The WPA Federal Music Project was very, very successful, although shorter lived than some of the other projects, but it might be the project with the least number of resources available. That is because composers and musicians and conductors were hired to perform thousands of musical programs and to teach music classes around the country, but much of their work wasn’t recorded.
As with the Federal Art Project, the first repository to check for information is the Library of Congress Web Guide for the Federal Music Project.
The first link guides us back to the Federal Art Project and its poster collection, not to sound recordings.
Special Collections links include items not available online and require a visit to the Library of Congress. NARA houses the administrative records of the project. The Recorded Sound Reference Center in the Library of Congress does have a collection of WPA era music, but appointments must be made to visit in person to hear the music.
Syracuse University houses the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Phonodisc Collection. Accessing the collection requires an appointment.
Wikipedia’s page on the Federal Music Project offers more details about the history of the project.
The objective of this program was to employ those in the music field to encourage an appreciation of various types of music among Americans. Musical pieces were written, performed by individuals, groups and full orchestras.
When WPA musicians weren’t performing, they were teaching adults and children how to sing and play musical instruments. Training was also provided to future music teachers.
The country was divided into multi-state regions, but most musicians worked in one state, not as part of a traveling group.
By the time the project ended, musicians had performed in more than a quarter million free or low-cost programs presented to the public.
There are many repositories that house information about the Federal Music Project. Some of them have audio recordings, but researchers will have to do some digging to find them.
For this project, searches will be more successful if googling “Federal Music Project” plus a state name. Adding New York to my search brought up WNYC, New York Public Radio audio clips. This is the only website that immediately popped up with music to actually hear.
Other repositories at the individual state level to search include:
1. Universities and colleges
2. State archives
3. State libraries
4. State historical societies
5. Local libraries
While it may not be easy to listen to much of the music from home, if you have family members who were musical and there are stories about them participating in programs or teaching music classes during the Depression, visit the sites I’ve mentioned and then search local repositories for additional information about the program in the town where your family lived.
Be sure to look for online information about the Federal Music Project in your location of interest. Here are a few links to college students’ theses on the WPA that I found:
Eager and Hungry for Music: The WPA Music Project in New Orleans, 1935-1943
Texas State Historical Association: Federal Music Project
Foundations of Folk: The Federal Music Project, The Joint Committee on Folk Arts, and the Archive of American Folk-Song
The Federal Music Project: An American Voice in Depression-Era Music
Made in America: The Federal Music Project in the Midwest
And one book:
Sounds of the New Deal, The Federal Music Project in the West, by Peter Gough, 2015, available on Amazon
Coming up next is a look at the WPA Federal Theatre Project.