Peter Gough. Sounds of the New Deal: The Federal Music Project in the West. Music in American Life Series. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. 304 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-03904-1.
Reviewed by Philip Bohlman (University of Chicago)
Published on H-Music (August, 2017)
Commissioned by Lars Fischer
A Moment in History when Singing and Listening to Diversity Made Americans More Alike Than Different
In the midwestern world of my youth during the 1950s and 1960s, I encountered the accomplishments of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) every day. The public works in my Wisconsin farming community were largely built by workers employed by New Deal programs that were implemented by the US government during the 1930s and early 1940s. Post offices, schools, and parks were built, as well as a sprawling tree nursery at the edge of town, in which saplings grew, eventually to reforest large parts of the state. Public artworks were created, with new murals and paintings. The music programs that first appeared with funding from the WPA’s Federal Music Program (FMP) still flourished during my youth, with educational programs in the schools and on statewide public radio. The public arts programs provided a response to the Cold War, but more important, they provided ways for my generation to witness cultural diversity close to home: the songs of neighbors who spoke other languages and attended different religious services. The arts programming of the WPA was a source of immense regional and national pride in the twentieth-century accomplishments of the United States and the position it had forged for itself after a generation of economic depression and World War II. Many, in my small town and across the United States in cities and remote rural regions alike, took comfort in the recognition that US-government funding of the arts—the most substantial in American history at the moment of the most widespread poverty—could change the course of their lives and the American history of which they together were a part. Paradoxically, it was a heady moment, a transformative moment.
If I begin this review soon after the historical moment with which Peter Gough concludes his richly detailed and passionate history of the FMP in the American West, it is to strengthen his compelling argument that the WPA programs really made a profound difference in American history during the 1930s and 1940s. It is well known that labor programs (for example, the Civilian Conservation Corps) provided work for the jobless, while initiating projects that transformed the American landscape. The Great Depression had plunged Americans into poverty and hunger, and the WPA provided a way out—and not for a select few, but rather for the many and the diverse. WPA programs reconfigured the places and constellations in which Americans worked together. Gough makes this point succinctly and powerfully in the concluding paragraph of his book: “It was the New Deal emphasis on inclusion ... [that] bridged many previous barriers and included black as well as white; men as well as women; poor and not; conservative, liberal, and radical; symphonic orchestras and orquestas tipicas; African American spirituals; folksong; satirical political revues; and the range of musical expression” (p. 196). With archival materials from both federal and state programs, Gough traces the ways in which the FMP began at the highest levels of government with the law known as Federal One, passed at the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president in 1933. It then spread across the United States, eventually entering state programs in the American West in 1937, where, according to Gough, its music programs epitomized the very confluence of regionalism, populism, and pluralism that defined the WPA’s impact on American history. Gough follows the history of the FMP in the West to a final, glorious Labor Day concert in late summer 1941, when ensembles and choruses from California performed works ranging from Igor Stravinsky’s arrangement of the “Star Spangled Banner” to Hispanic patriotic songs played by a WPA orquesta tipica, and “the audience in attendance could clearly hear America singing. And more so than at any previous time in the nation’s history, the varied carols could be heard” (p. 196).
The narrative of Gough’s superb and engaging history of Federal One in the American West grows from a counterpoint between larger-than-life personalities and a diverse cast of everyday Americans. The chief protagonists among the leading personalities largely represented an elite dramatis personae that included the primary architect of the New Deal, Roosevelt, and even more critically his wife, Eleanor, as well as the director of Federal One music programs, Nikolai Sokoloff, and his deputy director, Charles Seeger. If none of the chief protagonists had roots among the common people—as a Russian immigrant, albeit an accomplished violinist in a long genealogy of orchestral musicians, Sokoloff would have had the most legitimate claim to popular and populist connections, which he, however, largely rejected—Gough follows each through a conversion experience of sorts as they opened up the music programs of Federal One to the experiences of all Americans.
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Philip Bohlman. Review of Gough, Peter, Sounds of the New Deal: The Federal Music Project in the West.
H-Music, H-Net Reviews.
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