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man and woman dancing mid-twirl with arms above and back to back

Photograph of a couple dancing, Rancho Camulos, California, late 1800s, printed early to mid-1900s.

Spanish Songs of Old California


Charles Lummis, founder of Los Angeles's Southwest Museum, dedicated much of his life to preserving cultures that he felt were vanishing. Like a number of Americans at the turn of the twentieth century, Lummis was convinced that Native Americans’ lifeways were on the road to extinction, and that Hispanic cultures in particular were doomed by modernity. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Lummis lamented these developments and worked to preserve at least some records of Indian and Hispanic cultures.

In 1903, he established the Southwest Society, the western branch of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA). In 1907, he realized his ultimate goal of turning the organization into the Southwest Museum.

Key to the project of preservation was to save, by recording, the traditional music of Southwestern Indian and Hispanic cultures. In a 1905 article titled “Catching Archaeology Alive,” Lummis sought to persuade the AIA that his “large scale folk-songs of the Southwest project” was archaeology. Lummis argued that it wouldn’t be long before such artifacts were considered genuine archaeology. If not recorded now, he urged, the songs would be “as dead and gone as the rest.” The challenge was “to catch our archaeology alive.”

Lummis’s first introduction to the Southwestern folksongs dated to his tramp across America in 1884. He developed a greater understanding and interest in the Spanish folksongs later, as he recuperated from a stroke in the late 1880s, while living in New Mexico. He started to collect the lyrics of folksongs in his diaries and notebooks. His first published article about New Mexican folksongs appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1890. He followed this with a more extended description of the songs in his 1893 book, Land of Poco Tiempo.

In early 1904, the newly founded Southwest Society undertook its earliest project to record Californio folksongs. Lummis purchased an Edison recorder, horn, and cylinders for $44.25 from H. C. Fiske, Jr. & Co. of Los Angeles. Needing someone to transcribe the songs into musical notations, Lummis engaged the services of Albert Stanley, a professor of music from the University of Michigan. But Lummis wanted someone who would devote himself full-time to transcription and, to his good fortune, he met Arthur Farwell, a noted composer and publisher of music, at a lecture he gave in January 1904.

The AIA provided financial assistance that enabled Farwell to come to California during several summers to work with Lummis. One invoice for Farwell’s first month of work in July–August of 1905 indicated he was paid $50 for his transcriptions. Over the next few years, he transcribed and harmonized several hundred of the songs. (Most of the transcriptions are in the Spanish Song Series in the Lummis Manuscript Collection.)

Lummis provided updates and reports of the project’s progress in the Southwest Society meeting minutes, promising that a songbook was forthcoming. But it took almost twenty years to publish just fourteen of the songs.

Lummis’s conviction that these cultures were disappearing was largely based on the fact that people in the Southwest who had taught him songs “a decade earlier couldn’t remember them.” Lummis felt that by recording these songs he was preserving “the earliest American Classics” which were on a par with their ancient counterparts from Greece and Rome. Today, we know that the songs haven’t been forgotten. Many people recognize and sing many of the songs. There are groups in Southern California—such as Los Californios of San Diego—that are still performing many of the Lummis recordings.

In a passage from his 1923 Spanish Songs of Old California songbook, Lummis explained:

“Personally, I feel that we who today inherit California are under a filial obligation to save whatever we may of the incomparable Romance which has made the name California a word to conjure with for 400 years. I feel that we can not decently dodge a certain trusteeship to save the Old Missions from ruin and the Old Songs from oblivion. And I am convinced that from a purely selfish standpoint, our musical repertory is in crying need of enrichment—more by heartfelt musicians than by tailor-made ones, more from folksong than from potboilers. For 38 years I have been collecting the old, old songs of the Southwest; beginning long before the phonograph but utilizing that in later years. I have thus recorded more than 450 unpublished Spanish Songs (and know many more in my Attic). It was barely in time; the very people who taught them to me have mostly forgotten them, or died, and few of their children know them. But it is sin and a folly to let each song perish. We need them now.”

The Singers

Lummis knew many people, and he was almost always able to get them to do things for him. Nostalgic about the past, he romanticized about the Californio families and their existence prior to California joining the Union. The singers he hired for his Hispanic music recordings were from various backgrounds and Californio families in the Los Angeles region. Almost all of the recordings were done at El Alisal, his home in Highland Park.

Manuela Garcia

woman sitting next to a tree wearing a dress with a lace collar

Photograph of Manuela C. García, circa 1890. Autry Museum; P.34382

One of the most prolific singers was Manuela García, whose family lived in an adobe on South Olive Street in Los Angeles. In 1904 and 1905, García recorded approximately 150 songs for Lummis. (In the records, there are several statements for payments to Garcia of between $4 and $20.) Musicologist John Koegel has theorized that many of the songs García recorded are more recent in California, having arrived with Mexican immigrants in the second half of the nineteenth century. In addition to singing for Lummis, García gave him her notebook containing the words to 149 songs.

During recordings, García was accompanied by a blind guitarist of Mexican descent named Rosendo Uruchurtu. García’s sister Mercedes also recorded a few songs. (An interesting aside: five nieces of Manuela, three of them granddaughters of Mercedes, came to the Braun in the summer of 2008 to listen to the songs and review the correspondence, diaries, and photographs related to these two women. Thanks to this renewal and the long relationship with the family, they made a donation to the Braun Research Library of several photo albums and prints.)

