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USF Libraries Exhibits

Florida Music and the WPA

By: Kristen Huber

     The Works Progress Administration (WPA) collection housed in the USF Special Collections proves to be very interesting in that it supplies students with drafts and manuscripts of the Federal Music Project in the state of Florida during the 1930s.

     Within boxes 31 and 32 of the Works Progress Administration collection titled “Music” you will find a broad range of documents. The first is titled “The Romantic Origins of Our Patriot Song.” This document is from Jacksonville, Florida and is dated November, 1936. The document discusses the history of the song “Yankee Doodle” and includes several variations that the committee came up with before finalizing the lyrics of the anthem. The next folder contains a scholastic, registered U.S. patent office roll book stamped with the number 3475. The roll book belonged to a woman named Mrs. Norma Russo and appeared to be a way in which musicians could log their attendance. Attached to the log is an application for students for the WPA Federal music project, claiming that the volunteer instructor is Norma Russo. This scroll book belonged to Norma Russo, a volunteer teacher who worked for the WPA Federal music project. The book was a way to account for the students who were a part of the program and were instructed by Mrs. Norma Russo.

     Amongst the origins of Yankee Doodle and the roll book are several other documents describing the history of music in Florida including memorandums and choir songbooks. The most important in relation to creating the history of jazz in Florida archive are the documents referencing the Federal music project proposed in the 1940s. These documents include the scroll belonging to Norma Russo, mentioned earlier, a newspaper article, a manual of instructions, a document describing the policies of the project, and the project proposal itself. These documents are essential in describing the history of the music of Florida because they are all reference the Federal Music Project.

     The newspaper article discusses a public speech given by a woman named Carita Doggett Corse. Her speech titled “Historical background of music in Florida” was created with the intention of proposing some form of a federal music project for the children of Florida. Corse showed that she was educated on the comprehensive study of Florida through the mention of various aspects of Florida history that suggested music had played an important part in the development of the state. Amongst these she gave examples of Seminole songs and legends native to Florida. (Doggett Corse, "Friday Musicale Members Hear Dr. Corse and Musical Program").

     The manual of instructions included in the Works Progress Administration collection of the USF library was intended for the teachers involved with the federal music project. The manual of instructions states that the federal music project sought to give free music lessons to the children of Florida who could not afford it. In addition to Carita Doggett Corse’s discussion of the impact music has had in the establishment of Florida, the teachers involved were asked why the federal music project was created. Their answer was to make for a “more musical America.” (Black, Manual of Instructions). They also wrote that “the contribution to the American culture of the education program of the WPA music project is so great that it will probably be another generation before it can even begin to be measured.” (Black, Manual of Instructions). To say they had high hopes for the federal music project is an understatement.

     The manual of instructions brought ease to institutions and private instructors competing with the project’s attention and success because they did not intend for competition but rather to compliment the work of these people and establishments. It is incredible how highly these teachers thought of the influence of music and how hard they fought to allow it to influence the lives of their students through this program. They not only considered the opportunity of participating in this program as a privilege, but a responsibility. Due to the fact that the program sought to enhance the knowledge and talent within its students rather than mold them into versions of their teachers, the manual of instructions was set in motion.

     The actual WPA federal music project document was published in February (the year is not indicated). The project was sponsored by the Florida State planning board and of course, the Works Progress Administration. James R. Black, the State Supervisor at the time, shared a few words at the beginning of the document stating that “the WPA federal music project has greatly enhanced the cultural life of the State, and given impetus to a wide range of musical activities.” (Black, Musical Notes: WPA Florida Music Project). He asks for the support of people state-wide for this project which he later refers to as a “musical awakening.” (Black, Musical Notes: WPA Florida Music Project). While Black describes the project as giving opportunities to the underprivileged, he sums up the efforts of this project as merely completing the “…worthwhile task of serving where the need is greatest.” (Black, Musical Notes: WPA Florida Music Project).

     This WPA federal music project document goes on to explain in detail how the project affected the State of Florida by region. In Jacksonville, the aspect of the program that appears to have had the most influence of its participants were the concerts performed by the WPA Florida Symphony Orchestra. These concerts inspired students to study symphonic music and encouraged them to play orchestral instruments. As for the Tampa area, the main influence of the project stemmed from the photographing of the Ybor City Music Academy. The photographs were taken by a federal works agency photographer who had hopes of publishing the series of pictures in one of the pictorial magazines of the time. Not only was this a great influence for the students participating in the project from the Tampa area, but the publishing of this series of photographs allowed for the publicity of the Federal Music Project. This publicity would potentially lead to the inspiration to do something similar in other parts of the U.S. and further encourage the incorporation of music within the lives of America’s youth.

      The Federal music project was the result of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s new deal. Roosevelt sought to raise employment by increasing public projects so the Federal music project was born. It was created to employ hundreds of musicians, conductors, and composers across the U.S. Furthermore, Roosevelt stressed the importance of art in American culture and deemed cultural enrichment to be a part in achieving the “American Dream.” This led to the increase in public projects and the prominence of the Works Progress Administration’s music project in Florida, making it a huge part of the history of music in Florida. The Works Progress Administration federal music project did serve a necessity as Black loosely describes it. The project allowed for the underprivileged to learn and practice music at the discretion of the teachers who volunteered to be a part of this program.


Works Cited

Black, James R. Manual of Instructions. Florida Works Progress Administration. Print.

Black, James R. Musical Notes: WPA Florida Music Project. Florida Works Progress Administration. Print.

Clagg, Mrs. Earl D. The Romantic Origins of Our Patriot Song. Jacksonville: Florida Works Progress Administration: Division of Education, 1936. Print.

Doggett Corse, Carita. "Friday Musicale Members Hear Dr. Corse and Musical Program." Print.

Russo, Norma. Scholastic Registered U.S. Patent Office Roll Book. Florida Works Progress Administration. Print.

Weiner, R. G. “Bindas, Kenneth J. All Of This Music Belongs To The Nation. The WPA's Federal Music Project And American Society.” Journal Of Popular Culture 32 (1999): 160-161.