American music had never been more energetic and alive than the time when the depression struck. Jazz was still a recent word, and musicians such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and King Oliver were redefining and advancing the form. Swing had evolved from ragtime’s stride and syncopation. Benny Goodman’s band had turned up the temperature and made “hot swing” popular when it wowed an audience at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in August 1935, playing tunes by the black arranger and bandleader Fletcher Henderson. The big band era was under way, bringing wildly popular dance tunes arranged by innovators such as Ellington and Artie Shaw to listeners everywhere through the relatively new medium of radio. Far from the sophistication of the New York and Chicago dance clubs as personified by Ellington’s white tie and rakishly tilted top hat, self-taught musicians in the hidden reaches of the Appalachian mountains were translating the bagpipe and fiddle laments of their Irish and Scottish forebears into bluegrass and the roots of country music. And in black churches in the South and North alike, harmonizing gospel choirs were bringing the passion of religion into what became the underpinnings of the blues.
Yet even as this fresh new music bubbled up, in the United States musicians themselves were reeling. Performers had suffered multiple blows even before the depression. First came talking pictures, which eliminated the live orchestras that played in movie house orchestra pits to accompany silent films. Then radio and phonograph recordings became available and the demand for live music declined still further. But the depression was by far the hardest shot. By 1933 in New York, where the largest concentration of musicians lived and worked, 12,000 of the 15,000 local members of the American Federation of Musicians were out of work. The situation was no better in the nation’s other music centers; in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, as many as 70 percent of professional musicians had no jobs. Across the entire country, only eleven privately funded symphony orchestras had managed to continue operating.
Harry Hopkins had assembled a few bands and orchestras and offered music classes under both the CWA and FERA, but these were stopgaps that benefited musicians and educators in only a scattering of states. It was not until the WPA that the government undertook a comprehensive program. But Hopkins’s choice of Nikolai Sokoloff, the founding conductor of the Cleveland Symphony, to head the Federal Music Project was not universally applauded.
Sokoloff’s path to musical prominence in America had begun in 1898 on a train platform in Kiev, Russia. Only twelve years old, he was already an accomplished classical musician, playing violin in the Kiev Orchestra, conducted by his father. Now he and his family were beginning the long journey to America, and the departure must have been bittersweet for the young violinist because part of the price of passage had been gained by the sale of his violin.
Once in America, however, the gifted youth quickly made his mark. At thirteen, he won a special scholarship to the Yale University School of Music, where he studied for three years. By the age of sixteen, he held the first violinist’s chair in the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Three years later he left for France to begin several years’ more study, which culminated in 1911 with successful tours in France and England. Back in the United States, he joined Modest Altschuler’s Russian Symphony Orchestra of New York as concertmaster, and then was named conductor of the San Francisco Philharmonic. After America entered the world war, he went to France to organize and conduct concerts for American soldiers. A concert series he conducted in Cincinnati at the war’s end drew the attention of the new Cleveland Symphony, which hired him as its first conductor in 1918. In 1933, he retired to Connecticut, where he organized local concerts until Federal One was created in 1935 and Hopkins asked him to come to Washington.
As with each of the directors of the Federal One projects, Sokoloff’s background would shape the goals of the project he headed. The music that he knew and understood, the music that he had been playing since he was five years old, was that of the European masters: Mozart and Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. In his view, this music was far more than entertainment; it elevated its listeners from mere existence to meaningful life. While the other arts projects sought and celebrated an American vernacular—Cahill’s embrace of grassroots arts forms was just one example—Sokoloff had decided from the start that he would give Americans a diet of classics in order to improve their taste. He was willing to include American composers as long as their music was “refined,” but despite its popularity he did not consider the music of dance halls, black churches, cowboy campfires, jazz clubs, and brass bands to be sufficiently enlightening. What the people needed if they were to become part of an “accepted civic and cultural system” was the music of conservatories and concert halls—and this was what the Federal Music Project would bring to them.
Sokoloff enjoyed great prestige in classical music circles, but not surprisingly, many supporters of American music considered him a musical snob and opposed his appointment. Treasury Secretary Morgenthau’s wife, Elinor, wrote Hopkins to say that in her opinion Sokoloff lacked the “temperament and character” to head the Music Project, and that he would do harm to American music if left on his own. Project directors in California wanted “a native-born American musician” to run things. Indeed, Sokoloff’s public statements often confirmed the views of those who opposed him. Swing music, he said, “is like comparing the funny papers to the work of a painter.” (Roy Lichtenstein, who would famously conflate cartoons with art, was only eleven years old in 1935.) He told the project’s state directors that American musicians and composers “will get no place playing stupid things,” nor would a composer’s work be played just because he was American. And for the most part, he managed to appoint administrators who supported his musical paternalism. The pianist and composer Lee Pattison was his regional director in New York. Echoing Sokoloff, Pattison emphasized the goal of creating an audience to support “really good music in this country,” and the importance of “educating the public musically, and supplying them with the correct musical outlets.”
