Sounds of the New Deal: The Federal Music Project in the West (Gough, Peter)

Sounds of the New Deal: The Federal Music Project in the West.
By Peter Gough. 2015. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. 328
pages. ISBN: 978-0-252-03904-1 (hard cover).
Reviewed by Jerrold Hirsch, Truman State University [Word count: 2651 words]
(Western) Music and Country: Popular Musics, Popular Fronts, and the
Federal Music Project
Glancing at Peter Gough’s study, Sounds of the New Deal, scholars
might be intrigued, but then after reading the subtitle, The Federal
Music Project in the West, they might conclude that this study is too
narrow for them. They would be mistaken. Reading Gough, they will see
that title and subtitle work together both metaphorically and
literally to indicate how a sharp focus can lead to a study that has
broad implications. Looking at The Federal Music Project in the West
can give scholars not only a better understanding and appreciation of
the work of the Federal Music Project (FMP) but also insights into
New Deal/Popular Front culture, western history, and the history of
“folk” and “art” music and the United States. All of this should be
of great interest to both folklorists and historians.
Gough has made a significant contribution to the growing body of work
on New Deal arts projects in the last twenty-five years. These
studies have moved us beyond the early administrative histories that
largely ignored the work of these programs. Instead, there is a
growing cultural and intellectual history of the arts projects. Now
when historians examine the work relief and administrative aspects of
these depression-era programs, it is in terms of how those matters
affected the cultural endeavors of these projects. The New Federal
Arts Project History — an appellation unlikely to catch on — has
not only added to a broader history of these projects but also
pointed out the complexity and contradictions in New Deal art
projects. There is now room for new approaches, revisionist
challenges, and conflicting interpretations. Gough’s study deserves a
significant place in this New History.
In well-researched and probing chapters, Gough demonstrates how his
focus on the west provides a new way of looking at the history of the
FMP that directly challenges earlier studies of that project. In his
introduction, he rejects the views of previous historians who saw the
project as accomplishing little. Gough also criticizes the view that
the FMP “effectively muted the diversity of the American mosaic” (5)
and ultimately promoted musical conformism and consensus. According
to Gough, neither the FMP, nor by extension any of the arts projects,
provided in the guise of pluralism a homogenized and contained
culture compatible with New Deal liberalism, as some scholars have
In the opening chapters, Gough provides a view of the economic crisis
facing both popular and high art musicians that the FMP tried to
address. Nikolai Sokoloff, the first director of the FMP, defined
musical skills in terms of classical techniques, which worked against
musicians in the popular arts, much to the consternation of leaders
of their professional organizations. Gough also addresses how
Americans had been exposed to few aspects of diverse forms of music,
especially regarding European high art traditions and their nation’s
own varied indigenous musical heritage. On the last point, there was
significant conflict within the FMP over whether priority should be
given to introducing art music to Americans over diverse strains of
indigenous music, and within art music whether the stress should be
on the great European classics of that tradition or whether the focus
should be on the performance of new American composers.
By examining the history of the FMP in a single region, Gough is able
to view the project from the ground up, from the local perspective,
rather than using a top-down approach that looks at the FMP from the
point of view of national project officials in Washington, such as
Sokoloff. Unlike the directors of the other arts projects, Sokoloff,
a European-born conductor of classical music, had little interest in
American vernacular culture. Nevertheless, in the end he concluded he
had to respond to grassroots demands for indigenous musical
performances, song collecting, and education in these areas. It also
helped that Eleanor Roosevelt remained interested in the work of the
FMP and supported the exploration of indigenous music.
Gough’s understanding of the west is neither monolithic nor mythic.
He pays close attention to differences in the FMP in various parts of
the west. For example, he discusses the grassroots demand for
orquestas típicas in New Mexico and requests for programs centered
on Native American music from public schools in Oregon.
Interestingly, in Oregon, Native American groups also asked for
performances of European classical music. Since Gough’s analysis is
informed in part by his knowledge of left/radical regional theorists
in that period, he avoids the charge made then and now that
regionalism is inherently conservative and that all regionalists
develop a static mythic regionalism outside of history and therefore
without conflict. For Gough, the west was never an idyllic world. It
had a history full of ethnic and class conflict. His research
benefits from that assumption. He draws on both the insights of 1930s
radical western regionalists and the New Western history that has
developed in the last forty years.
