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Sounds of the New Deal

Sounds of the New Deal: The Federal Music Project in the West

Foreword by Peggy Seeger
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Sounds of the New Deal
    Book Description:

    At its peak the Federal Music Project (FMP) employed nearly 16,000 people who reached millions of Americans through performances, composing, teaching, and folksong collection and transcription. In Sounds of the New Deal , Peter Gough explores how the FMP's activities in the West shaped a new national appreciation for the diversity of American musical expression. From the onset, administrators and artists debated whether to represent highbrow, popular, or folk music in FMP activities. Though the administration privileged using "good" music to educate the public, in the West local preferences regularly trumped national priorities and allowed diverse vernacular musics to be heard. African American and Hispanic music found unprecedented popularity while the cultural mosaic illuminated by American folksong exemplified the spirit of the Popular Front movement. These new musical expressions combined the radical sensibilities of an invigorated Left with nationalistic impulses. At the same time, they blended traditional patriotic themes with an awareness of the country's varied ethnic musical heritage and vast--but endangered--store of grassroots music.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09701-0
    Subjects: History, Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Peggy Seeger, Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Louis Seeger

    Leadbelly came to the door, a blue-black African American man, neatly dressed. He was enormous—but then I would have been only about six years old. He was with a smaller, portly man who may have been John Lomax whose young-man son, Alan, was one of my most favorite people. Alan was fun, spontaneous and loud with a great big toothy grin, a bull in many china shops. He would pick us up and swing us around—he had time for us kids and, like big brother Pete, he had lots of songs that we hadn’t heard already. When I...

    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    “If President Roosevelt had done nothing else but establish the Federal Music Project, that alone would be sufficient to account him great.” So declared a recently hired musician in California during the height of the Great Depression. This sentiment, according to a Los Angeles newspaper, could “be confirmed by thousands of musicians and music lovers.” Initiated in 1935 as a part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal plan for fiscal recovery, the Federal Music Project (FMP) composed one of several cultural programs—designated Federal Project Number One, or Federal One—of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The other sections of...

  6. CHAPTER 1 “Musicians Have Got To Eat, Too!”: The New Deal and the FMP
    (pp. 10-35)

    In 1937, a young woman from Texas sent a letter to the White House. Presumably aware of the Federal Music Projects active in her state, Lillian McKinney appealed to President and Mrs. Roosevelt to support her ambition of a career in the performing arts. Written in a clear, practiced cursive, the letter arrived in Washington, D.C., early in October:

    President Roosevelt,

    Dear Sir,

    This is to ask you would you be kind enough to answer a poor Negro girl’s letter and help her to be a good singer. I have the voice for singing if I had a place to...

  7. CHAPTER 2 “Out Where the West Begins”: Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada
    (pp. 36-51)

    In 1936, employees of the Federal Music Project began collecting and transcribing songs performed by residents of migratory labor camps in the California Valley. The subject matter of these compositions varied dramatically, ranging from commonplace events of daily camp life to expressions of profound frustration prompted by the migrant’s abject existence in the pit of Depression-era America. InAmerican Exodus,James Gregory writes: “Victims of drought and depression, they had headed west by the tens of thousands, hoping for a brighter future in California, only to find, it seemed, more misery.” The emigrants traveled toward the setting sun in the...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Innovation, Participation, and “A Horrible Musical Stew”: California
    (pp. 52-72)

    “California proves the theory of continental tilt,” maintained architect Frank Lloyd Wright. “All the loose nuts end up there.” Without question, the Golden State encountered far more administrative tumult and personnel squabbles than any other section of the country. At the same time, California’s Federal Music Project also produced the largest, most comprehensive and eclectic of the Music Projects in the western region. More than in any other state outside of New York, the opera proved quite popular in California, and musical productions such as Run,Little Chillun,with an extended run in Southern California, andTake Your Choicein...

  9. CHAPTER 4 “Spit, Baling Wire, Mirrors” and the WPA: Colorado, Utah, Oregon, and Washington
    (pp. 73-88)

    The most commonly asked questions about the American West have often proven to be the most difficult to answer. What are its boundaries? What are its unifying characteristics? What are its historical underpinnings? A clear-cut determination of geographical location has never been resolved with any degree of certainty. Some argue the West begins at the Mississippi River, some the Hundredth Meridian, while still others point to the Rocky Mountains. A number of scholars have even excluded California and the Pacific Slope from the “real” West, and others insist upon the inclusion of Alaska and Hawaii—particularly after 1959. Walter Prescott...

  10. CHAPTER 5 “No One Sings as Convincingly as the Darkies Do”: Song and Diversity
    (pp. 89-126)

    Historians have long contemplated the motivations behind one of the most consequential realignments in twentieth-century American politics—the movement of African Americans from the “Party of Lincoln” to the Democratic Party in the 1930s. Despite the economic depression, African Americans displayed little enthusiasm for Franklin Roosevelt’s candidacy in 1932—in Chicago, for example, the future president garnered only 21 percent of the black vote. Following FDR’s victory, African Americans suffering discrimination under the National Recovery Act (NRA) duly dubbed it the “Negro Run Around” or even “Negroes Ruined Again.” Yet by mid-1938, a period of the New Deal’s lowest general...

  11. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  12. CHAPTER 6 “Ballad for Americans”: The Music of the Popular Front
    (pp. 127-162)

    Asked about the attitude of the American Left toward the Roosevelt administration, Pete Seeger broke into song:

    Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt

    We damn near believed what he said.

    He said, “I hate war and so does Eleanor

    But we won’t be safe’ til everybody’s dead!”

    The song could be found on a record—long ago pulled from circulation—of the Almanac Singers, a topical folksong group that included Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, and Seeger (who at the time was performing under the pseudonym Pete Bowers). Later in the interview, Pete Seeger, a reflective man...

  13. CHAPTER 7 “The Folk of the Nation”: No Horses Need Apply
    (pp. 163-190)

    Soon after his appointment as the Federal Music Project’s deputy director, Charles Seeger was chosen by the White House to prepare a special presentation for a group of visiting dignitaries. By this time, Seeger had become convinced that the songs of the American people, what had become known as folk music, were indeed “rather marvelous.” He had been “fortunate enough” to meet Eleanor Roosevelt on several occasions, and this viewpoint was “just what would please her.” The First Lady was aware of his work with the Resettlement Administration, and when the king and queen of England came to visit the...

  14. Conclusion: “The Varied Carols We Hear”
    (pp. 191-196)

    In a press release from the national administration of the Federal Music Project in early 1939, Nikolai Sokoloff wrote:

    It is noteworthy that while elsewhere in the world music is being subjected to repression, and the free flow of musical utterance is being distorted or silenced, America is experiencing the greatest musical enrichment in its history. A point of irony resides in the fact that this debasement of music is happening in lands from which we have drawn our richest musical heritage.

    It is in no small part due to the emergence of a New Deal coalition—and aided by...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 197-236)
    (pp. 237-250)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 251-260)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 261-272)