Sidney Robertson Cowell

A holding page for the forthcoming blog on the recordings of Sidney Robertson Cowell from the Aran Islands, 1953.

Src02 1926 Music Div Box 26 Src
Sidney Robertson, 1926, courtesy of the Music Division, Library of Congress (Sidney Robertson Cowell Collection, ML31.C78, Box 26, Folder 1) / [unidentified photographer]
Sidney Robertson Cowell copying California Folk Music Project recordings for the Library of Congress / [unidentified photographer]
Sidney Robertson Cowell copying California Folk Music Project recordings for the Library of Congress / [unidentified photographer]
Sidney Robertson Cowell copying California Folk Music Project recordings for the Library of Congress / [unidentified photographer]

Sidney Robertson Cowell copying California Folk Music Project recordings for the Library of Congress / [unidentified photographer]

© The Estate of Sidney Robertson Cowell, held at the W.P.A. California Folk Music Project Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

Introduction

I remember well the moment I first heard of Sidney Robertson Cowell. It was a sunny Sunday morning in May 2000, a few weeks before my final year exams in Music at Oxford, and I was listening via longwave to Ciarán Mac Mathúna's weekly programme on RTÉ Radio One. He was interviewing Dáibhí Ó Cróinín about his new book, The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin. In the course of tracing evidence of his grandmother's singing, Prof. Ó Cróinín learned of two American women collectors who had recorded traditional music in Ireland in the 1950s. Their names were Jean Ritchie and Sidney Robertson Cowell. My ears pricked when I heard that both women had visited my home, the Aran Islands.

By October 2000 I was in the Department of Music at University College Cork beginning my postgraduate research on the music of the Aran Islands. I called on Prof. Ó Cróinín in the History Department at NUI Galway and he handed me a stack of letters: his correspondence with the Library of Congress, which holds the majority of Sidney Robertson Cowell's archive. He must also have helped me connect with Jean Ritchie and her photographer husband George Pickow because, by March 2001, I was sitting in their kitchen in Port Washington, Long Island. Over a pot of tea, they told me they had stayed in my grandmother's guesthouse when they spent a week in Aran in November 1952 (though I now wonder if perhaps they actually stayed in the guesthouse next door, Kilmurvey House). Sadly, they did not bring any sound recording equipment to Aran, but George took some wonderful photographs. Their Irish archive of photographs and recordings is held at NUI Galway and further Irish materials are available at the Library of Congress.

Jean Ritchie and George Pickow with Beairtlín Bhaba Ó hIarnáin and Peaitsín Ó Fátharta / [unidentified photographer]
Jean Ritchie and George Pickow with Beairtlín Bhaba Ó hIarnáin and Peaitsín Ó Fátharta / [unidentified photographer]
Jean Ritchie and George Pickow with Beairtlín Bhaba Ó hIarnáin and Peaitsín Ó Fátharta / [unidentified photographer]

Jean Ritchie and George Pickow with Beairtlín Bhaba Ó hIarnáin and Peaitsín Ó Fátharta / [unidentified photographer]

© Prof. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín

From Long Island I took a train to Washington D.C. and paid the first of many visits to the Library of Congress. There, I learned that Sidney Robertson Cowell had recorded in Árainn, Inis Meáin, and Carna in the summers of 1955 and 1956 and that only a portion of her Aran recordings were released commercially on the 1957 Folkways album Songs of Aran. I photocopied as much as I could afford and arranged return visits later as research funds permitted. I remember ten long days in April 2007 consulting materials relating to Sidney and her composer husband Henry Cowell at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound and Music Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Henry Cowell & Sidney Roberston on their wedding day / [unidentified photographer]
Henry Cowell & Sidney Roberston on their wedding day / [unidentified photographer]
Henry Cowell & Sidney Roberston on their wedding day / [unidentified photographer]

Henry Cowell & Sidney Roberston on their wedding day / [unidentified photographer]

© The Estate of Sidney Robertson Cowell, held at the Music Division, New York Public Library