Gough has thought carefully about the relationship between his own
research and previous work on the New Deal arts projects. He rejects
the views of historians who see the New Deal’s celebration of
American diversity as an effort to control the cultural
representations of individuals and groups that it wanted to
incorporate into a national consensus that it defined. He sides
instead with historians who stress these programs’ emphasis on
inclusion, diversity, and democracy in understanding American
nationality and culture. Like arts project officials, Gough is
interested in the relationship between diversity and unity,
government and culture, and culture and democracy. He points out that
his research does not support those scholars who see the heads of
national arts projects forcing their view of American culture on
diverse local populations. He notes instead that in New Mexico, state
director Helen Chandler Ryan, with local support, struggled with the
national FMP office to get support for the collection and
presentation of, and education about, folksong in her area. As he
puts it, the work of “Ryan and others like her in the western FMP
programs ensured that local voices would not be squelched by the
ambitions of the federal administration” (46). When one actually
studies, as does Gough, the dialogue among local community leaders,
local arts projects officials, and the national office, it becomes
very clear that the idea of the hegemonic ideological power of the
national arts project administrators is mistaken. Those scholars,
who, unlike Gough, stress the idea that federal art projects were
about control and containment often offer seamless hegemonic
interpretations not easily open to facts on the ground, as we would
now put it.
Gough’s study has benefited from his understanding of new
interpretations of the Popular Front. He demonstrates that the work
of Charles Seeger, who served first on the Resettlement
Administration and then the FMP, and the project’s production of
“Ballad For Americans” are representative of the impact of the
Popular Front on all of the arts projects. He convincingly
demonstrates that the performance by the FMP’s Oakland Negro Chorus
of “Ballad For Americans” was an example of the FMP’s “fusing of
nationalism, radicalism, and regionalism” (156). Earl Robinson and
John La Touche, who worked on the Federal Theatre Project and were
central figures in Popular Front culture, composed this cantata that
was popular on radio and performed in 1940 at both the Republican and
CPUSA national conventions. “Ballads For Americans” reflected the
fact that New Deal/Popular Front culture drew on folk, popular, and
art music in producing works that stressed an egalitarian democratic
patriotism. The cultural dynamics of the Popular Front meant that for
many in the administration it was acceptable for one to be part of
the New Deal and the Popular Front. This was only a problem for
right-wing critics of the New Deal, not for the Roosevelt
For a long time after World War II liberal anti-communists —
anti-communism was not just a right wing phenomenon — denigrated the
Popular Front’s politics as Stalinist and its art as entirely
shallow, vulgar, chauvinistic, and provincial. Some of these
intellectuals had a few years earlier been Trotskyist critics of the
Popular Front. Their critique had not changed, but by the end of WWII
they were in a more conservative mood. For many of these liberal
intellectuals the Popular Front meant only Stalin, Moscow, and the
CPUSA. Stereotypes substituted for careful analysis when it came to
Popular Front cultural and political commitments at home. Not until
near the end of the twentieth century did a synthetic overview of the
Popular Front appear that asked new questions and provided new
provocative answers by focusing on it as a cultural movement.
A new generation of artists who had emerged from working-class
immigrant and ethnic minority backgrounds shared the Popular Front
ethos and were able to survive and create with the help of the
federal arts projects. There were also “patrician” liberals and
radicals who became part of the cultural front, as in the case of
Charles Seeger. Popular Front artists did work that broke down the
lines between categories such as high, popular, and folk culture. On
the FMP, Gough shows how Seeger welcomed and aided this development
that Sokoloff tried to resist. At the heart of the cultural front was
a social democratic movement that supported industrial unionism,
fought racism, and opposed fascism. Rather than being provincial, the
arts projects were interested in the experience of a diverse American
working class, affirmed a pluralistic nationalism, and encouraged a
cosmopolitan appreciation of American diversity. While other scholars
have developed these points in relationship to the other arts
projects, Gough is the first scholar to show they were part of the
history of the FMP.
Gough argues that not only did the New Western history influence his
research on the FMP in that region, but also that the FMP influenced
the New Western history. About the first point there is no doubt. The
second claim is more questionable. In his study of the FMP in the
west, Gough follows the approach of the New Western historians in
seeing the west as a geographical region, as a place replete with
diverse people involved in racial and class conflict. Gone is the
notion of the frontier as a process that marked the advance of
civilization, the triumph of European Americans over savages, a
process that made “American” history a story of triumph and
exceptionalism. Instead, we have a land of conquest, not a frontier.
