Mediators of Knowledge: WPA Folklorists and 1930s Migrant Culture

What kind of knowledge are we addressing when we talk about folk culture? What can we extract from work songs, ballads, lullabies, and reels? What do stories of various kinds, relayed by word of mouth, tell us about the communities they sprang from? What do they reveal about how migrants organized themselves, how they navigated the socioeconomic and political currents affecting their lives?

Such questions speak not only to a history of knowledge in our own time but were important to WPA fieldworkers during the Great Depression. Under the auspices of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, or WPA, sometimes with additional local funding, these men and women collected folk music and other oral traditions for the library, which supplied the requisite recording equipment and disks. The materials they collected went into the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song, now the Archive of Folk Culture and part of the library’s American Folklife Center. The resulting collection comprises field recordings, photographs, drawings, and written documentation by the fieldworkers. But the Archive of American Folk Song did not just gather and preserve such material. It also enabled the dissemination of some of the songs and stories via songbooks, anthologies, and radio broadcasts.

How did the various actors involved in the collection of this material understand their sources? What kinds of knowledge did the material represent for them in the context of the New Deal? What differences were there in the understanding of this knowledge among the different actors, such as government officials, WPA field workers, and the migrants themselves? Did the uncovered knowledge (or knowledges) conflict with or challenge hegemonic forms of knowledge? To what extent should we also understand the WPA project’s output as new knowledge? What ideological purposes did it serve? The folk song collections offer some clues.

Most contain English-language Americana, whereby some include songs by minority groups and immigrants, occasionally in other languages. Two projects focused specifically on migrant and immigrant songs. Sidney Robertson undertook an ethnographic survey of California’s folk music, while Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin documented migrants who worked at camps run by the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which was part of the WPA. Both projects presupposed the value of knowledge from their subaltern subjects, though the researchers knew this attitude was not universal.

Sidney Robertson copying California Folk Music Project recordings for the Library of Congress, ca. 1939. Source: Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017701346/.

Robertson started her project in 1938 with additional funding from the University of California, Berkeley, she described the value of her undertaking in the San Francisco Chronicle:

How can we believe that these successive waves of hard-working citizens contributed nothing to California beyond the work of their hands? What traditions came with them? Which have survived here? Changed or unchanged. What were they thinking and feeling as they labored in mines and forests, herding cattle and sheep along our slopes. Plowing and harvesting in the valleys, and fishing along the coasts. Their songs will tell us, if we can find them.[1]

Robertson’s description articulated a perspective useful to historians of knowledge today. In her field notes, she added that the folk songs in other languages were American in spirit and carried “a contemporary account of immigrant life in the United States.”[2] Robertson seemed to see a relationship between folk music and the democratic self-conception of Americans. Perhaps she came to this realization prior to her field trips, while still working as a music teacher for immigrants at Henry Street Settlement in New York?[3]

Allison Schmidt points out that knowledge in the form of information and imaginaries was as important to migrants “as railroads and steamships.”[4] Behind mass migration was always a communication network. Understanding rumors as a knowledge category, Schmidt argues that they had a mobilizing function, even if they later turned out to be false. What Schmidt calls “rumors” and Sebastian Jobs calls “uncertain knowledge” could also be called “legends” or “folklore.”[5] In her field notes, Robertson remarked on the mobilizing effects of folklore in the history of California:

Returning relatives who had had the most disillusioning firsthand experience, within the year were listened to with undisguised impatience and simply not believed, so powerful is legend when it supports one’s hopes … it is not surprising to find that to the sunny picture of the Promised Land along the Pacific there has accrued a weight of folk legend powerful enough to set whole populations on the march even today, so many years after the discovery of gold.[6]

Migrants were rich sources of historical knowledge and memory. Whether they came alone or in groups, they had often endured violence and privation. Many of the newly arrived families could not return to their homes because of war, famine, or displacement, had they wanted to. In San Francisco, Robertson encountered a Russian migrant, Mr. Agapoff. He invited her to his home to meet his wife, who was recovering from a nervous breakdown due to what he called “too much experience.”

It seems that when Mr. Agapoff and his wife were about fourteen … their parents decided to return to the old country … But the part of Russia they had lived in now belonged to Turkey, and their relatives were living along the Don River in holes in the ground covered over with branches … No food, no water fit to drink, no way of earning money or procuring clothes. Finally my two friends married, after two years, and returned to [San Francisco]. For a few years all went well; then the depression hit them, and until the last few months they were in debt and wretched. “We had too much experience” seems to describe it pretty well.[7]

From an encounter with a Spanish restaurant owner named Maria, readers of Robinson learn about solidarity among migrants during the Depression:

The canneries are closed now, until next month, so times are bitterly hard. Last season wasn’t a good one, either. mentioned that some Italian tenants in a house of hers have been unable to pay their rent for 16 months, and they have so little food that she takes them the beans, etc., left over from the restaurant. “How can I let those people go hungry, when here there are beans,” said she.[8]

