San Francisco Music and the WPA

indexYou’re undoubtedly familiar with many of the WPA (Works Projects Administration) endeavors in San Francisco: the Botanical Gardens, the Zoo, the murals at Coit Tower and Rincon Center; but you may not be aware of how much the WPA accomplished in encouraging and preserving our musical heritage.

The largest agency of President Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda, the WPA, employed millions of people from all walks of life and focused on such civic improvement as the construction of public buildings, roads and parks; and the commission of cultural undertakings such as works of art, and theatrical and musical performances.   The branch of the WPA that handled its musical ventures, the Federal Music Project, had an office in San Francisco and was directed by composer, conductor, and pianist Ernst Bacon.  The Federal Music Project’s mission was to provide employment for people in the music industry by organizing concerts, offering music classes, sponsoring new orchestras and ensembles, and educating the public in musical appreciation. It also conducted research, made recordings, and transcribed contemporary and traditional American music.

While reviewing materials for a display about San Francisco music, I discovered a fascinating seven volume series compiled by the San Francisco WPA.  The History of Music in San Francisco, is a series of monographs that vividly presents San Francisco music from the eighteenth to mid-twentieth century.  It was planned to be a twelve volume set but regrettably only seven were completed.

Volume one is a fascinating survey of the music of the Gold Rush era including the music of the Spanish Missions, Fireman’s balls, early choral societies, the beginnings of minstralry, and the craze for grand opera.

Volume two, A San Francisco Songster, is a compendium of songs sung during the Gold Rush and the following century.  In here I found old favorites such as Days of ‘49 and two songs about the Mechanics’ Institute!

Volume three is a selection of letters from the celebrated violinist Miska Hauser written during his visit to San Francisco in 1853.  These letters contain his impressions of early San Francisco and are filled with enthralling anecdotes of rambunctious night life, local celebrities, gambling dens, duels, and his tempestuous relationship with the infamous Lola Montezhl-lola-montez.

Volume four contains brief biographies of over a hundred prominent musicians who visited San Francisco and performed here from the earliest days to the time of the Great Fire, with additional lists of visiting celebrities, chamber music ensembles, bands, orchestras, and other music-making bodies that existed.

Volume five is a survey of musical prodigies hailing from the City during 1900 to 1940.  Volume six is a collection of essays about San Francisco musical personalities, pedagogues, and critics; and volume seven is a collection of musical criticism including pieces from local newspapers and essays.  In this volume you will find priceless descriptions of the 1879 opera season or reviews of performances by such famous people as Marian Anderson, Paul Hindemith, Serge Prokofieff, and Bela Bartok.

The entire series is rich with first hand accounts, contemporary newspaper excerpts, quotations, and detailed analysis.

After discovering this treasure I wondered what other music projects the WPA undertook in the San Francisco area.  One of the most important was the California Folk Music Project, an ethnographic field study conducted by folk music collector Sidney Robertson Cowell (wife of San Francisco composer Henry Cowell). The project, sponsored by the University of California was a survey of the music traditions found in Northern California during the late 1930’s and encompassed the folk music of immigrants, popular songs, Gold Rush and Barbary Coast tunes, and ragtime.

The fruit of this study is available on a website maintained by the Library of Congress called:  California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the 1930’s.   The site offers over 35 hours of music in three digital formats, photographs of the performers, and documents created during the project.  You can listen to or download to your iPod classics such as Coming Around the Mountain, the Dying Californian, Portuguese fado, Irish ballads, or energetic reels like the Jenny Lind Polka.  To visit this website go to the Library of Congress at and type in the search box in the upper right corner of the screen, “California Gold”.

For more information about the fight to save local WPA buildings and art check out the Living New Deal.

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