Federal Music Project

By: Craig H. Roell

Type: General Entry

Published: January 1, 1995

Updated: October 16, 2020

Before the Great Depression, radio and sound movies had forced thousands of musicians into unemployment; music was being delivered electronically rather than by live musicians. The economic collapse intensified their situation, causing by 1934 a 60 percent displacement (an estimated 20,000 to 70,000 people), compared to a national unemployment rate of 25 percent. Early relief was administered inefficiently under the New Deal's Civil Works Administration and Federal Emergency Relief Administration, forerunners of the Work Projects Administration, until, in mid-1935 the Federal Music Project was organized as an agency of the WPA.

The FMP was directed by Nikolai Sokoloff. It sought to employ professional musicians, to give free concerts, and to educate the public about music. Soon musicians were taken from manual labor and reassigned to work better suited for their talents. The project's relief efforts focused on New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston, traditional centers for musical activity. A third of federal relief was divided among the forty-four remaining states. Texas was in Region 8 with Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and received the careful administration of Lucile M. Lyons of Fort Worth, who was well-known in Texas musical activities. Although she was appointed by and technically under Sokoloff, she was administratively responsible to the state WPA administrator, H. P. Drought, in San Antonio. Under Mrs. Lyons's direction, city councils, school boards, chambers of commerce, universities, locals of the musicians' union, and especially the Texas Federation of Music Clubs coordinated relief programs with the national office.

Employment in the project peaked in spring 1936. During Sokoloff's tenure (1936–39), Texas FMP units gave 4,077 performances attracting 2,784,823 listeners. Though WPA activity occurred statewide, four centers were San Antonio, Fort Worth, Dallas, and El Paso. The FMP also launched the career of the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra's illustrious future conductor, Victor Alessandro, a native Texan. Although Texas lacked a composer's forum, state copyists and arrangers transcribed vernacular folk songs. San Antonio units recorded examples of Mexican, Spanish, and Cuban music and early Texas plains songs for the Library of Congress, thus saving a wealth of folk music.

Although Texas had no assigned FMP opera units, WPA workers in Fort Worth performed operettas and choruses under the direction of Walker Moore. The highlight of the 1936 season was the "Texas under Six Flags" folk festival at Texas Christian University stadium; a chorus of 1,500 voices sang historic songs in celebration of the Texas Centennial. The FMP also encouraged music appreciation in the schools. Moore divided the Fort Worth WPA orchestra into teams to teach school children all over the city and county. Similar projects by educational units reached two-thirds of the rural areas having no prior musical instruction.

Not only did WPA orchestras train hundreds of musicians; their programs also emphasized American compositions. Texans also heard works by their own, such as David Wendell Guion and Oscar Julius Fox. Most important, the FMP lifted the nation's morale and awakened pride in native music.

Major reorganization followed Sokoloff's resignation in May 1939. Partly because of the uneven distribution of funds under Sokoloff, under Dr. Earl Vincent Moore the FMP lost its charter as a federal agency; this shifted the sponsorship of projects to the state and local level, where it had been in Texas virtually all along. The state thus autonomously preserved the beneficial effects of the FMP. Although the public activities of the project ended in 1941, its effects were notable in Texas musical culture long afterward.

Cornelius B. Canon, The Federal Music Project of the Works Progress Administration: Music in a Democracy (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Minnesota, 1963). Earl Vincent Moore, Final Report of the Federal Music Project, October 10, 1939 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1939). Nikolai Sokoloff, The Federal Music Project (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1936). Texas Reports, Record Group 69, WPA-FMP Files, National Archives, Washington, D.C. Janelle J. Warren, Of Tears and Need: The Federal Music Project, 1935–1943 (Ph.D. dissertation, George Washington University, 1973).

  • Music
  • Organizations
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Fort Worth

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Craig H. Roell, “Federal Music Project,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 24, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/federal-music-project.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1995
October 16, 2020

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