In other cases, migrant knowledge became accessible to Robinson through songs depicting cruelties in the past. She described the ballad “Adouni” in her field notes as “a song about the homeless Armenian children after the Turkish massacres.”[9] Other voices Robinson recorded described everyday segregation in Californian schools and movie theaters. The knowledge Robinson recorded underlined the challenges that race in Depression America represented for the New Deal rhetoric of inclusivity.[10]

Robinson often remarked in her field notes that her migrant subjects had to be visited several times because they were initially in mourning. What they were mourning was unclear, but even field notes about the absence of such details were relevant because they hinted at the inexpressible events that had often forced people to leave their home countries. The repetitiveness of Robinson’s notes in this regard seemed to emphasize the collective destinies that connected different groups of migrants.

In historical accounts, migrants often appear as passive and helpless in the face of the period’s political and economic challenges. As Simone Lässig argues, however, a history of knowledge perspective can help us access migrants’ agency, that is, comprehend migrants as historical actors.[11] For instance, the testimony of Jose Flores, a twenty-year-old Mexican American in an FSA camp in El Rio, California, reveals how migrants with a Mexican background worked together on a community level, how they staged strikes, and how they struggled to be recognized as a union. This community-driven work extended beyond Flores’s own locality, however, insofar as his testimony includes references to the efforts of immigrants in Los Angeles who had successfully organized in “clubs” to improve their own position on the job market.[12]

Charles Todd at the recording machine surrounded by a group of boys and men at the FSA Camp in El Rio, California, 1941. Source: Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/toddbib000402/.

Without challenging the importance of the material, it is also necessary to consider the political context of these recordings. To what extent were the subjects instrumentalized for political or ideological purposes? Some historians question the documentary truth value of WPA camp photographs, arguing that photographic representations of the camps were primarily aimed at persuading Congress to vote appropriations. In 1985, Charles Todd admitted that he and Robert Sonkin had been conscious of manipulating their subjects.

We didn’t feel we were doing anything very important, compared to what was going on in the world at the time. Bob and I felt somehow … that it was somehow a bit obscene to exploit the misery of those bedraggled Okies and Arkies. We felt guilty, also, about our methods of persuading them to perform and pose: “These songs are going back to Mr. Roosevelt, and maybe he will do something about your situation when he hears and sees them.”[13]

Even if they did not act on overt political impulses, the WPA field workers still had to choose which people and topics to record because acetate discs were expensive and their recording times limited. Their understanding of the world shaped what they collected.

To many contemporaries, modern society appeared to threaten folk culture with increasing homogenization, mass consumption, and standardization. But folk culture was not just a victim of modernity. It could also serve as an antidote. Its preservation amounted to cultural criticism.

The relationship of technology and folk culture was more complicated, however. The New Deal’s rural electrification program brought radio to almost every corner of the country. Between 1930 and 1940, the number of households owning a radio more than doubled.[14] For many folklorists, this development felt threatening because radio had a homogenizing effect on folk cultures. Alan Lomax, Assistant in Charge at the Archive of American Folk Song during this time, called the effect a “cultural grey-out.”[15] According to Robert Baron, Lomax understood the disappearance of folk music as “one with the disappearance of languages, of dances, of cookery, of ways of thinking and feeling.”[16] Yet modern technology made it possible for folklorists to preserve these voices and thus save the knowledge for posterity,[17] that is, for a posterity beyond what local oral traditions could accomplish, especially in the face of modern communications and mass media.

The folklorists even used radio to disseminate folk culture to the general public. One of the two biggest radio networks in the country, CBS, asked Lomax to produce a series of educational shows focusing on American folk music. The result was “The American School of the Air,” a half-hour educational program broadcast each weekday morning as a public affairs teaching supplement. The show was heard in over 100,000 classrooms and reached an estimated three million listeners daily.[18] WPA folklorists believed Americans should listen to their own songs and stories and thus learn to see themselves through their local traditions.

Alan Lomax from the same period. Source: Miscellaneous Photographs, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, AFC 1939/021.

