The New Mexico Federal Music Project: Embodying the Regional Spirit of Roosevelt's New Deal

Article excerpt


During the Great Depression the federal government created several federally-funded programs to help employ outof-work Americans. One of these programs was the Federal Music Project (FMP). The Federal Music Project was represented in every state, and the New Mexico FMP was directed by Helen Chandler Ryan from 1 January 1936 until the project's close in 1943. Although most states' Federal Music Projects funded classically-trained musicians to play in symphony orchestras, Ryan realized that musicians in New Mexico were different from those in most other states. Most New Mexico musicians were not trained in Western "art" music, but had significant experience with local folk music and traditions. Ryan recognized the cultural significance of these musicians, and under her direction, one of the project's goals was to document the Hispanic American folk music traditions in New Mexico. Other goals included providing music instruction to low income children, and supporting performances of local folk music.

In the early 1930s, as the United States struggled with the effects of the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, the federal government searched for ways to put Americans back to work. With the country on the brink of economic and political collapse, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed a "New Deal" platform in 1933, creating a series of relief agencies that hired millions of unemployed workers. In addition to the major construction and engineering projects funded with federal monies through New Deal agencies, such as the Public Works Administration (PWA), Roosevelt also created programs that supported the arts in extraordinary ways, for "inherent in the American Dream ... was the promise not only of economic and social justice but also of cultural enrichment." (1) Indeed, the Roosevelt administration recognized that all types of workers needed help, and managed several projects that specifically hired white-collar workers such as writers, actors, artists, architects, and musicians. According to Roosevelt, "the country demands bold, persistent experimentation." (2) Thus began, in July 1935, a broad New Deal program called Federal One, which in turn created five federal arts projects: the Federal Writers Project, the Federal Arts Project, the Federal Theater Project, the Historical Records Survey, and the Federal Music Project (FMP).

The Federal Music Project's first national director, from 1935 to 1939, was Russian-born Nikolai Sokoloff, formerly conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1918 to 1933. Under Sokoloff's leadership, the central objective of the FMP was to employ out-of-work professional musicians from all over the country to perform as instrumentalists, singers, and concert performers. In the late 1920s and the 1930s, musicians who worked in theaters and cinemas, playing live music, were replaced by technological advances in audio recording. This coincided with the beginning of the Great Depression, and resulted in a flood of unemployed musicians. While the primary objective of the FMP was work relief, a second objective was to inspire music appreciation through access to live musical performances and through educational initiatives, such as classroom instruction for school children. (3) A lesser objective, but significant in the long term, was the documentation of musical activities in the United States. Significant activities that were documented during the project included varied forms of regional folk music, recognizing the diversity of American culture. (4)

To facilitate the employment of music professionals, Sokoloff appointed regional and state directors to develop local programing. Soon, symphony orchestras, dance bands, chamber and choral ensembles, and opera companies performed free concerts for thousands of Americans across the country. For many Americans, this was their first experience with live music. Musical performances took place mainly in public institutions such as schools, hospitals, community centers, prisons, and orphanages. …


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