In 2011 I moved to the University of Notre Dame to begin turning my research on music collectors and the practice of collecting music in Ireland into a book with the help of their postdoctoral NEH Keough Fellowship. In 2012 I had the privilege of becoming the first Irish person to hold the Alan Lomax Fellowship in Folklife Studies (since renamed) hosted by the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. Living for over a year in the same country and eventually in the same city as the archives themselves was a boon to my work. I could consult expert staff and primary materials in the Library's American Folklife Center and its Music Division in the morning and in the afternoon take the Metro to the Ralph Rinzler Archives in the Smithsonian Institute to view their Folkways holdings, some of which have since been digitized. The magic of being part of the Library of Congress for a while never got old. On my early morning commute - early to avoid the heat and humidity after sunrise - I would climb Capitol Hill from Union Station saying to myself: "I can't believe I work here!"

Summer interns Katie Ortiz and Max Smith on the roof of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institute / Deirdre Ní Chonghaile
Summer interns Katie Ortiz and Max Smith on the roof of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institute / Deirdre Ní Chonghaile
Summer interns Katie Ortiz and Max Smith on the roof of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institute / Deirdre Ní Chonghaile

Summer interns Katie Ortiz and Max Smith on the roof of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institute / Deirdre Ní Chonghaile

© Deirdre Ní Chonghaile

Book cover, Collecting music in the Aran Islands
University of Wisconsin Press, 2021

ITMA Catalogue record

Over twenty years since first learning of Sidney Robertson Cowell's visits to Ireland, I can now share two new resources to help make her work known to a wider audience. The first is a chapter about her Irish collection in my monograph Collecting Music in the Aran Islands: A Century of History and Practice published by the University of Wisconsin Press (2021). The second is a digital catalogue that shares metadata on over 200 individual tracks of music she recorded in Ireland. The catalogue is being published here for the first time.

Sidney Robertson Cowell (1903-1995)

Narratives of the practice of folk music collecting are often captivated and even moulded by the personalities of individual collectors – most often male collectors – such as Alan Lomax or Séamus Ennis (see also). Though these male agents have dominated the storytelling to date, the contribution of women collectors is nonetheless present in archives and needs further investigation. As we find new opportunities to engage the legacies of women collectors, our understanding of the practice of music collecting as it occurred throughout the world, and of the music it documents, is enriched greatly. It is a restorative act – for the women themselves, the communities with whom they collaborated to document music, the source material they generated together, and the music itself.

Extract from a letter from Sidney Roberston Cowell to Rae Korson
Extract from a letter from Sidney Roberston Cowell to Rae Korson
Extract from a letter from Sidney Roberston Cowell to Rae Korson

Extract from a letter from Sidney Roberston Cowell to Rae Korson

© The Estate of Sidney Robertson Cowell, held at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

Sidney Robertson Cowell was a pioneer in the field of folk music collecting for a number of key reasons: the breadth of cultural milieux with which she engaged; her methodology informed by a distinct independence of mind and spirit and a sustained commitment to ethical practices; and her voluminous and vivid writings full of reflexivity and insight into her fieldwork. Some of her work was published in articles and a handful of albums for Folkways Records, and it has been analyzed and contextualized via lectures and online presentations produced at the Library of Congress and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Much of her collecting focused on song and she had a special interest in melismatic singing that, in Ireland, drew her to sean-nós song in particular. The pièce-de-resistance of her Irish collection is her rich documentation in writing and recordings of the Irish practice of lamentation, caoineadh or keening.

