place where a message would reach a famous country fiddler named Johnny Stone. Word was left for him to get in touch with me on August 1 in Columbia.

John Stone with his gold pan, photographed by Sidney Robertson (Library of Congress)

August 1st: Recorded 12 songs by John McCready, who said he would record again in a day or two. Returned to Columbia hoping that John Stone would have appeared. He had left word for me, it turned out, to say that he would be coming in from his mine ‘in two or three weeks’. This of course was of no use to me, so I drove out, walked a mile down the mountain, poled down the river three miles on a raft to his mine after dark, and actually met Johnny Stone, whose existence I had begun to doubt. Two high school boys from Columbia escorted me, and a third took my car back to a spot near the river downstream from Stone’s mines so that another mile or so down the river we were able to abandon the raft, whose further fate I never did learn, and drove back to Columbia. Johnny Stone said he had no fiddle, couldn’t play a note, and never knew a song, so we chatted about other things and I got up to go, much disappointed because I was sure he was being modest but did not see how I was going to make him admit his skill. As I was about to go out the door of his shack he suddenly pulled a harmonica out of his pocket and gave the liveliest and most amusing version of the Arkansas Traveler I have ever heard. I was enthusiastic, and he finally agreed to meet me in Columbia on August 4th. This is the first time I ever pursued a folk singer on a raft.

August 4th: At Columbia Leon Ponce had thought up two or three more songs he used to know, so he recorded these; and then at long last Johnny Stone put in an appearance. He wanted to borrow a fiddle, and we drove nearly 40 miles hunting one that would suit him. It was worth the trouble, however, as he recorded a large number of interesting things when we finally got him settled down to it, both on fiddle and harmonica. He even sang two or three songs. I think his desire to be persuaded and his general fussiness came from lack of self-confidence rather than any particular desire to play the prima donna, as no body could have been more cooperative once he discovered how well his records sound.

August 5th: To the Cliff House to keep my appointment with possible lumberjacks. Only one appeared, with a song of great interest, however, about the donkey jammers on the donkey engines which pull the lumber trains up the mountains. Another man was reported on his way but he had to stop and see a friend and I was advised not to wait for him since it was probable he would arrive too late and too far gone to sing — the friend it seems kept a saloon. This lumberjack hunt proved more trouble than it was worth, at least in tangible songs recorded now. But I felt it was important to determine what could be found and its general interest, since most lumberjack songs come from the east and this is the only place where I ever heard, or heard of, true California ones.

August 7th: Return to Berkeley after a day spent in Columbia photographing all the men who had sung for me. Total from Tuolumne County so far: 22 disks, about 120 items. This is a region and a type of music never investigated at all before, showing what is left of the 49er tradition.

(The account glosses over the evidence from the disks, that there were two sessions with Stone, on August 5th and 6th. All the recordings from the 5th use a harmonica, and all those on the 6th use a fiddle, so presumably the long drive to borrow a fiddle happened between the two sessions.)

  1. Best known now as Sidney Robertson Cowell, after her marriage to the composer Henry Cowell in 1941. I’ll call her Robertson, since that was her name during the time of these events.↩︎

  2. See Binkley’s Manual, chapter XIII “The Recording of Sound”, by Miles L. Hanley (pp. 177-182), which includes a photo of Prof. Hanley’s recording apparatus (opposite p. 180). Robertson’s disks seem to be of the kind discussed on p.181, recently introduced by the Sound Specialties Company: “The disc is coated with a kind of cellulose acetate lacquer which hardens slowly with time. It may be played with any ordinary steel needle.” Hanley recommends annealed aluminum discs for field recording.↩︎

  3. See Camille Moreddu, “Sidney Robertson, John Lomax, et les Black folksongs, suite et fin”, Histoire d’une chasseuse de chansons, 17 Oct. 2012 (blog post, accessed 14 Sept. 2013.↩︎

  4. Doc. 6573: Sidney Robertson to RCB, 1936-10-17.↩︎

  5. Alan Lomax, Alan Lomax, Assistant in Charge: The Library of Congress Letters, 1935-1945 (Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2010), p.149.↩︎

  6. Doc. 7988: Sidney Robertson to FWB, 1940-06-24.↩︎

  7. The occasion was a regional meeting of WPA Writers Project and Historical Records Survey supervisors, attended by Luther Evans, on July 10-11. “History Probe Project Heads Plan Parleys,” The Salt Lake Tribune, July 10, 1936, p.12. The only surviving correspondence from this trip is a postcard Binkley sent to his son Binks from Minneapolis on July 8 (Doc. 7433).↩︎

  8. Doc. 6577: Sidney Robertson to RCB, undated but probably August 1936.↩︎

  9. Doc. 6573: Sidney Robertson to RCB, 1936-10-17.↩︎

  10. Doc. 6575: RCB to Sidney Robertson, 1936-11-02.↩︎

  11. “History for a Democracy, ¶H8↩︎

  12. Doc. 385: RCB to Charles H. Binkley, undated but must be August, 1935.↩︎

  13. Doc. 6337: Bruce Bliven to RCB, 1935-08-22.↩︎

  14. Doc. 6547: Sidney Robertson to RCB, 1938-11-10.↩︎

  15. Doc. 7943: Mary Binkley to RCB, 1939-09-25.↩︎

  16. Joel Sachs, Henry Cowell: a Man Made of Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 377ff.; the letter is referenced in notes 1, 3, 8 and 12.↩︎

  17. “Tom Binkley’s Tune”: see David Lasocki, “The Several Lives of Tom Binkley: A Tribute,” Early Music America 1, no. 3 (Fall 1995): 16–24, at p.16.↩︎