Roy Harris

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Musical literature never has been and never will be invaluable to society as a whole until it is created as an authentic and characteristic culture of and from the people it expresses. History reveals that the great music has been produced by staunch individuals who sank their roots deeply into the social soil which they accepted as their own.

—Roy Harris,

American Composers on American Music

Throughout American history there have been necessary tumultuous periods of change, usually involving violent upheaval or collapse, that have transformed the national landscape politically, economically, technologically, and culturally. Among the most defining cultural and social struggles, such as slavery and the Civil War, the industrial revolution, and World Wars I and II, lay the Great Depression of the 1930s. The economic collapse affected every citizen in every part of the country, regardless of income level, and undermined the cultural identity of the nation. In response, the government and ordinary citizens began to question their place in society and began challenging assumptions about class, culture, and social responsibility.

Within music, the debate centered on “highbrow” versus “lowbrow” culture, pitting cultivated music against vernacular and popular music. This cultural debate became a process of definition for America’s musicians and composers as they tried to decide what American music really was. In this paper I explore the WPA Federal Music Project, its employment relief efforts, and cultural mission under director Nikolai Sokoloff. In particular, special attention is given to relevant scholarship regarding the inclusion and exclusion of popular and vernacular music within FMP programs, and the role of radio in the dissemination of musical styles and fragmentation of American musical tastes. In order to understand the Federal Music Project’s impact on music it is necessary to look at the historical circumstances that led to its creation.

Historical Perspective
When Hoover took office in 1928, America had experienced almost a decade of tremendous economic growth, modernization, and urbanization. As David M. Kennedy notes, “By 1920, for the first time in the nation’s history, a majority of Americans were city dwellers.”1 Better-paying job opportunities in manufacturing drew increasing numbers of Americans away from rural areas and into the cities. This marked an important economic and societal shift that widened the separation between the urban upper class and the working and rural lower classes. This growing disparity initially had little effect. At first, factories couldn’t produce enough cars, refrigerators, radios, and other modern conveniences for the American consumer. The stock market soared, the middle class grew, and some got very rich. The wealthy sought out so-called “highbrow” culture in the theater, opera, and symphony, both for entertainment and as a symbol of their status in society, while the middle and lower classes enjoyed “lowbrow” entertainment in the form of Tin Pan Alley sheet music, the expansion of radio programming, and the widening popularity of blues and jazz records and clubs.

Unfortunately, not every American enjoyed the economic boom. Most of the wealth being created by the manufacturing industry went right back into the pockets of corporate owners and worker’s incomes did not keep pace with the rate of expansion and output. By contrast, “more than one in five working Americans still toiled on the land in the 1920s. Forty-four percent of the population was still counted as rural in 1930. Well over half the states of the Union remained preponderantly rural in population, economy, political representation, and ways of life.”2 Hoover recognized the widening gap between capital and labor, as well as the growing divide between urban and rural America, and felt compelled to bring about a balance in order to preserve an

idealized rural way of life.

At the time of Hoover’s inauguration, rural America had already been in a depression for most of the decade. With the aid of new gasoline tractors, American farmers produced enough crops to shore up world food commodities during World War I. After the war ended in 1918, however, recovery of the agricultural industry in Europe, competition from other countries, and increased efficiency due to technology, coupled with a failure to anticipate and scale back production, left those same farmers with tremendous surpluses. This resulted in dramatic price drops as agriculture, a major portion of the U.S. economy, slowly collapsed. On the eve of the stock market crash, Congress passed the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1929, which allowed government entities to buy up surpluses and keep them off the market as a way to stabilize prices, but the program quickly ran out of money and storage as the Great Depression took hold.3 As their loans defaulted and farms foreclosed, many farmers had no choice but to leave the land and seek employment in the city.

Like farmers, musicians also found themselves in a peculiar and difficult situation in which technology contributed to increasing unemployment beginning in the late 1920s. Technological advances in radio and recording made it possible for music to reach wider audiences, but also decreased audience dependence on live performance. Increased access to and proliferation of radio and phonograph records made it possible for people across the nation to listen to a wide variety of music. Sheet music purchases dropped off as radio purchases increased, with over $2,000,000 spent on radio sets in America between 1925 and 1932.4 Cheaply produced records made it possible for Americans to take their favorite musicians and singers home with them and popular tastes were changing as well, as could be seen in the crossover appeal of blues and jazz artists like Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet, whose race records filtered north, expanding audiences dramatically.

