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Folklore and the Federal Music Project

The Federal Music Project

FMP poster

The Federal Music Project, which ran from 1935 to 1939, was created to employ out-of-work professional musicians, including instrumentalists, composers, vocalists, and teachers. Employees of the project conducted music classes for all ages and ability levels and performed in musical groups nationwide. Band and orchestra concerts, recitals, and music festivals not only allowed musicians to continue earning a living, but they also served to entertain the public and promote the advancement of music appreciation.

Dr. Nikolai Sokoloff (1886-1965), a Russian-American violinist and the founder and former conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, served as director of the project.

WPA Folklife Surveys

The Folklore Section of the WPA's Federal Writers' Project conducted fieldwork around the nation, recording songs, traditions, and stories. The recordings and photographs made during these folklife surveys of various states were sent to the Archive of American Folk-Song (now the American Folklife Center) at the Library of Congress, where they are preserved to this day.

The authors of several books have mined the songs, stories, and oral histories from the Folklife surveys for their work--the first being Benjamin A. Botkin's Treasury of American Folklore. A selection of other books that draw on this fieldwork may be found in the bibliography below.

Recently, some of the WPA Folklife surveys have also been digitized:

Florida Folklife (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/florida/).

WPA California Folk Music Project (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/afccchtml/cowhome.html)

Copies of the Indiana Writers' Project are kept at the Cunningham Library (http://library.indstate.edu/about/units/rbsc/iwpp/iwpp-idx.html) at Indiana State University, Terre Haute.

Ronald Baker's book Hoosier Folk Legends (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1982) includes texts of legends and ghost stories collected during this project.

WPA Folklorists

Several outstanding American folklorists worked for the WPA Folklore section, including those highlighted below.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

Hurston, a native of Eatonville, Florida, was already a published novelist and folklorist when she took a job with the Florida Federal Writers' Project. "Folklore is the boiled-down juice, or potlikker, of human living," she said. See:

Herbert Halpert (1911-2000)

Halpert conducted fieldwork for the WPA from 1938-1939, driving a specially equipped ambulance with the cumbersome recording equipment around the South, in New York, and around the Pine Barrens region of New Jersey. Some of these recordings of folksongs, ballads, street cries, and stories are held in the Archives of Traditional Music on the IU Bloomington campus. Later he studied folklore under Stith Thompson at IU, graduating with a PhD in 1947. See:

John A. Lomax (1867-1948), and his son Alan Lomax (1915-2002)

John Lomax studied with George Lyman Kittredge at Harvard, cofounded the Texas Follore Society, and in the 1930s began collecting folksongs from the southern states and contributing them to the Archive of American Folk Song. As the Federal Writers' Project's first folklore editor, Lomax directed the gathering of ex-slave narratives and devised a questionnaire for Project fieldworkers to use. His son Alan began accompanying him on field trips while still in his teens. See:

Field recordings from the WPA Folklore Section

Selected Bibliography

This list of selected resources contains references to publications by or about the New Deal programs that focus on folk and traditional culture - especially fieldwork and contributions of the Federal Writers' Program's Folklore Project.

Abernethy, F., Mullen, P., & Govenar, A. (Eds.). (1996). Juneteenth Texas: essays in African-American folklore. Denton: University of North Texas Press. GR110 .T4 no.54

Alho, O. (1976). The religion of the slaves: a study of the religious tradition and behaviour of plantation slaves in the United States 1830-1865. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatema, Academia Scientiarum Fennica. GR1 .F605 no.217

Asmell, J. R., et al. (1940). God bless the devil: liars' bench tales. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. GR110.T2 W7

Baker, R. L. (1982). Hoosier folk legends. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press. GR110.I6 H66

Banks, A. (1980). First person America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. E169 .F56

Barry, P. (1939). Folk music in America. New York: WPA Federal Theatre Project, National Service Bureau. (Publication no. 80-S). PS593.L8 A5 no.4

