Federal Music Project

The Federal Music Project: Intro

FMP2One of the salient differences between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of 2008 and counting, never mind the official pronouncements that it’s over, is that during the four years the Federal Music Project thrived, America not only enjoyed by what today’s standards would be the radical-left politics of FDR, but the country supported a viable Communist Party whose Popular Front movement lived up to its name. Socialism at that time, as incredible as it may seem in 21st century Tea Party America, when states with reactionary electorates are unironically called red, attracted the interest of perhaps more than a quarter of the nation. Though it may be largely coincidental, the FMP and the Popular Front run concurrently, 1935-39. Not only was the FMP created in 1935, that year also marked the official arrival of the swing era, heralded by Benny Goodman’s Palomar Ballroom concert in Los Angeles, but this too is largely coincidental—the FMP was not dedicated to swing or to any other brand of popular music; it was primarily an instrument of European-derived classical music, led for the better part of its life by the founding conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra.

One of a fantastic four of arts projects under the Works Progress Administration banner—projects likely never to be seen again in what passes for federal cultural policy in America—the somewhat staid FMP was also generally considered to be the least left-wing of these storied organizations. As a supplement to Ka-ching, which also includes consideration of several jazz-related Federal Theatre Project productions, this section of the site will look at 1930s jazz/cultural policy issues and civil rights battles that illuminate the grand scope of the comparatively glorious WPA and FDR years.

Swing and Communism

Young_Communist_League,_USA_(logo)During the FMP years of the latter 1930s, the CPUSA Popular Front was making an effort to dance with swing, the new sensation, which is a radical departure from the usual Soviet position on vernacular music, particularly in its American iterations. The Soviet aversion to jazz and particularly to the saxophone, for example, could be stunningly acute. There was an unsuccessful effort to ban the saxophone in the Soviet Union in 1929, followed in the late ’40s, when Stalin had concentrated his power, by a concerted effort to ban this horn of “capitalist music,” which resulted in the confiscation of instruments, the imprisonment or exile of musicians, and saxophone parts in works by Ravel and Prokofiev and others consigned to bassoons and the like.

As David Stowe tells it in Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America,

Before the redirection of policy under the Popular Front, jazz and most other popular music had been regarded as ideologically suspect by the party both in the Soviet Union and the United States; noncommercial rural folk music and protest songs were perceived as the “correct” radical music. . . . Given the party’s desire to recruit members of oppressed groups such as African-Americans, this dismissal of vernacular music resulted in a dissonance between the party leadership and its rank-and-file organizers. The more tolerant, inclusive atmosphere that prevailed in the party after 1935 led to a number of Communists, including writers for the Daily Worker, to express enthusiasm for both “traditional” jazz and swing. The popular music of the big bands came to be seen as an important vehicle, along with black theater, literature, and professional sports, for promoting the idea that African-American culture was integrally American, quintessentially democratic and progressive. (p. 65)

Stowe goes on to note an article in a 1939 Young Communists League publication that even managed to work the utterly specious “democracy” of jazzocracy into its analysis:

“There is a good deal of audience participation in swing, a kind of give and take and mutual inspiration for the musician and the crowd, a rough democratic air invading the sacred halls of music.” Another writer stated bluntly: “Jazz is the music of the American proletariat. If Negroes have been more prominent in its development, it is because more Negroes are proletarians.” (pp. 65-66)

Well, 1939 was also the year of the Hitler-Stalin pact.

Federal Theatre Project: The Swing Mikado’s Imperial Ambition

swing mikado 1 posterThe various regional units of the FTP’s Negro Theatre Project were responsible for many notable African American-performed productions, the New York Theatre Unit’s Voodoo Macbeth, directed by the very White and very young Orson Welles, perhaps being the most prominent. On the jazz front, the FTP’s Negro Project also had its share of notable musical productions, such as 1938’s The Swing Mikado, a Pacific Island-based takeoff of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, created by the Chicago Negro Theatre Unit, featuring an all-Black cast (but produced and directed by Whites). So hot was this tropical Mikado concept, in fact, The Swing Mikado did battle in New York for a time with the commercially produced, Black-casted Hot Mikado, the shows actually playing across the street from each other.

The battle of the Mikados is discussed in Ka-ching, but here I’d like to note Stephanie Leigh Batiste’s Darkening Mirrors: Imperial Representation in Depression-Era African American Performance, which unpacks The Swing Mikado, in a chapter titled “Prisms of Imperial Gaze,” with the zeal a team of TSA agents might bring to a suspiciously foreign suitcase. The racial implications of The Swing Mikado, in this expansive analysis, are just the tip of the hegemonic iceberg.

As the author notes, in 1938 the U.S. had been occupying the Philippines for decades; but the show’s imaginary-island conceit is hardly an innocent fairy-tale setting.

The Swing Mikado symbolically obliterates its referents through their putative nonexistence. The discourse of paternalism, constructed disorganization and infantile dependence in the colonized society, [is] sustained by an abstraction and exoticism that insisted on the othered culture as empty and in need of civilization. The vulnerability to imperialism existing in the lack of culture tautologically signifies a need for Western imperial presence. (p. 151)

The FTP may have been a hotbed of New Deal Red activism as far as much of Congress was concerned, but in this show, unlike perhaps, the issue-focused Living Newspaper productions, American empire is reified beneath a thin veneer of entertainment. According to Batiste,

The brand of exoticization demonstrated in The Swing Mikado becomes a mainstreamed, almost mundane tool for abstracting black and othered indentities . . . The process of using blackness as a template for abstraction indicates a cultural comfort and arrogance with exoticism akin to the British impulse to make The Mikado Japanese in the first place. (p. 150)

The poster seen here, from a Library of Congress collection, promotes a San Francisco production of The Swing Mikado; the show went from being a huge hit in Chicago to seeing only modest success in New York—its Hot Mikado competition also failed to take New York by storm—before embarking on a national tour.