Yet, despite the appeal of popular music, live audiences and jobs for popular musicians withered as clubs closed in the face of income losses due to prohibition laws, and of the ones remaining open, a sizable portion cut costs by featuring canned music from phonographs, radios, and jukeboxes. Even such notable composers as Oscar Hammerstein toyed with the idea of substituting recordings for live music in a musical theater production.5

In 1927, the advent of “talkies,” motion pictures featuring sound, played a key role in unemployment increases among American musicians heading into the 1930s. Janelle Findley notes in her dissertation, “Of Tears and Need”:

From the smallest movie house with the organist pumping out the accompanying musical score to large theaters where groups of musicians, sometimes approaching symphonic proportions, entertained the film patrons, opportunities abounded. In 1926 there were 22,000 musicians filling in the gaps in the silent movie productions. The cost of maintaining an ensemble of 15 at an average wage of $60 a week was $46,800 a year, not including the salary of the conductor. [By contrast,] even with operating costs, mechanical sound was much less expensive. By 1930 fewer than 14,000 theater players were employed in the movie houses of the nation, and by 1934 just over 4,000 were barely holding on.6

Though President Hoover and his administration acted to stabilize the U.S. economy after the 1929 Stock Market Crash, their efforts proved dangerously inadequate. While he reassured Americans that the economy would right itself, he failed to recognize the dire need of the nation’s people for government intervention as millions lost their jobs and businesses crumbled in the early 1930s.

Believing that the return to financial health lay in the strength of American business, Hoover enlisted the help of corporate leaders such as Henry Ford and asked them “to continue investing, to avoid massive layoffs, and to maintain wages at current levels.”7 At first, Hoover’s strategy of stimulating big business and relying on relief programs at the local level seemed to work. In the beginning of 1930, the stock market rose slightly and investors bought stock, albeit gingerly. So confident was Hoover in the improvements, and so opposed was he to any relief program remotely resembling a “dole,” that “in June, Hoover himself dismissed a proposal from a group of ministers and clergymen to establish a federal public works program to help the rising ranks of unemployed. ‘You have come too late,’ he told them. ‘The depression is over.’”8

Though it seemed that the economy was rebounding, the Great Depression was just beginning. Businesses could not make good on their promises to Hoover if consumers had no money with which to purchase products. Between Hoover’s statement in June of 1930 and the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, the nation became caught in a downward spiral that, at the time, seemed to have no end. In keeping with his conservative political views, Hoover refused to engage the federal government in providing direct relief to its citizens. Instead, he appealed to state and local governments, charitable relief agencies, churches, neighbors, and civic and fraternal organizations to provide relief to those in need.

Musicians were among the workers to receive employment aid from state and private relief programs, as Cornelius Canon elaborates:

In New York City . . . the first extensive programs for musicians began in December of 1931 with the organization of Musicians’ Emergency Aid. Under the leadership of Walter Damrosch, [the organization] was able to carry out an extensive program of relief to musicians in the early years of the depression. The Musicians’ Symphony Orchestra was organized from the relief rolls and major conductors and soloists volunteered their services to present several series of successful concerts in Madison Square Garden and the Metropolitan Opera House. The benefits from the concerts were two-fold: the performing musicians were paid salaries and the community was offered outstanding programs at very low cost.9

As a national union, the American Federation of Musicians was able to provide some relief to its members through a program combining a member tax along with job sharing. Although the short-lived program was found to be ineffective on a national scale, the union continued to advocate for its members, engaging in protests opposing military service band performances and the employment of immigrant musicians.10

New York’s privately administered musicians’ relief programs were bolstered by the state’s own relief efforts under the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA) enacted by Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt and administered by Harry Hopkins. “In Philadelphia 118 unemployed musicians, actors, and entertainers were employed in hospitals, recreation centers, settlement houses, and children’s institutions.”11 While there was a great variety of locally based, charity-driven relief efforts available to musicians, especially in New York and other urban centers, ultimately, in most states, local and private relief efforts soon failed, unable to keep pace with ever growing demand. For musicians playing popular music, there were few options unless one was a member of the union. Nearly all of the charitable efforts to help musicians focused on those who played cultivated music. Vernacular and popular music were considered too unrefined and its musicians too uneducated to provide quality music to audiences.

Hoover’s stubbornly maintained overconfidence deeply angered the nation’s growing unemployed and homeless. Starvation became a realistic threat, along with food riots, which occurred over two consecutive winters between 1931 and 1933 as charities ran low on supplies and money dwindled. Income and unemployment statistics taken from The New York Chronicle of American Life: From the Crash to the Blitz 1929–1939 show just how dire circumstances were for millions of Americans:

Average family income, which had been about $2,300 in 1929, was down to $1,600 or less in 1932. Only one family in five had as much as $3,000 a year to spend. But most poignant and meaningful of all in this dismal record were the statistics of unemployment: 4,340,000 in 1930, 8,020,000 in 1931, 12,060,000 in 1932. The 1932 figure meant that about one in every five persons in the labor force, or about one of every seven adults in the population, was out of a job.12