Botkin, B. A. (1945). Lay my burden down: a folk history of slavery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. E444 .L32 1989

Botkin, B. A. (1944). A treasury of American folklore. New York: Crown Publishers. GR105 .B58

Brown, L. W., Briggs, C. L., & Weigle, M. (1978). Hispano folklife of New Mexico: the Lorin W. Brown Federal Writers' Project manuscripts. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. GR104 .B76

Cox, J. H. (1964). Traditional ballads and folk songs mainly from West Virginia. Philadelphia: Publications of the American Folklore Society. M1629.C8 T7 1964

Davis, H. J. (1972). Christmas in the mountains: Southwest Virginia Christmas customs and their origins. Murfreesboro, NC: Johnson Publishing Co. GT4986.V8 D26

Eddy, M. O. (1939). Ballads and songs from Ohio. Cleveland: Work Projects Administration. M1629.E24 B18

Federal Writers' Project, Indiana. (1939). Hoosier tall stories. Works Progress Administration. ALF PN6161 .F3 1937

Filene, B. (2000). Romancing the folk: public memory and American roots music. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ML3551 .F55 2000

Fry, G.-M. (1975). Night riders in black folk history. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. E443 .F946

Gordon, R. W. (1938). Folk-songs of America. Washington, DC: WPA Federal Theatre Project, National Service Bureau (Publication no. 73-S). PS593.L8 G6

Hendricks, W. C. (Ed.). (1943). Bundle of troubles, and other Tarheel tales by workers of the writers' program of the Work Projects Administration in the state of North Carolina. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hudson, A. P., & Herzog, G. (1937). Folk tunes from Mississippi. New York: WPA Federal Theatre Project, National Service Bureau (Publication no. 25).

Killion, R. G., & Waller, G. T. (1972). A treasury of Georgia folklore. Atlanta: Cherokee Publishing Co. GR110.G4 K48

Lester, J. (1968). To be a slave. New York: Dial Press. E444 .L642

Levine, L. W. (1977). Black culture and black consciousness: Afro-American folk thought from slavery to freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press. GR103 .L665

Perdue, C. L., Jr., & Martin-Perdue, N. (Eds.). (1996). Talk about trouble: a New Deal portrait of Virginians in the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. F231 .T2 1996

Perdue, C. L., Jr., Barden, T. E., & Phillips, R. K. (Eds.). (1976). Weevils in the wheat: interviews with Virginia ex-slaves. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. E444 .V57 1980

Porterfield, N. (1996). Last cavalier: the life and times of John A. Lomax, 1867-1948. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ML423.L635 P67 1996

Rebolledo, T. D., & Márquez, M. T. (Eds.). (2000). Women's tales from the New Mexico WPA: la diabla a pie. Houston, Texas: Arte Público Press. F805.M5 W66 2000

Saxon, L., Dreyer, E. & Tallant, R. (1945). Gumbo ya-ya: a collection of Louisiana folktales. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Terrill, T. E., & Hirsch, J.. (1978) Such as us: Southern voices of the thirties. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. HN79.A13 S87

Tyler, R. C., & Murphy, L. R. (1974). The slave narratives of Texas. Austin: The Encino Press. E445.T47 S63

Walker, W. (1939). The southern harmony songbook. New York: Hastings House. PS593.L8 W2

Welsch, R. L. (1982). Mister, you got yourself a horse. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. GR105.5 .W44

The Spanish American song and game book. (1942). New York: A. S. Barnes and Co. GR110.S6 W9

Drums and shadows: survival studies among the Georgia coastal Negroes. (1973). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. E185.93.G4 W7 1973

Yetman, N. R. (1970). Voices from slavery. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. E444 .Y48

Selected Online Resources

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression: Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942. "Features folksongs and folktales in many languages, including blues and work songs from menhaden fishing boats, railroad gangs, and turpentine camps."

Sounds of the New Deal