Researching Scottish Gaelic Songs in the San Francisco Bay Area

Financed by the California Work Projects Administration, Sidney Robertson (Cowell) conducted extensive fieldwork amongst ethnic communities living around the San Francisco Bay area from 1938 to 1940, recording folk songs in twelve different languages. Amongst her informants were five Scottish Gaelic tradition bearers – four born in the Hebrides and one in Cape Breton – from whom she recorded thirty-three songs.

This material has been on the US Library of Congress’s California Gold website since 1997 (see here), but it has not yet received any careful, sustained scrutiny from a trained Gaelic scholar. There are basic mistakes in the titles of the songs that were recorded, and they have not previously been transcribed or analyzed. These materials offer an important and unique window into the lives of Scottish Gaels in the San Fransisco Bay area and their engagement with, and commitment to, their ancestral heritage. 

I will be presenting a talk next year at a conference in Halifax (assuming that COVID does not interfere with plans) that will examine Robertson’s fieldwork and put it in the context of Gaelic immigrant communities in North America, examining what the songs and the lives of the tradition-bearers suggest about migration patterns, social networks, ethnic allegiances, and cultural perceptions and expression. (See a related blog post about the Pacific North-west here.)

This is the first of several blog posts in which I’ll be sharing the work I’ve been doing to prepare for this, and in which I’ll be sharing thoughts and maybe even receiving useful feedback from readers.

The California Gold website explains the background of this fieldwork project and the fieldwork collector, Sidney Robertson Cowell, herself (this is a particularly useful webpage). In addition, a former American Folklife Center scholar, Catherine Hiebert Kerst, sent me a chapter about fieldwork amongst California Gaels from a forthcoming book about Robertson. So all of that provides helpful contextual information.

As it turns out, Robertson was very fond of Gaels and Gaelic songs, to the extent that she later went to Cape Breton, recorded singers there, and brought them to perform at music events in the US. That’s another thread I may have to follow up at a later time.

It’s appropriate to first begin with information about the singers themselves, all of whom were elderly when they were recorded. This is a summary of information available on the website and further details in Kerst’s research.

John Cunningham (Iain Coineagan) was born c.1887 in Scalpay (Sgalpaidh na h-Earadh) in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. His father Alasdair was a ship captain and poet, and his brother owned boats that delivered fuel to the islands. John was a ship-wright who emigrated initially to Vancouver, and later to San Francisco. Eleven songs were recorded from him by Cowell on June 20, 1940. These include two songs from Lewis, a song from the isle of Skye, and a song composed in Vancouver.

Mary A. McDonald (Màiri Dhomhnallach) was born in Cape Breton on November 15, 1848 and came to California in a covered wagon in 1875 with her husband Michael P. MacDonald, also born in the Maritimes, who worked as a gold miner. She was recorded on April 11, 1939, at the grand old age of ninety.  Three songs were recorded from her (along with some interesting commentary), all of which were composed in North America.

Donald MacInnes (Domhnall MacAonghais) was from the island of South Uist (Uibhist a Deas) in the Outer Hebrides.  Eight songs were recorded from him on February 15, 1939, and a further three on June 15, 1939.  These include two songs composed by Màiri Mhór nan Òran (who belonged to the isle of Skye), the song from Sgalpaigh also known to John Cunningham, a song from Uist (‘Mo nigheanag bhòidheach Uibhisteach’), a song about Lewis, and the Vancouver song. Given the overlap in songs between MacInnes and Cunningham, it is not unreasonable to assume that they were in close contact.

John MacPhee (Iain Mac a’ Phì) was from the isle of Harris, born c.1884. His occupation was listed as “carpenter – waterfront.”  Three songs were recorded from him on February 15, 1939, all of which were composed in Scotland.  As his surname was shared by the next informant (Màiri), who was recorded the same day, it is reasonable to assume that they were married.

Mary MacPhee (Màiri Nic a’ Phì) was born c.1883 on the island of South Uist.  Five songs were recorded from her, all of which had been composed in Scotland.

Apart from Donald MacInnes, who appears to have been resident in Oakland, all of the other informants appear to have been resident in Berkeley.

In later blog posts, I’ll be sharing my transcriptions of these songs (and welcome any corrections!), and my approach to understanding how to interpret the social and cultural implications of these materials.

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Audio releases
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Writings