The Great Depression impacted both the prison system and work environment in the United States in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In the government’s attempt to kick-start the economy while providing work for so many unemployed Americans, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created in 1935, enacted under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The WPA consisted of the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theatre Project, and the Federal Writers’ Projects. Through these various projects, the government hoped to put musicians, poets, authors, and actors to work while also providing programs for community enrichment during the tough times. Although Black Pearl Sings! takes place two years before the WPA was officially formed, folk music collection played a significant role in the WPA.
The Federal Music Project (FMP) was a branch of the WPA formed with the purpose of providing work for unemployed musicians, vocalists, and music educators, who had been hit particularly hard during the era’s dismal economy, as well as to educate the public about music appreciation through the production of thousands of free concerts. At its peak, the FMP employed nearly 16,000 musicians, enabled over 5,000 performances by orchestras, chamber groups, and choral military, and reached over 3 million audience members per week. Additionally, the FMP sought to gather an anthology of traditional American music and folk songs, a practice now referred to as ethnomusicology, in order to preserve the nation’s rich and varied cultural heritage.
Musicologists seized this unique opportunity to travel to very rural areas of the United States, seeking out untold folk songs and ballads that were recorded for permanent addition into the Archive for American Folk Song in the Library of Congress (now known as the American Folklife Center’s Archive and accessible to the American public). Most all of the music gathered during that time was through the efforts of a few men and women folklorists. These musicologists traveled all over the nation, especially throughout the Southeast and South Central, in search of a song that had never been recorded previously. FMP workers traversed the country with their portable equipment, recording prison work songs, folk ballads, spirituals and other music from diverse ethnic traditions. The Federal Music Project officially ran from 1935-1939, though its impact can still be seen today.