Sidney Roberston / [unidentified photographer]
Sidney Roberston / [unidentified photographer]
Sidney Roberston / [unidentified photographer]

Sidney Roberston / [unidentified photographer]

© The Estate of Sidney Robertson Cowell, held at the Music Division, Library of Congress

Born the eldest daughter of Charles and Mabel Hawkins in San Francisco in 1903, Sidney had a relatively privileged upbringing featuring lessons in languages, music, dancing, horse-riding, fencing and cooking along with home-schooling and educational visits to Europe. Upon graduating from Stanford University in 1924 with a degree in Romance Languages and Philosophy, she married Kenneth Robertson. They lived for a time in Europe to enable his studies and later in Palo Alto, California, where Sidney took secretarial jobs and taught music. They divorced in 1934 and Sidney moved to New York in 1935 where she worked in the Henry Street Settlement School (where Jean Ritchie would later work too). Her career as a folk music collector began formally in 1936 after she left New York to join Charles Seeger and his team at the Resettlement Administration in Washington D.C. Sidney's first recording fieldtrip was with John A. Lomax and Frank C. Brown in North Carolina in July 1936 but, irritated by what she regarded as the shortcomings of their methods and motives, she soon struck out alone.

SRC is a Californian whose adventures as a 'government song woman' in pursuit of folksongs would fill several books. Before she married the composer Henry Cowell in 1941, she had worn out 3 automobiles, traveling over 300,000 miles in 17 states, alone with her recording machine, her sleeping bag, and a companion once described in her hearing as 'the lady-about-the-songses’ dog.
Cited in Catherine Hiebert Kerst, “A ‘Government Song Lady’ in Pursuit of Folksong: Sidney Robertson’s New Deal Field Documentation for the Resettlement Administration.” Paper presented at the American Folklore Society meeting, Quebec City, Québec, 18 October 2007.

By 1937 Sidney was in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Chicago area recording from a huge variety of European ethnicities, thus generating greater diversity of recorded material beyond the Native American, African American, French, and Spanish music captured in America previously. In 1938 she began a groundbreaking folk music project in California but it ended when government funding ran dry in 1940. After she married Henry Cowell in 1941, Sidney's collecting activities became infrequent. She recorded musicians she met at the White Top Festival in Virginia in the mid-1940s; in Appalachia with Maud Karpeles in September 1950; in Cape Breton Island in 1953; and in the Aran Islands in 1955, a trip that was inspired by Henry's encounter with the stars of Man of Aran in New York in 1934. Then, in 1956, Sidney and Henry received funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to travel the world for a year. Sidney began that trip alone, returning to Ireland to record in Árainn, Inis Meáin, and Carna. Henry joined her later and they carried on, recording in Iran, Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), Thailand, and Malaysia before Henry's ill health forced a return home in 1957 after six months on the road. Except for her work in Ireland, much of Sidney's work from the 1940s onward remains under-explored. She devoted much of her energy to Henry's career and, later, his legacy. Her own extraordinary legacy has yet to be fully appreciated. Sidney Robertson Cowell died in Shady, New York, in 1995.

I had a fine time in Ireland and hope to return there this summer. No electricity – two wheeled carts and jaunting cars, bicycles, and barrows. No cars on the islands. Daily rain; peat fires; hot water bottles. I went fishing in the tiny curraghs, and came away with 4 lobsters as a parting gift – all alive. [...] You should have seen me in fishermen’s boots and sweater on a bicycle on Aranmore!
Letter from Sidney to Rae Korson, 18 January 1956, AFC 1959/004, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

Sample photographs and recordings

Sidney Robertson Cowell took the following photographs in the Aran Islands. Click on each image to view more information. These images, and all the images in this blog, are also available in the accompanying gallery

Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell

Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell

© The Estate of Sidney Robertson Cowell, held at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell

Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell

© The Estate of Sidney Robertson Cowell, held at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell

Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell

© The Estate of Sidney Robertson Cowell, held at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

Renowned knitter Máirín Thomáis Uí Dhomhnaill née Ní Chonghaile (1934-2020) making a crios [woven textile belt], / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Renowned knitter Máirín Thomáis Uí Dhomhnaill née Ní Chonghaile (1934-2020) making a crios [woven textile belt], / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Renowned knitter Máirín Thomáis Uí Dhomhnaill née Ní Chonghaile (1934-2020) making a crios [woven textile belt], / Sidney Robertson Cowell

Renowned knitter Máirín Thomáis Uí Dhomhnaill née Ní Chonghaile (1934-2020) making a crios [woven textile belt], / Sidney Robertson Cowell

© The Estate of Sidney Robertson Cowell, held at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell

Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell

© The Estate of Sidney Robertson Cowell, held at the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell

Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell

© The Estate of Sidney Robertson Cowell, held at the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell

Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell

© The Estate of Sidney Robertson Cowell, held at the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

Samples of some of the recordings made by Sidney Robertson Cowell in the Aran Islands and Conamara.

