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Todd-Sonkin-1940-Fieldnotes

Arvin Camp, Arvin California

Emmett
Frank and Myra Pipkins being recorded by Charles Todd. 1941 Photo by Robert Herring. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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    July 28, 1940

    Locale

    The Arvin Migratory Labor Camp was established by the Farm Security Administration in 1937 at Weedpatch California, near Arvin, in the cotton-growing region of the San Joaquin Valley. It was the first of its kind in California, and is notable as the scene of John Steinbecke's "Grapes of Wrath".

    At the time of these recordings it contained 145 families(650 persons). The camp consists of 106 metal shelters (steel, painted with an aluminum paint said to cut off the sun's rays perceptibly), 98 tents, and 20 adobes.

    At the peak of the cotton picking the camp population rises to 250 families, or 1200 persons. (Average family is 4.2 persons, said to be below the average for the nation). The adobes are assigned on a selective basis. The occupant must show a record of 6 months employment in agriculture during preceding year. The adobes are permanent homestead -- including an acre of ground; we saw flower gardens, etc. Rent is $8.25 per month. Rent for the shelters or tent platforms is $.25 per week.

    The Comm. which chooses the residents of the adobes is a camp comm. The occupants of the adobes are "permanent" -- the occupants of the tents and shelters may not stay in the camp for more than a year-- although they may move back after having lived elsewhere for a while. Manager, Mr. Fred Ross.

    Diary

    The machine was set up first in the dance hall, with the help of the Camp Manager, Mr. Fred Ross. A dance was scheduled for the evening (Saturday night), but no orchestra was available. The best fiddler in camp was on guard duty and refused to relinquish his post. Nor could he be persuaded to loan out his fiddle.

    Numerous attempts were made. but the dance was finally abandoned. The dance hall was a large rectangular building, well-lighted, and cooled by numerous fans blowing through wet burlap ("desert-cooler"). About fifty people, mostly children, gathered about the machine -- all very shy, and deeply impressed by the notion that we were "guvment fellers".

    First attempts to interest them in singing brought dubious results. Most of the songs were what the old folks called "late ones".

    Finally, for testing, two little girls, Eileen Russell and Erlene Gibson, were persuaded to sing "On the Beach at Bali-Bali" in two part harmony, which was very well done. An attempt was made to record "The Convict and the Rose", but neither child remembered enough of it.

    At this point, a man interrupted and said, "What you want is some real old Break-down stuff, ain't it, Mister?" We assured him it was, and he promised to bring forth the next day.


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    Copyright 2000 The Kitchen Sisters