Providing jobs to out-of-work musicians was obviously the project’s first priority. But they were as proud as other people and, like many of the depression jobless, had been reluctant to acknowledge their poverty and apply for relief. The key to a WPA job from the beginning had been eligibility for the relief rolls, but only 5,000 musicians were listed, so the first task of Joseph Weber, who headed the 105,000-member American Federation of Musicians, was to persuade the WPA to extend the application deadline for musicians from the original cutoff date of May 30, 1935, to November 1.
But then Sokoloff tried to tilt the playing field toward the music he preferred and the musicians who played it. The project was no place for “every Tom, Dick, or Harry who has no musical ability,” he pronounced. To that end he established a classification system that would rate musicians according to their skills, which were skills that reflected his own background and musical education. Thus those who read music would be hired more quickly than those who played by ear, and those with classical training had a considerable advantage over dance hall drummers and marching-band tuba players. They were also paid more. Weber, complaining that this was patently unfair, lobbied for a larger share of project resources for “popular” musicians. Since outside major cities these constituted the vast majority, eventually Sokoloff capitulated and put all performing musicians who had come from the relief rolls on the same $23.86 weekly wage.
Joseph Weber was one of the twenty-five members of an advisory committee that Sokoloff, together with Hopkins, chose from among the leading lights of American music. George Gershwin, New York Times music critic Olin Downes, conductor Leopold Stokowski, and Mrs. John Jardine, head of the National Federation of Music Clubs, were among the others. The committee’s underlying purpose, advice aside, was to encourage support for the project by showing that Sokoloff was aligned with the music establishment and that it agreed with his musical judgment. In fact, despite the arguments about his musical choices and emphases, the Federal Music Project worked as hard as any of the other projects to reach a large and varied audience. Hopkins had let it be known that his goal was to provide music to people “who have been kept away by price” it was to be offered “not alone in symphony halls, parks and schools but even in railway stations.” Sokoloff in turn told his project administrators to honor all requests for performances and to solicit more, as a way both of lifting the country’s musical IQ and of attracting large audiences in numbers that would show off the project’s popularity. Ensembles, bands, chamber groups, and orchestras were to play in any setting that could provide countable warm bodies.
Because the classical units took time to assemble and rehearse, the first groups to debut under the WPA banner were precisely the kind that Sokoloff tended to dismiss; among them was the brass-blaring, cymbal-crashing band of red-suited strutters that had led the WPA Circus into the Second Naval Battalion Armory in Brooklyn two months into the project. By November 1935, the Music Project still had fewer than a thousand musicians on the payroll.
The pace quickened dramatically in 1936. Project units jelled and began to offer concerts of all kinds, high and low, across the country. The musicians performed symphonies in concert halls, but they also marched in parades, played at baseball parks, and strummed cowboy songs for schoolchildren. No audience was too small or event too unlikely. On April 25, 1936, a WPA brass band consisting of nine musicians from the Lay Missionary School on East 14th Street in New York stood on the decks of a steamship at Pier 58 on the Hudson River and tootled a farewell to twenty-two-year-old Sister Frances Jolly of Anoka, Minnesota, who was sailing off to missionary work in Africa. That same month, the WPA Federal Civic Opera company of San Diego scheduled two free performances of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana at the Russ Auditorium. The two stretched to seven, one of them lighted more brightly than usual for the benefit of an elderly audience with presumably dimming eyesight. The lead singer was a nonreliefer, José de Arratia from the Royal Opera Company of Mexico, but there were enough principal singers from the relief rolls to form two casts. The Federal Philharmonic Orchestra and a fifty-member chorus, both of them San Diego project units, accompanied the singers, who wore costumes made by WPA sewing workers. More than 15,000 San Diegans saw the opera. They were among 32 million Americans who, according to a project count, attended Federal Music Project performances between January 1 and September 15, 1936.
These audiences paid bargain prices. Tickets cost 25 or 50 cents, and 10 cents for children, when they cost anything at all. Many performances, such as the regular Friday night and Sunday afternoon band concerts at the Bronx County Building in New York, were free. To some reviewers, this presented a dilemma. The New York Post’s Samuel Chotzinoff wondered in print if he should “modify the standards of judgment where the entertainment is free or the admission fee is a fifty-five-cent top.” He went on to answer his own question, describing “outworn or young or crude voices” in an opera in arguing that listeners—and reviewers—should not have to make allowances.
The WPA advertised the Music Project as vigorously as it did its construction jobs. The lettering on the signs may have been adorned with curlicues and serifs, but the WPA name was featured everywhere, from advance posters—done by the Art Project—to the program notes to the WPA logos scrolled elaborately on the conductor’s podium and the stands that held the sheet music or scores. Harry Hewes, chief of the project’s Office of Information, headed this high-powered publicity machine and maintained a pipeline to the country’s major music publications as well as its general magazines and newspapers. Even more effective was the project’s use of radio. The project recorded its symphony performances, picked out the best, and made them available without charge to any station that asked. Sokoloff himself oversaw the recording of fifteen-minute snippets of concert, symphony, and black choral music that aired on local stations in donated time.