Buachaillín Deas Óg, sung by Maidhlín Mhaidhcilín Seoighe (1914-1996), Cill Éinne, Árainn, 14 June 1955. Ref: FW-ASCH-RR-5250-02. Courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.

An Cladach Dubh, sung by Nóra Uí Mheachair née Ní Fháthartaigh (1915-1994), An Baile Thiar, Inis Meáin, 23 August 1956. Ref: FW-ASCH-RR-5244-02. Courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.

An Cumann Gearr, sung by Baba Sheáin Choilm Nic Dhonnchadha, An Aird Thoir, Carna, 13 August 1956. Ref: FW-ASCH-RR-5241-10. Courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.

Catalogue of the Sidney Robertson Cowell Ireland Recordings 1955-6

I produced the Catalogue of the Sidney Robertson Cowell Ireland Recordings 1955-6 with the help of a month-long Visiting Fellowship at the Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities and Social Studies at NUI Galway in 2018. The catalogue details metadata associated with original, duplicate, and missing audio recordings that span five archives in three countries. In so doing, it provides an innovative model for linking a wealth of metadata with relevant archival material in multiple institutions. This initiative encourages current and future inter-institutional collaboration as each institution expands their digital content provision. Ultimately, it can facilitate the development of music resources that are imaginative, comprehensive, historically accurate, culturally relevant, user-friendly, scalable, and transferable.

The Catalogue of the Sidney Robertson Cowell Ireland Recordings 1955-6 includes references to recordings known to have been made but that are now missing, recordings mentioned in field diaries. Including such missing items in the catalogue provides a more accurate reflection of the extent of the recording effort and may help to identify tapes uncovered in the future. Performances on the missing tapes include: Seán Choilm Mac Donnchadha and his sons Cóilí and Micheál of An Aird Thoir, Carna, and Colm Ó Caoidheáin of Glinsce singing in August 1956; and John Beag Johnny Ó Dioráin's potential performance of Casadh an tSúgáin that same month.

The catalogue also identifies original recordings and duplicates held in multiple institutions, a distinction that can help direct reproduction requests promptly and guide the generation of new resources in future. It appears that Sidney's original 1955 tapes were sent to Folkways Records and are now held by the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections. The 1956 originals are likely to have gone to Folkways too; the relevant tracks span the Ralph Rinzler Archives and the Library of Congress, with much primary duplication occurring in one institution or the other.

The holdings of the BBC represent primary duplicates of a selection of tracks from the 1955 recordings. Each chosen by Séamus Ennis, these duplicates were made during the period when the BBC held the original tapes for safe-keeping while Sidney rejoined Henry on his European tour of Summer 1955. To maximise discoverability, the reference numbers used by the British Library Sound Archive to manage access to their secondary duplicates of the BBC holdings are also distinguished along with the tracks published on Songs of Aran. The holdings of Ireland's National Folklore Collection most likely represent bootlegs drawn from the album Songs of Aran. Finally, the Notes field of the catalogue contains additional contextual information drawn from archival materials and my analysis of the entire collection.

The catalogue is made available on this webpage in multiple digital formats, under a CC-BY license.

  1. Excel file (click to download)
  2. CSV file (click to download)
  3. Linked data
    1. A visualisation of the information in a 'tree' structure, which links to
    2. Full Catalogue, presented as a linked alphabetical index
    3. Turtle file of the data in the catalogue (click to download)

It is also available from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections at the Smithsonian Institute.

