The Works Progress Administration (WPA)

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was one of the most significant of the New Deal programs. It was Roosevelt’s primary attack on unemployment. Under administrator Harry L. Hopkins, the WPA put over three million Americans to work in its first year of operation. By the time the program ended in 1943, unemployment was 1.9 percent. Through the WPA, 8.5 million people found employment, 650,00and 650,000 miles of roads, 78,778,000 bridges, 11111125,000 military buildings, 800 new or improved airports and other important national infrastructures were built. (Nick Taylor, “The WPA: Antidote to the Great Depression?”

In addition to construction projects, the WPA concerned itself with supporting the arts. New Deal federal dollars funded artistic efforts from painting to music to theatre to architecture. Artists, musicians, actors, and writers were employed by the federal government in an array of projects designed to create jobs. Work relief was one of the goals, but leaders of these programs often also hoped to sponsor local talent and encourage the growth of a national, popular artistic culture. New styles and subject matter described as “social realism” developed out of the programs. (Id.)

The WPA’s initial project was Federal Project Number One, known as “Federal One.” The project comprised five major divisions: the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Writers Project and the Historical Records Survey. Each was headed by a national director. Just one year after the five national directors first met in Washington, some 40,000 WPA artists and other cultural workers were employed in Federal One projects throughout the United States.

The Federal Arts Project (FAP) recruited thousands of unemployed artists and assigned them to art projects for up to $94.90 a month. At its height in 1936, the FAP employed 5,300 visual artists and related professionals. FAP’s major endeavors included a murals project that executed more than 2,500 murals in hospitals, schools, post offices and other public places; an easel painting division that produced nearly 108,000 paintings; a sculpture division that produced some 18,000 pieces; a photography project that served mainly to document the WPA; a scenic design division that provided models of historic stage sets and architectural models for planning and educational use; a poster division; and a stained glass division centered in New York. (Id.; Jennings and Brewster, p. — ; Hakim, p. — ; Reader’s Digest, p.—.)

The FAP also compiled a 22,000-plate Index of American Design, dispatching artists to record a wide variety of American designs in furnishings and artifacts from the colonial period on. The Arts Service Division provided illustrations and the like to the WPA’s writers, musicians and theatres. The Exhibitions Division organized public showings of all WPA artists and students. Hundreds of teachers were employed by the Art Teaching Division in settlement houses and community centers. In the New York City area alone, an estimated 50,000 children and adults participated in classes each week. (Id.)

The FAP also set up and staffed 100 arts centers in 22 states; these included galleries, classrooms and community workshops and served an estimated eight million people. These local centers also received some $825,000 in local support; some survive to this day. Many artists, who have since become famous, were involved with the FAP, including Philip Guston, Moses Soyer, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Jacob Laurence, Ivan Albright, Marsden Hartley, Philip Evergood, Willem de Kooning, Ben Shahn, Louise Nevelson and Mark Tobey. Two of the best known murals on public buildings, were “Relief Blues” (1938) by O. Louis Guglielmi and “Drought Stricken Area” (1934) by Alexandre Hogue. (Id.)

The Federal Music Project (FMP) was also part of the WPA. Its purpose was to document the traditions of America’s rural peoples, singers, musicians, songwriters, etc. Dr. Nikolai Sokoloff, formerly conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra (1919-1933) was the director. The FMP pursued its goals in a number of ways. The FMP’s archival work through “song catchers” collected a treasury of topical, folk songs from all parts of the country that would otherwise have been lost. Among the folksingers “discovered” through the field recordings of “song catchers” such as John Lomax and his son, Alan Lomax, was Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter), an ex-convict who gained fame for the songs he wrote about Negro life during the Great Depression. (Id.)

The FMP offered free or low-cost concerts to the public, as well as music lessons for poor adults, music appreciation programs for children, and training for music teachers. The project caught on so much in the 1930s that most schools had their own music program. The project established new orchestras throughout the country in cities that had never had orchestras, and it set up bands, theatre groups, opera and vocal companies, Black music groups, dance troops, and many other forms of musical ensembles presented an estimated 5,000 performances before millions each week.The Composers’ Forum Laboratory of the FMP supported new works by American composers such as Aaron Copland and William Schuman. (Bindas, pp. 108-109.)

