Better Than Unemployment: How The Government Supported Musicians During The Great Depression

The Los Angeles WPA Symphony plays the Hollywood Bowl in 1937 (Courtesy of the National Archives)

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America in the late 1920s was much like America in early 2020 - the stock market was up; unemployment was low. But toward the end of the decade, everything changed. The over-inflated stock market crashed, taking millions of jobs with it. The Great Depression had begun.

While the downturn affected nearly every sector of the economy, musicians were among those hit the hardest. With no concerts to play, many fell into poverty. It would take three years, a new Congress and a new president before fortunes started to shift.

In March 1933, Congress passed the New Deal, a series of reforms aimed at pulling America out of the depression, which soon gave rise to the Works Progress Administration. The program didn't just benefit laborers, it also established the Federal Music Project aimed at helping musicians.

"The primary goal was simply to put professional musicians back to work," said Peter Gough, author of the book, "Sounds of the New Deal: The Federal Music Project in the West."

"They had sold their instruments, some of them even before the Great Depression, because of the advent of the technology of the 1920s," he said, referring to the phonograph, which cooled demand for live musicians in places like movie theatres and dance halls.

The Mexican "Tipica Orquesta" of the San Diego Federal Music Project in 1937. (Courtesy of the National Archives)

Gough says the music project would become one of four arts programs that received federal funds, and one of the few that enjoyed bipartisan support.

"You know, the Los Angeles papers in the 1930s were very, very conservative and Republican, and they tended to see art projects or cultural projects as what they called 'boondoggling,'" Gough said. "But there were several articles that said, 'Look, we don't like all this WPA boondoggling, but this Federal Music Project, it's a good thing. We need to keep that.'"

Under the project, public concerts were subsidized by the federal government. Musicians were given a regular paycheck. And black and white artists were paid the same wages.

The program contributed to a veritable time capsule of music — some of it with political undertones.

"I think people were reassessing what it meant to be an American in the 1930s," Gough explains. "There was a very popular song called 'Ballad for Americans' sung by Paul Robeson on national radio and it expresses all of these views."

In the work, a suspicious female voice interrupts Robeson's patriotic tale to ask: "Are you an American?"

His reply:

Am I an American?

I'm just an Irish, Jewish, Italian,

French and English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Polish,

Scotch, Hungarian, Swedish, Finnish, Greek and Turk and Czech and double-check American!

Gough says music by Robeson and other artists of color would help erode racism in America, just in time for World War Two; diverse ensembles crossing the nation, playing music together gently reminded audiences that they were in the depression together.

By the time the program was defunded in 1943, over 250,000 concerts had been performed. Over 7,300 works had been composed.

The Federal Music Project Los Angeles "Colored Mixed Chorus" (Courtesy of the National Archives)

As the country stares down another economic whirlwind, musicians face the months ahead with none of the assurances afforded their forebears; the federal Paycheck Protection Program offers limited funds and it's unclear how long the latest injection of cash will last.

It might be a long time, at least half a year estimates suggest, before concerts are allowed to resume.

In California, unemployment insurance and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance can help make up for some lost earnings, but all of those programs come with significant hangups for performers.

Peter Gough says the time might be right for a program similar to the Federal Music Project, to help the many musicians struggling financially during the pandemic.

"I think now, given the situation, [the fact that] musicians who [used to make the majority of their income] playing in venues that people can no longer attend should definitely be a consideration," he said.

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