It was conquest that made the American west an ethnically diverse
land. It was the scramble for its resources that led to racial and
class conflict. The west in this view marks not Turner’s notion of
the moving frontier as a democratizing force that challenged the
entrenched hierarchies of the east, but as a site of bitter conflicts
over power and hierarchy. Gough, for example, sees FMP participants
in the region fighting for a banjo band in Glendale, California,
orquestas típicas in Arizona, and Hispanic folksong transcription in
New Mexico as a product of the history of the west as we have only
fairly recently begun to see it: “participants in the region knew how
to fight, and they also had no difficulty identifying their
adversaries” (75).
According to Gough, “the Federal Music Projects in the west
facilitated the dissemination and promotion of changing
interpretations about the region and its pasts. . . and in so doing
influenced later understandings of this history” (75). It is in the
matter of the influence of the work of the FMP in the west on later
historians where Gough claims too much. He has no doubts about this
influence: “So persuasive was the impact of Federal Music in the
region that it both foresaw and informed the ‘New West’ history a
half century later” (38). This is a large claim, for which Gough
provides no support besides pointing to chronology and to significant
similarities in approaches to the study of the west. The fact that
the FMP preceded the New Western history does not by itself prove
that it influenced that later development. Indeed, what Gough’s
excellent work indicates is that the New Western history has helped
him appreciate the work of the FMP. But all predecessors are not
ancestors. It seems a misguided effort to try to add to the
achievement of the FMP in the west by claiming that it led to the
work of the New Western historians unless one can cite specific
examples of how this worked in practice. Rather, the similarities
between the work of the FMP and the New Western historians indicate
the persistence of such issues as class and racial conflict in the
west and that there have been recurring challenges to the hierarchies
these struggles reflected. There is also the danger of losing sight
of distinctive aspects of the FMP’s work by seeing it largely as a
predecessor to the New Western history. The New Deal arts projects
sought to reconcile romantic nationalism and cultural pluralism. In
keeping with this goal, they also strove to celebrate the cultural
creativity of diverse groups of ordinary Americans as seen in the
expressive culture they had created. This does not seem to be a goal
of the New Western history, so the FMP’s approach is still
provocative, and this should prove more important to New Western
historians and the rest of us than does an attempt to create a
dubious lineage. The New Deal arts projects have a more challenging
legacy to offer us than a sense of ancestry that merely ratifies
recent work.
Gough in his justifiable enthusiasm regarding the FMP goes down an
unhelpful road when he places the FMP’s achievements in competition
with the other arts projects. This strategy ill serves his call for a
reassessment and new appreciation of the FMP. It is instead his
analysis of the work of the FMP that will contribute to the
reassessment and appreciation of the FMP that Gough desires. His
assertion that “the FMP proved to be the most successful of all WPA
cultural ventures” is at best problematic (2). One wonders what he
means by “successful.” Sometimes he is stressing the number of FMP
employees, the number of programs they undertook, and the number of
people they reached (2, 191). In addition, he sees avoiding political
controversy as an achievement. Arguably, the political controversies
surrounding the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) and the Federal
Writers’ Project (FWP) were badges of honor, the product of
significant achievements. Each of the arts projects faced different
challenges that make counting numbers and measuring political
controversies in order to establish rankings of relative success
misleading at best. Comparing their problems, however, could
contribute to a better understanding of each of them. Dealing
primarily in words, and often words about issues that had a
contemporary resonance, it was inevitable that these projects would
be controversial. If they had not been, that would have been a sign
of their irrelevance. Gough also wants to emphasize “the [FMP]
buttressed the New Deal goals [sic] to broaden and unify Americans’
changing perspective of themselves and their shared national heritage
and vision” (191). Here it is necessary to point out that each of the
projects made lasting contributions along these lines. For example,
the Federal Arts Project’s Index of American Design is a work of
lasting importance to American culture and a monument to the New
Deal’s cultural goals. So, too, for example are the FWP’s American
Guide Series, oral history projects, interviews with former slaves,
and folklore collections, much of this still waiting full assessment
and much of this still unpublished. The extraordinary innovations of
the FTP, such as the Living Newspaper productions, still speak to
issues about what a vibrant theatre could add to American life and
culture, to democracy and culture.
The fact that Gough sometimes overreaches in some of his claims does
not change the fact that his book is a major addition to the work on
the New Deal arts projects.
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