The radical thing about the undertaking was how Lomax and others presented all forms of folk culture on equal footing. Lomax emphasized the common history behind these artifacts. He encouraged students to sing along to every song, teaching them African American call-and-response songs, for example. White students singing the songs of black communities was rather uncommon in the 1930s. For Lomax, it was important to realize

everywhere the children and their families are carriers of important literature and music and ways of living … It is the job of the school to bring this material into the open and permit it to express itself, let the chips fall where they will. The culture will work its own problems out.[19]

This approach to the self-expression of culture made WPA fieldworkers mediators of knowledge. Their intermediary role was threefold. First, in presenting immigrant songs and narratives, the collections they formed offered alternative voices to the contemporary American public. In this way, the WPA fieldworkers contributed to the cultural rediscovery of the United States during the era of the New Deal. Second, working for the WPA, the fieldworkers served as a kind of link between public decision makers and everyday people. Of course, the political impact of these projects might have been limited or open to speculation. Nonetheless, we know that the Roosevelts themselves were acquainted with Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin’s project. In fact, in 1941 the researchers were invited to the White House to play some of their recordings to the president and first Lady.[20] Without neglecting the promotional aspect of such meetings, the occurrence of this one shows that the work of WPA fieldworkers did not go unnoticed by key decision makers. Finally, for historians, the collections offer rich sources of state-produced and state-preserved knowledge—mediated by the WPA fieldworkers’ efforts—that can help us trace how migrants coped with the turmoils of their times.

Risto Lenz is a doctoral student in North American Studies at the University of Cologne, Germany.


  1. Sidney Robertson Cowell, “The Songs of a Nation Collect a Forgotten Claim,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 4, 1938, 26.  ↩
  2. Sidney Robertson Cowell, “The Recording of Folk Music in California,” California Folklore Quarterly 1, no. 1 (January 1942): 7–23, offprint at Library of Congress, Washington, DC (hereafter: LOC) https://www.loc.gov/item/2017701064/.  ↩
  3. Sidney Robertson Cowell Collection of Writings and Reminiscences, LOC, AFC 1990/039, folder 7.  ↩
  4. Allison Schmidt, “Some Useful Categories of Knowledge for Understanding Migration,” History of Knowledge, March 13, 2017, https://historyofknowledge.net/2017/03/13/some-useful-categories-of-knowledge-for-understanding-migration/.  ↩
  5. See Sebastian Jobs, “What Rumors Have Taught Me about Knowledge,” History of Knowledge, January 4, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/01/04/what-rumors-have-taught-me-about-knowledge/.  ↩
  6. Robertson Cowell, “The Recording of Folk Music in California.”  ↩
  7. Sidney Robertson Cowell, project correspondence [1938], LOC https://www.loc.gov/item/2017701059/.  ↩
  8. Ibid.  ↩
  9. Sidney Robertson Cowell, “Andouni” (Longing for the Homeland), audio, 1939, LOC, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017701533/; Sidney Robertson Cowell, The Recording of Folk Music in California, 1954, LOC, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017700938/.  ↩
  10. “We are trying to construct a more inclusive society … We are going to make a country in which no one is left out.” Franklin D. Roosevelt, in Frances Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew (Alton: Harper Colophon Books, 2011),113.  ↩
  11. Simone Lässig, “The History of Knowledge and the Expansion of the Historical Research Agenda,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute no. 59 (2016): 29–58, quote 30, https://www.ghi-dc.org/fileadmin/user_upload/GHI_Washington/Publications/Bulletin59/29.pdf.  ↩
  12. Charles L. Todd, Robert Sonkin, and Jose Flores, “Interview about FSA camp governance, camp work, non-FSA migrant camps, labor issues, attitude toward ‘Okies,’” audio, El Rio, 1941, LOC, https://www.loc.gov/item/toddbib000359/.  ↩
  13. “Charles L. Todd interview conducted by Gerald E. Parsons and Margaret Parsons, 1985 August 16” (AFC 1985/020), Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, LOC, Washington, D.C.  ↩
  14. See Steven Smith, “Radio: The Internet of the 1930s,” American RadioWorks, November 10, 2014),
    http://www.americanradioworks.org/segments/radio-the-internet-of-the–1930s/.  ↩
  15. “Alan Lomax,” Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, https://folklife.si.edu/legacy-honorees/alan-lomax/smithsonian.  ↩
  16. Robert Baron, “All Power to the Periphery: The Public Folklore Thought of Alan Lomax,” Journal of Folklore Research 49 (2012): 275–317, quote 280.  ↩
  17. Sidney Robertson Cowell, Correspondence. [to 1955, 1937], LOC, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017701050/.  ↩
  18. Lawrence J. Epstein, Political Folk Music in America (Jefferson: McFarland, 2010), 62.  ↩
  19. Robert Cohen (Ed.), Alan Lomax, Assistant in Charge: The LOC Letters, 1935–1945 (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2005), 119.  ↩
  20. “The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Collecting Expedition,” Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940 to 1941, LOC, https://www.loc.gov/collections/todd-and-sonkin-migrant-workers-from–1940-to–1941/articles-and-essays/the-charles-l-todd-and-robert-sonkin-collecting-expedition/.  ↩
Suggested citation: Risto Lenz, “Mediators of Knowledge: WPA Folklorists and 1930s Migrant Culture,” History of Knowledge, April 11, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/04/11/mediators-of-knowledge-wpa-folklorists-and-1930s-migrant-culture/.