“A Song from Our Own Great Country”: Constructing America in the New Deal’s Federal Music Program

COVID-19 abruptly changed the way we experience music. Musicians across the spectrum, from small jazz trios to large symphony orchestras, find themselves without an audience. The impact on the cultural industry is yet unclear. Ninety years ago, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, musicians were in a similar position, as the state of the economy did not allow many people to attend concerts. To save America’s cultural sector from collapse, president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal included several measures to assist cultural institutions. As part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a specific division called the Federal Music Program (FMP) was installed to help musicians survive the Great Depression. As both white symphony orchestras and black folk choirs found themselves without work, the New Deal presented a unique opportunity to redefine the American musical tradition, and with it, America itself.

The FMP, led by conductor Nikolai Sokoloff, initially favored large symphony orchestras which could reliably play classical music by European composers. Each state was assigned a budget and the freedom to implement the program to their liking, though they did have to take into account popular demands. In practice, this meant that in many instances symphony orchestras had to make way for dance or folk bands, including many black musicians, who often outperformed their white counterparts. In fact, in Michigan the “all colored choral group … were much in demand and had the honor of singing for President Roosevelt.” The colored choral group’s performance at the White House represented not just a victory for black choirs across the nation – they had all of course experienced the enthusiasm first-hand themselves – but it also carried deeper implications. When music was actively made accessible to Americans of all income groups, white classical music composed by distant Europeans did not resonate with the people as much as black spirituals and folk songs did. The Music Program files sketch three avenues through which this reimagining of the American identity took place: logistical hurdles, crises of nationalism, and race in American society.
The FMP’s chief purpose was providing jobs to musicians facing unemployment. But as the Second World War loomed, priorities shifted, and new emphasis was placed on the meaning of music:

“It is not in our Army alone that music contributes to American patriotism through spiritual growth… Wherever our people gather we are learning to voice our patriotism in song. Just as song may inspire our soldiers to higher courage, so may our people at home be inspired to greater endeavor through singing.”

Once production and industry were adjusted to support the war effort, musicians employed by the FMP moved to military bases, instruments included. As a result, small bands were now favored over large orchestras. But logistics were just part of the reason why folk bands were preferred. Large symphony orchestras had the misfortune of playing an overwhelmingly Germanic repertoire. The military conceded that boosting morale and anti-German sentiment among the soldiers was a difficult task when the training regimes were scored with the German Romanticism of Brahms and Wagner.The realization that music could serve a purpose beyond entertainment, like strengthening the social fabric of a community, was best exemplified by Florida’s Music Program. FMP administrators reported on Ybor City, Tampa’s Latin quarter, where mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants live separately from society outside the community. Building up the war machine, however, required patriotism, commitment, unity. In reality, the program directors realized, while “most Americans seemed still unaware that world Fascism had begun its regressive march against democracy”, Spanish immigrants had supported the efforts by Spanish Republicans in their fight for democracy for years. Florida’s “Americanization by Music” program saw potential there: they could integrate Spanish-speaking communities into a 1940s conception of American society, as well as breed enthusiasm in Tampa’s war-time industry workers. The music program appealed to the belief that song as universal language bred morale and morals, spirit and purpose. Music, in short, made “staunch young Americans.” To Latin-Americans, “inherent lovers of music,” the music program could be most effective. The documents remain ambiguous as to what the FMP understood by American music. The report gives just glimpses of this. “I am an American,” the program’s opener, was “sung with rare patriotic fervor,” and “the folk dances of America” were performed with “feeling and conviction.”

In many instances the Federal Music Program was supplemented with so-called “music appreciation programs,” classes explicitly aimed at teaching the cultural and social dimensions of music. In the music program’s quest to construct a new musical expression of America, these classes play an important part in articulating the synthesis between music and national identity. In Arkansas, such classes discussed how “music reflects the spirit of the time,” or how to “appreciate ‘good music’,” hinting at the perception of classical music being hierarchically more important or sophisticated. Another class on folk music translates these topics to the American identity, stimulating students to develop “real interest in American folk music as it expresses the lives and emotions of those born and bred in our native land,” and to give “a broader conception of the isolated southern mountain peoples.” These topics characterized a desire to construct a new American musical canon, one which  reflected a new American identity. Similar efforts to instill this musical tradition occurred across different states. Illinois in particular took great effort in promoting this by initiating a widespread school music project.

The FMP files, diverse in state-specific approaches, document a unified nationwide effort to construct a new American cultural identity. But this, in turn, raised a new struggle to rhyme America’s ambition of global cultural dominance with its apparent European musical tradition. Listening to European music forced Americans to preserve a romantic distance to its themes; the program’s choirs sang of Norwegian mountains, French nobility, or the English countryside. Fairytale descriptions of the old world reveal a disconnection from European ancestry. As a result, the school concerts always were more of an exhibition of the world rather than an exploration of the self and its own “American” identity. European greats were occasionally followed by American composers, like Stephen Foster, but with the stark realization that “no one thought of him as a great composer,” yet now “they have become folk songs of our country.” The unsatisfying patriotism of the program was reflected in the closing words to every concert: “Before the band leaves us today, we’ll have just time enough to sing a song of our own great country.” Alternatingly “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America” – both British compositions – escorted the students back to their class.

The current ubiquity of American music in globalized cultural expressions makes this American search for a unique musical seem surprising. But American music is much older of course, developing from the first moment when African slaves arrived in the new world, bringing their own music. The Music Program files document an important episode in the history of American popular music, one which will always be inseparable from African-American history. The role of black Americans and black culture shine through in every document. From the establishment of segregated choirs and rehearsal spaces to the successes of African-American spirituals as an American genre, black musicians played an integral part in the program across all states. Not only did the Music Program elevate black artists to a new position from where they could dictate the American musical tradition, it reshaped American cultural identity in its entirety. When the black Chicago Jubilee choir was first introduced in the school music appreciation program it was still a novel concept, and its success was attributed to racial biology – “the natural blend of the negro voices is extraordinary” – or racial history – “years ago the only way the negro had of expressing his feelings was through music”. In Minnesota black spirituals were introduced to people at an “All-American Festival”, where a black choir would perform “their own folk art”. The efforts to place the African-American musical tradition into the mainstreams of American musical life undeniably contributed to the development of black genres like blues and gospel as popular music. This was a hard-fought battle that was won, in the end, on merit. Black choirs faced institutional racial prejudice, the prioritization of classically trained musicians disadvantaged black musicians, and locally they were denied lodging in rural Illinois. Yet it was not a white band but a black choir that stood in the oval office with FDR, singing old, yet ever relevant elegies of their barriers to freedom, recasting America’s song with it.

This piece was written using the following newspaper entry:

– Antonín Dvořák, The New York Herald, May 23, 1893.

And the following microfiches:

– Archives of the Work Projects Administration and Predecessors, 1933-1946 part 2, reel 8
– Archives of the Work Projects Administration and Predecessors, 1933-1946 part 2, reel 8
– Archives of the Work Projects Administration and Predecessors, 1933-1946 part 2, reel 8
– Archives of the Work Projects Administration and Predecessors, 1933-1946 part 2, reel 9
– Archives of the Work Projects Administration and Predecessors, 1933-1946 part 2, reel 9