How to Reference the Catalogue

Deirdre Ní Chonghaile. Catalogue of the Sidney Robertson Cowell Ireland Recordings 1955-6. Digital catalogue in .csv and SKOS formats, Irish Traditional Music Archive, 2021, https://www.itma.ie/blog/sidney-robertson-cowell.

Sidney Roberston / [unidentified photographer]
Sidney Roberston / [unidentified photographer]
Sidney Roberston / [unidentified photographer]

Sidney Roberston / [unidentified photographer]

© The Estate of Sidney Robertson Cowell, held at the Music Division, Library of Congress

Women Collectors

In an effort to contextualize the achievements of Sidney Robertson Cowell and other women collectors hailing from or working in Ireland and the United States of America, I share here two additional resources: lists of women collectors from each country. Women collectors were the subject of a lecture by Nicholas Carolan titled “American Women Collectors in 1950s Ireland,” which he presented at the Inishowen International Folk Song & Ballad Seminar in Ballyliffin, Co. Donegal, on 18 March 2011. With regard to the question of categorization, the women themselves might have used one or more descriptors for their work including "collector" and "ethnomusicologist." The characteristics qualifying their inclusion in these lists are as follows: a clear intention and determined effort to document music; demonstrable substance in the work; and a significant volume of output, published or unpublished, relative to the opportunities they each gained.

Irish women ethnomusicologists/folk music collectors

The following preliminary list of twenty Irish women music collectors and ethnomusicologists is derived from the work of numerous scholars (see Works Consulted). The women are listed in chronological order of year of birth and, where birth years proved difficult to trace, in order of collecting activity or association.

Charlotte Brooke (c1740-1793) from Rantavan, Co. Cavan

Honoria Tompkins Galwey (1830-1934) of Moville, Inishowen, Co Donegal

Maud Houston (d.1905) of Coleraine, Co. Derry

Charlotte Milligan Fox (1864-1916) of Omagh, Co. Tyrone

Edith Wheeler née Milligan (c.1868-1922) – sister of Charlotte

Áine Ní Raghallaigh (1868-1942) from Bansha, Co. Tipperary

Eibhlín Bean Mhic Choisdealbha/Eileen Costello (1870-1962) of Tuam, Co. Galway, who was born Edith Drury in London

Úna Ní Chualáin (1871-1929) from Móinín na Ruaige, Inis Meáin, Aran Islands, Co. Galway

Úna Ní Fhaircheallaigh (1874-1951) of Raffony, Co. Cavan

Máighréad Ní Annagáin (1875-1952) from Lauragh, Co. Waterford

Elizabeth Cronin (1879-1956) of Baile Mhic Íre, Co. Cork

Áine Ní Fhoghlú (1880-1932) of Moat, Co. Waterford

Caitlín Nic Gabhann (c1882-?) from Oldbridge, Co. Wicklow

Máire Ní Scolaí (1909-1985) from Dublin City

Sorcha Ní Ghuairim (1911–1976) from Roisín na Mainiach, Carna, Co. Galway

Margaret Kenny née Downes (1913-1980) of Ballydineen, Kilmihil, Co. Clare

Anne Byrne née Gannon (1915-2019) of Ardagh, Co. Longford

Máire Áine Ní Dhonnchadha (1919-1991) of Cnoc na hAille, Cois Fharraige, Co. Galway

Bairbre Quinn née Ní Chonghaile (1935-1987) of Cill Mhuirbhigh, Árainn, Aran Islands, Co. Galway

Ríonach uí Ógáin of Donnybrook, Dublin

Charlotte Milligan Fox, collector / Allison photographer
Charlotte Milligan Fox, collector / Allison photographer
Charlotte Milligan Fox, collector / Allison photographer

Charlotte Milligan Fox, collector / Allison photographer

© 

Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell

Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell

© Town Hall Theatre, Galway, and the Curran Family.

Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell

Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell

© Mary Conneely

Anne Gannon / Jackie Small
Anne Gannon / Jackie Small
Anne Gannon / Jackie Small

Anne Gannon / Jackie Small

© Irish Traditional Music Archive

Máire Áine Ní Dhonnchadha / [unidentified photographer]
Máire Áine Ní Dhonnchadha / [unidentified photographer]
Máire Áine Ní Dhonnchadha / [unidentified photographer]

Máire Áine Ní Dhonnchadha / [unidentified photographer]

© 

Ríonach uí Ógáin, collector / Ed Wright
Ríonach uí Ógáin, collector / Ed Wright
Ríonach uí Ógáin, collector / Ed Wright

Ríonach uí Ógáin, collector / Ed Wright

© 

US women ethnomusicologists/folk music collectors

The following preliminary list of forty-four American women music collectors and ethnomusicologists is derived from the work of numerous scholars (see Works Consulted). It does not include the scores, if not hundreds, of female schoolteachers who contributed to the work of male “songcatchers,” including Missouri-based Henry Marvin Belden (1865-1954), by collecting songs in their localities.[1] The women are listed in chronological order of year of birth and, where birth years proved difficult to trace, in order of collecting activity or association.

Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1838-1923)

Fannie Hardy Eckstorm (1865-1946)

Frances Densmore (1867-1957)

Lila W. Edmonds

Katherine Pettit (1868-1936)

Edith Barnes Sturgis (1872-1940)

Louise Pound (1872-1958)

Emelyn Elizabeth Gardner (1872-1988)

Geraldine Jencks Chickering (student and collaborator of Gardner)

Harriet M. Pawlowska (student of Gardner)

Natalie Curtis Burlin (1875-1921)

Eleanor Hague (1875-1954)

Josephine McGill (1877-1919)

Dorothy Scarborough (1878-1935)

Mary Olive Eddy (1877-1967)

Bess Bauman Brown Lomax (1880-1931)

Jean Thomas (1881-1982)

Olive Dame Campbell (1882-1954)

Louise Rand Bascom Barratt (1885-1949)

Loraine Wyman (1885-1937)

Ruby Terrill Lomax (1886-1961)

Helen Heffron Roberts (1888-1985)

Marjorie Edgar (1889-1960)

Helen Hartness Flanders (1890-1972)

Elizabeth Flanders Ballard (assistant to Helen Hartness Flanders)

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

Mary Elizabeth Barnicle (1891-1978)

Evelyn Kendrick Wells (1891-1979)

Leah Jackson Wolford (1892-1918)

Helene Stratman-Thomas (1896-1973)

Laura Boulton (1899-1980)

Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953)

Margaret Brahan Valiant (1901-1982)

Sidney Robertson Cowell (1903-1995)

Henrietta Yurchenco (1916-2007)

Jean Jenkins (1922-1990)

Jean Ritchie (1922-2015)

Diane Guggenheim (1925-1991) (alias: Diane Hamilton)

Margaret MacArthur (1928-2006)

Vida Chenoweth (1928-2018)

Robin Roberts Howard (1928-2020)

Eleanor Dickinson (1931-2017)

Rita Weill Byxbe (1940-2013)

Artelia Court (1940-)

[1] Cited in James P. Leary, The Mid-West: A Surprising Vitality. Unpublished paper, n.d.

Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell
Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell

Dara Beag Ó Fáthartaigh (1920-2012) with his wife Teresa and daughter Máirín / Sidney Robertson Cowell

© Ritchie-Pickow Collection, James Hardiman Library, NUI Galway

Additional Resources on the work of Sidney Robertson Cowell

For those interested in learning more about Sidney Robertson Cowell and her contemporaries, here are some additional resources:

Videos of lectures on Sidney Robertson Cowell

NOTE: These videos are hosted on YouTube, a platform which requires the acceptance of marketing cookies before the video can be launched. If they are not showing below, please update your cookie preferences to watch them on this page. You can change your cookie preferences at any time from the link at the top of the page.