Rosa and Luisa Villa

two women sitting in a chair one playing the guitar

Photograph of Rosa and Luisa Villa at El Alisal, Los Angeles, California, November 6, 1904. Autry Museum; P.35168

Sisters Rosa and Luisa Villa, whose family had come to Los Angeles in 1846 from Baja California, were also prominent contributors to Lummis’s project. They sang and played the guitar and mandolin for Lummis, recording about twenty pieces. They were also influential in the “romantic revival” of Californio dances. The sisters continued to perform these songs at an annual fiesta that was held at the Southwest Museum’s Casa de Adobe in the late 1930s. 

The del Valle Family

two women standing next to fountain one playing guitar

Photograph of Nina and Susana del Valle, Rancho Camulos, early 1900s. Autry Museum; P.33898

The del Valle family from Rancho Camulos, with whom Lummis spent time starting in 1884 or 1885, contributed twenty-two songs. Nena and Susie del Valle taught Lummis traditional songs and dances.

Adalaida Kamp

woman sitting on chair near tree listening

Photograph of of Adelaida Kamp at El Alisal, Los Angeles, California, circa 1890. Autry Museum; P.32433

Adalaida Kamp, an elderly woman from Ventura, recorded about sixty songs for Lummis. She descended from the Higuera family, which had arrived in California in 1780s. Adalaida’s songs represent some of the oldest extant songs from California. Kamp grew up learning songs in her household, where José de la Rosa—a popular musician, singer, and composer better known as Don Pepe—resided. Credited with being California’s first professional printer, de la Rosa came to California in 1833 with the Híjar-Padrés Party. Although he didn’t like to share his material with others, he was so impressed with Kamp that he willed her his book of song lyrics. Kamp in turn transcribed her own songs and left that book of lyrics to Lummis. She also sold Don Pepe’s notebook to Lummis for $10 (see 1904 invoice folder in box SWS/SWM Invoice/Bills/ETC. 1903-1920). Both of these items are now housed in the Braun Research Library.

Francisco Amate

man sitting at base of tree playing guitar

Photograph of Francisco Amate (the Old Troubador) playing the guitar at El Alisal, Los Angeles, California, August 28, 1907. Autry Museum; P.31935C

Another singer who had a long association with Lummis was Francisco Amate, a Spaniard. His songs are Spanish in origin. Amate lived at El Alisal and eventually married. His wife became Lummis’s housekeeper. Unfortunately, Amate died before his daughter was born, so Lummis became her guardian. A recent researcher from Spain listened to the flamenco recordings and was thrilled to hear them. He believes these are the earliest recordings of this style of music.

Over the years, staff members at the Southwest Museum have undertaken efforts to preserve the recordings and make them accessible. They copied some 450 wax cylinders to other formats. Preservationists at Yale University copied them on to aluminum discs in the 1930s. In the following decade, the Library of Congress copied many of the Spanish songs to ten-inch acetate disks. Later, in the 1960s, these formats were put onto reel-to-reel tapes. Finally, in 1984, they were transferred onto cassette tapes. But all of these formats have deteriorated significantly, and earlier copying techniques and technologies did not properly pick up the sonic information. In the mid 1980s, Dr. Michael Heisley began once again to rerecord the cylinders with grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the summer of 1990, the project shifted to a group of volunteers from California Antique Phonograph Society.

Heisley met with Dan Reed, a local historian and vintage sound recording aficionado. Both were passionate about preserving the priceless treasures inscribed on the Southwest’s wax cylinders. They quickly realized that time was of essence if the wax cylinder sounds were to be rescued from destruction. The original cylinders had begun to succumb to the ravages of time and handling, and many were broken. Because the grant period was over, there were no funds available to help support the effort, so saving the sounds would have to be a labor of love.

Dan Reed recruited Dr. Michael Khanchalian, a local dentist and amateur historian, and Mark Ulano, a well-known Hollywood sound man, to help with the project. Khanchalian managed the various forms of vintage equipment designed to set the cylinders in motion. Precisely ground elliptical styli prepared in Britain were used to engage the sound grooves without causing wear. Ulano then recorded the sounds onto digital media for permanent archival storage. Reed kept the team organized, made vocal selection identifications, and put each recording into historical context.

One of the group’s earliest tasks was to bolt the cabinets holding the priceless collection to the walls, to prevent falls and fracturing during earthquakes. The Northridge quake proved a successful test of this retrofit. Then, Khanchalian began the painstaking task of restoring the broken cylinders so that they could be transcribed anew.

We know now that many of the songs on the cylinders haven’t died out. There are families and groups in Southern California, such as Los Californios of San Diego, who still recognize and perform many of the songs Lummis recorded. Even so, the recordings are historic artifacts that reveal much more than the music and lyrics of a song. They also give us an idea of the musical styles and the technology of those times, and they are a living record of the voices of Angelenos now long gone.


Kim Walters


California Antique Phonographic Society (Dan Reed, Michael Khanchalian, Dr. Michael Heisley , Dr. Mark Ulano, Dan Reed)


Tessie Borden

Electronic Cataloging and Imaging

Marilyn Van Winkle, Vlasta Radan, Carmel France, Rebecca Menendez

Land Acknowledgment

The Autry Museum of the American West acknowledges the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples as the traditional land caretakers of Tovaangar (the Los Angeles basin and So. Channel Islands). We recognize that the Autry Museum and its campuses are located on the traditional lands of Gabrielino/Tongva peoples and we pay our respects to the Honuukvetam (Ancestors), ‘Ahiihirom (Elders) and ‘Eyoohiinkem (our relatives/relations) past, present and emerging.

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Los Angeles, CA 90027-1462
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