Unemployed musicians and music instructors lost their jobs as schools, orchestras, opera companies, nightclubs, and theaters lost revenue and reduced staff, cut performances, education programs, and increasingly turned to canned music in place of live performance. “It was the performing musician, particularly in the entertainment world, who was hardest hit by the depression.” In 1933, The American Federation of Musicians member rolls revealed “that about two-thirds of the union’s musicians were unemployed.”13

FDR’s New Deal, and Early Relief Efforts for Musicians

Millions of dispossessed Americans, outraged by Hoover’s failures and perceived lack of empathy for their plight, ousted the incumbent from office in 1932, and elected Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt President by a margin of seven million votes. With a majority in both the House and the Senate, Roosevelt was poised to fulfill his campaign promise of a so-called “new deal” for the nation.

FDR wasted no time in attacking the financial crisis. In his well-noted “First Hundred Days” in office, the President pushed for legislation in a variety of areas vital to recovery including the Banking Act of 1933, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, and the Federal Emergency Relief Act. In his first radio address, one of many “fireside chats” for which his presidency would be known, Roosevelt outlined his initial plan of relief for the country. Harnessing the popularity of radio, these addresses united the nation, encouraged and informed depression weary citizens, galvanizing their support for the president and his policies.14

As part of the Federal Emergency Relief Act, the Federal Emergency Relief Agency (FERA) was created, not as a direct federal relief program, but as a way for the federal government to augment state aid programs in providing employment and social welfare programs for the nation’s desperate citizens. FERA was administered by Harry L. Hopkins, a staunch advocate of social justice and former executive director of New York’s Temporary Emergency Relief Administration under then, Governor Roosevelt. Closely modeled on the New York program, Hopkins intended FERA to be a path by which the unemployed could retain their dignity and restore their morale by receiving aid in exchange for work. Though five-hundred million dollars was allocated for relief under FERA, as winter set in it was apparent to Hopkins that the program was not enough. In response, the president called for an additional measure creating the Civil Works Administration (CWA), which bypassed the states to create a federally administered emergency work relief program. This temporary program did much to help workers, who in turn put money back into the economy before FERA and the states took over relief again in the spring of 1934.15

While there had been a handful of state sponsored arts programs under FERA, “the emphasis upon cultural projects began in the CWA period.”16 Until the CWA, there was no organized federal effort to match the skill sets of white-collar workers such as musicians with jobs that made the best use of their abilities. To stimulate relief for white-collar workers, Hopkins organized the Civil Works Service, funded by FERA checks endorsed by the states and sent back to the Civil Works Service account. Under the CWA, music was used primarily in recreational roles involving “performance, exposure, and education. Group participation [by amateur musicians was encouraged and]...the music played either reflected the tastes of those listening, or added to their musical sophistication by exposing them to new forms of music.”17

Musicians looking for jobs lined up in droves at CWA offices. The Depression’s toll on the musicians of New York City is poignantly captured in the recollections of George Foster, a New York City FERA official, and is used by more than one scholar to illustrate the harrowing demoralization of some of the country’s most talented. In it he describes long lines of instrumentalists, teachers, singers, and composers who had performed at the finest halls in the world and studied with some of the most illustrious figures in music, but whom could not find work in their field.18

The Works Progress Administration and The Federal Music Project

During the spring and summer of 1935, President Roosevelt unveiled and put into action a second wave of relief to aid working families and stimulate consumer spending. Created by executive order, the federally administered Works Progress Administration was the centerpiece, a far reaching work relief program that replaced FERA and put more than eight million people back to work on a wide array of construction, repair, and renovation projects including schools, airports, libraries, and approximately 600,000 miles of infrastructure.19 The primary goal of the WPA was to put people back to work in jobs utilizing their specific skills. Roosevelt and his administration believed very strongly that work relief was not only essential in maintaining a skilled workforce for economic recovery, but was a necessary means by which the morale of the nation could be lifted via national pride in this common purpose.

Former FERA director, Harry Hopkins was selected to head the agency. He was especially keen to implement Federal Project One, the WPA sponsored arts project because, as Kenneth Bindas writes,

He felt that those “less tangible” projects might provide the most worthy contributions, perhaps helping to establish “in some ways a new base of American life.” It was apparent to many that the depression was as much about rebuilding and redefining America’s national will as it was about economic recovery. There needed to be a reunification of the national “mission.” The successful New Deal programs were as concerned with psychological and social effects as they were with creating tangible economic results.20

Hopkin’s assistant, Jacob Baker, a figure often singled out for his leftist tendencies, was in charge of selecting directors for each of the four arts projects: Holger Cahill for the Federal Art Project (FAP), Henry Alsberg for the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), Hallie Flanagan for the Federal Theater Project (FTP), and Nikolai Sokoloff for the Federal Music Project (FMP). In keeping with the directive of the WPA, the main purpose of each project was to provide employment, yet each section of Federal Project One struggled with a duality of purpose. While they were charged with the utilitarian task of putting artists back to work, they were also mandated by administrative order to benefit the community through performances that met professional standards, or by engaging residents in recreational activities to increase interest and participation in the arts. Each program wrestled with their cultural responsibility to the nation, and of defining American cultural identity. In addition, the arts programs of Federal Project One were a magnet for the public debate over culture in the United States. Central to this debate was the issue of “highbrow” culture versus “lowbrow” culture; a debate which, to a great extent, mirrored class and racial divisions.