Sheryl Kaskowitz. Delight in What It Is to Be American: Sidney Robertson on the Road, 1935-1937. 2016. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRNJMxnTH_o)


Catherine Hiebert Kerst. Sidney Robertson Cowell & the WPA California Folk Music Project, 1938-1940. 2017. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rs1arFng5RM)


Deirdre Ní Chonghaile. "The Yank with the Box": Sidney Robertson Cowell Collects Music in 1950s Ireland. 2012. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7cB-Gn0ZTM)


Online Presentations on Sidney Robertson Cowell

Catherine Hiebert Kerst. California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell. W.P.A. California Folk Music Project collection (AFC 1940/001), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Nicole Saylor. “Folk Music of Wisconsin 1937.” Website featuring a web page highlighting the ethnographic fieldwork of Sidney Robertson Cowell (1903-1995) in Wisconsin. Mills Music Library’s Helene Stratman-Thomas project, Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures, University of Wisconsin-Madison (2004), http://csumc.wisc.edu/src/collector.htm.

Articles on Sidney Robertson Cowell

Sheryl Kaskowitz. “Government Song Women: The forgotten folk collectors of the New Deal.” Humanities 41, no. 2 (Spring 2020).

Deirdre Ní Chonghaile. “In Search of America: Sidney Robertson Cowell in Ireland in 1955-56.Journal of American Folklore, 126, no. 500 (Spring 2013): 174–200.

Radio Documentary: The Banshee and The Tiger

Produced by Claire Cunningham of Rockfinch Productions and presented by pianist Guy Livingston, The Banshee and The Tiger focuses on the life and music of Henry Cowell, and includes discussion of Sidney Robertson Cowell and their time in Ireland in the mid-1950s. It also shares recordings of performers from the Aran Islands made by Henry in New York in 1934 and by Sidney in Aran in 1955 and 1956. This radio documentary was first broadcast on RTÉ Lyric FM's The Lyric Feature on 25 January 2018 and won a Bronze Medal in the Music Category at the International New York Festivals Radio Awards in 2018.

Notes

Her first name, Sidney, is used here instead of the surname Cowell to avoid confusion with her husband and because the discussion spans her professional life during which she was known by two names – Sidney Robertson and Sidney Robertson Cowell.

The terms 'folk music collector' and 'ethnomusicologist' have been used to describe Sidney's work, though she herself eschewed the term 'ethnomusicologist' to distinguish herself from those working within academic institutions. She is often called an 'ethnographer' to reflect the comprehensive scope of her descriptions and the remarkable detail and fluidity of her writing.

Credit

Written & researched by Dr. Deirdre Ní Chonghaile, April 2021 

How to Cite Webpage

Ní Chonghaile, Deirdre. Sidney Robertson Cowell records in the Aran Islands and Conamara, 1955-56, Irish Traditional Music Archive, 2021, https://www.itma.ie/blog/sidney-robertson-cowell.

Acknowledgments

The acknowledgments section in my book shares the names of all those whose generous assistance enabled the research. Here I thank those who directly aided the work on the catalogue and this webpage: Treasa Harkin, Rónán Galvin, ITMA; Alma Ní Bhroin; Katie Ortiz; Max Smith; Scott B. Spencer; John Moulden; James P. Leary; Jim Hardin, Margaret Kruesi, Kelly Revak, Todd Harvey & Paul Sommerfeld, Library of Congress;

Jeff Place, Stephanie Smith & Cecilia Peterson, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage; Patrick Egan; Nicola Stathers; and the Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities and Social Studies for hosting work on the Sidney Robertson Cowell Ireland Recordings Catalogue in 2018.

Permissions

Sidney Robertson Cowell and Henry Cowell archival material reproduced by kind permission of the David and Sylvia Teitelbaum Fund, Inc.

Photograph of Jean Ritchie and George Pickow in Aran in 1952, reproduced by kind permission of Dáibhí Ó Cróinín.

Works Consulted

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Henry Cowell Papers, JPB 00-03, Music Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, https://www.nypl.org/sites/default/files/archivalcollections/pdf/muscowel.pdf

Jean Ritchie and George Pickow Collection, AFC 2008/005, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.afc/eadafc.af016008

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