More than his Federal One counterparts, Sokoloff did endeavor to avoid suggestions of left-wing sentiment within the Federal Music Project. He did not have the aggressively political playwrights of the Living Newspaper to contend with, or the flaming radicals who would emerge in the Writers’ Project, or even the artists in whose murals critics would find goateed men they thought resembled V. I. Lenin; few of the project’s musicians were outspokenly radical in any event. What complaints they did express were likely to be over work issues: job cuts, wage reductions, or the conditions in which they had to play. When the forty-member New York City Parks Department Band was ordered to perform for ice skaters in Central Park on a January day when the temperature was in the twenties, the band members said they feared frostbite and refused. The taskmasters of Robert Moses’s Parks Department fired them summarily, though they were reinstated the next day.
Sokoloff’s awareness of political realities also led him to perform works he might not have chosen under other circumstances. WPA concerts regularly featured the works of the most popular American classicists, composers such as Gershwin, Victor Herbert, and John Philip Sousa. Music project units also performed the heavily Eurocentric works of Americans George Chadwick and Edward MacDowell, as well as the Broadway-style music of Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein, and Irving Berlin, sometimes to such an extent that audiences complained of missing the familiar European classics.
Although the project did seek new works by American composers, the composers had to write on speculation; if their works failed to meet Sokoloff’s standards, they weren’t paid. Moreover, those works that passed muster endured an additional gauntlet of auditions before they were publicly performed. Nevertheless, a good number made the cut: sixteen operas, seventeen choral works, five liturgies, thirty-seven symphonies, thirty concertos, and forty-one symphonic and tone poems were performed in the first ten months of 1936. They revealed, said Sokoloff, “an amazing wealth of creative talent.”
However, he did fail to find similar riches in idiomatic and ethnic forms of music. Early in 1936, the Federal Music Project’s Kentucky unit organized the Kentucky Mountain Minstrels, a folk music group that played a repertoire of folk songs and fiddle tunes for local audiences. The regional director for Kentucky, pianist Guy Maier, saw publicity value in the group and sent pictures to Harry Hewes in the project’s information office, but under Sokoloff, the fate of the Kentucky Mountain Minstrels was ordained. Hewes never distributed the photos, and the unit disbanded in July when its funding was cut. Similar groups that played regional or ethnic genre music, such as three Mexican tipica orchestras in Texas, were lumped under the heading of “novelty” bands for project purposes.
Nonetheless, the project did recognize the need to preserve some indigenous music forms, and in New Mexico it funded an effort to collect songs and music of the Spanish Southwest. And in its third year, Federal One would establish a joint committee on the folk arts that brought the theater, music, and art projects together to seek out and preserve, if not perform, distinctive regional music.
The music project branched out in other ways as well, driven by the need to employ men and women who were not performers or composers but filled supporting roles in the music world. One of its programs was a music copying service. Reproducing different arrangements of orchestral and operatic scores was a painstaking and time-consuming specialty in the days before photocopying; it involved copiers who worked by hand applying sharps and clefs to score sheets in India ink. Once the Federal Music Project proved it could provide accurate scores, the service found eager subscribers among privately funded orchestras, as well as university and public libraries, which enriched their collections by tens of thousands of scores.
The project also greatly expanded music education, through both concerts in the schools and classes that were offered directly in WPA facilities. This proved to be one of its most successful ventures. Across the country, the combination of concerts and classes in music history, theory, appreciation, composition, and choral and instrumental conducting, as well as folk music and dancing, brought a new knowledge of music to millions who had never had a music class of any kind. The classes were extremely popular; South Carolina begged for a fifty-fold increase in teachers, and it was said that classes taught by 100 WPA music teachers in Mississippi, and attended by 69,000 people, prompted a sharp rise in the demand for used pianos.
Counting the musicians themselves, the score copiers, and the many music educators—more than 6,000 teachers worked for the project at its peak—the music project became the largest of the arts project employers, with 15,842 workers on the rolls.
And as always, there were heartwarming tales of talent employed by the WPA that transcended, as Flanagan had put it, “the remembrance of hunger in its stomach.” Frank Gullino was a twenty-year-old violinist who had played since he was eight and took lessons at a settlement house music school in New York’s Greenwich Village, where he lived in a sixth-floor tenement with his father, an out-of-work tailor, and two sisters. A neighbor heard him playing and steered him to the music project. He soon landed a place in the New York Civic Orchestra, which skimmed the cream of the city’s WPA classical units, and he also played as a soloist in the WPA New York Festival Orchestra, which toured statewide. In May 1936, after months as a relief violinist, he answered a call to audition for the Metropolitan Opera’s orchestra. Some 350 musicians showed up, and Gullino was one of the few hired, trading his $1,150 a year in relief earnings for a contract for $2,400 for the upcoming sixteen-week-long winter season.