Nikolai Sokoloff and the Formation of the Federal Music Project

The choice of Nikolai Sokoloff as director of the FMP met with opposition and only served to highlight the cultural divisions within the field, as many had expected a prominent American musical figure to be appointed. Though Sokoloff had lived in the United States since 1898, and was the first conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, he was still foreign born and steeped in the traditions of the Romantics, heavily favoring that style. He was also perceived as inflexible and heavy handed with regard to his opinions of American music and composers. This conservative bent is illustrated by Janelle Findley:

He was somewhat out of place as the twentieth century emerged as an era of great experimentalism and invention. He was not afraid of limited innovation, but his own tastes (which were traditional and elitist) were formed early both by his family and his teachers. He seemed unwilling to progress beyond his own well-defined concepts of art in general and music in particular. His standards were extremely high and absolutely inflexible, and his orientation was toward classical music, particularly symphonic works. He was willing to play the works of American fine art composers, but had no interest in any popular music forms. . . . According to some of his colleagues [in Cleveland], he had little personal interest in the players, seeing them only as parts of the orchestra, necessary for balance but otherwise expendable.21

These qualities would show themselves in his objectives for the project, the employment standards he established for the FMP, and the level of inclusion regarding race and gender, popular and vernacular music, American composers, and new American compositions.

Sokoloff’s interpretation of the WPA’s mandate to provide employment relief and community service involved an employment strategy whereby large urban concentrations of musicians were dispatched into less populated areas. He believed that exposing these populations to cultivated music would, in turn, create a demand for it, resulting in job growth.22 Sokoloff also appointed eleven regional directors to assemble the FMP “units” and manage their own activities within established guidelines. His interpretation of the community service portion was quite elitist, revolving around his determination “to promote and encourage the acceptance of cultivated music,” an opinion which influenced audition standards and musician classification, repertoire, community outreach and education efforts, and promotion of the FMP’s projects. “It was made clear at the beginning that the emphasis of the FMP would be on the employment of needy professional musicians and the promotion of high standards of musicianship rather than on community service.”23 In short, “Sokoloff came to the FMP determined to use the project to promote and protect what he considered good music—that is, cultivated music—largely without consideration for either the plight of the unemployed musician or for the American audience, both of whom seemed largely to favor the vernacular.”24

FMP Policies, Audition and Employment Standards

The FMP’s audition standards reflected Sokoloff’s bias, favoring conservatory trained musicians, by far the minority on the relief roles. In order to be considered “professional,” musicians were to “achieve the standards expected by his local audition board.” These standards were ambiguously broad and subject to interpretation, which varied by region. The shades of difference could be very slight, resulting in inconsistent classification of musicians with significant consequences since “the difference in classification determined pay, type of work, and job security.”25

Sokoloff’s policies and standards met with regular opposition from the American Federation of Musicians and the union’s president, Joseph Weber. He was quick to point out to Sokoloff that most musicians did not require conservatory level training in order to practice their profession, as he himself could attest to, having “played engagements in circuses, dances, parades, picnics, hotels, and concert bands as well as with the Cincinnati Symphony.”26

Weber wanted to see as many musicians employed under the FMP as possible and suggested that in addition to the units playing cultivated music, there should be “dance music of all kinds, and jazz organizations playing dance music.”27 Sokoloff would not compromise on standards, and did not explicitly include popular musicians when the FMP work classifications were issued. Although he eventually agreed to an equal wage for all FMP musicians, those who played vernacular or popular music and did not meet minimum audition standards for classification at the professional or skilled level were relegated to the Recreation Project of the WPA playing in music units for community activities or were ultimately reclassified out of the FMP entirely and referred to other work programs. The Federal Music Project manual categorized work units according to a system of classification favoring cultivated musicians (shown in Figure 1 below).

1. Symphony and Concert Orchestras

2. Dance Orchestras

3. Bands

4. Chamber Music Ensembles

5. Vocal Quartets and Ensembles

6. Instrumental and Vocal Soloists

7. Grand Opera, Operetta, Opera Comique, and Chamber Opera

8. Teaching of Music and Music Appreciation

9. Miscellaneous: Librarians, Copyists, Binders, Piano tuners, Repairmen

10. Other

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