The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) was a national program created to provide work for unemployed actors and theatre workers with chapters throughout the country. State units were established in 31 states and New York City, with most states in turn creating more than one company or unit within their own jurisdictions. Each chapter was to include a school at which new talent could learn theatre skills. Not only was acting to be taught, but also writing, direction, choreography, design, lighting, costuming and set construction— all the components of living theatre. Special emphasis was placed on preserving and promoting minority cultural forms. So, for example, Black theatre companies were established in Birmingham, Boston, Chicago, Hartford, Los Angeles, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Raleigh, San Francisco and Seattle—all places where economic and social conditions had made it impossible for Black theatre to exist outside of the fast-disappearing vaudeville stage. The FTP put 10,000 unemployed theatre people to work. (Reader’s Digest, p. 475.) Federal Theatre units presented more than 1,000 performances each month before nearly one million people; 78 percent of these audience members were admitted free of charge, many seeing live theatre for the first time. The Federal Theatre Project produced over 1,200 plays in its four-year history, introducing 100 new playwrights. (Id.)

Popular Front intellectuals sought to liberalize art and literature and celebrated collective struggle over individual achievement. They became strong supporters of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and their influence was especially strong within various WPA arts projects. Many playwrights and actors associated with New York’s influential Group Theatre were part of the leftist orbit in those years. Clifford Odets’s 1935 play “Waiting for Lefty,” which depicted a union organizing drive among taxi drivers, was a left-wing product of the Federal Theatre Project. (

The “Living Newspaper,” was the title of dramatic productions about contemporary issues, and it was the FTP’s most innovative product. The “Living Newspaper” began with WPA journalists researching social issues of the day. The material they gathered was transformed into a new form of documentary theatre: large-cast, multimedia productions, innovatively staged. The most famous edition of “Living Newspaper” titled “One-Third of a Nation,” was produced in 11 cities. It gave dramatic form to FDR’s famous statement, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished.” (

In addition to its production units, the Federal Theatre Project reached an estimated 10 million listeners with its “Federal Theatre of the Air,” broadcast over all the major radio networks. The FTP’s National Service Bureau provided research, consultation and play-reading services to all the units. The Federal Theatre Magazine united the disparate FTP components, describing and criticizing the work of units nationwide. Many film and theatre people, some later to become wealthy and successful in Hollywood, took part in the FTP. Among them were: Orson Welles, John Houseman, Burt Lancaster, Joseph Cotten, Canada Lee, Will Geer, Joseph Losey, Virgil Thompson, Nicholas Ray, E.G. Marshall and Sidney Lumet.

Conservatives, who feared what appeared to be “leftist” leanings in the FTP program and its productions, pulled funding for the Project in 1939. The success of the four short years of its existence can be quantified. After an initial grant of $6 million, the program distributed $46 million over its four-year history. It financed over 1,200 productions of 830 works. One hundred five of those works were original productions. It provided employment for and provided training and direction for a whole new generation of theatre professionals. The Project production of “It Can’t Happen Here” was seen by over 275,000 people, and grossed in excess of $80,000, with an average ticket price of thirty cents, in a period of four months. The Welles version of “Macbeth” (referred to as “The Voodoo Macbeth”) set new attendance records, and T. S. Eliot’s verse drama about Thomas Becket, “Murder in the Cathedral,” which was rejected by the Theatre Guild, played to packed houses for the entire run of the contract and was seen by 40,000 people. (Rusie, Broadway 101- The History of the Great White Way,

The Federal Writers Project (FWP) was another section of the WPA. The FWP employed 6,686 writers at its peak in April 1936, with active projects in all 48 states and the District of Columbia. Following the example of collectors such as Carl Sandburg (The American Song Bag) and John Lomax (American Ballads and Folk Songs, and many other books), who roamed the country in the 1920s and 1930s seeking indigenous music, FWP sent field workers out to gather all types of music from various locals across the country: spirituals, blues, work songs, Indian songs, etc. (Filene, Romancing the Folk, Public Memory & American Roots Music, p. 136.; Mangione, The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers’ Project, 1935-1943, pp. 302-323.) Charles Seeger, father of folk icon Pete and an administrator in the WPA, instructed his workers to “Record EVERYthing… Don’t select, don’t omit, don’t concentrate on any single style. We know so little! Record everything.” (Filene at 142.) So, they gathered songs of Cumberland mountaineers, southern black sharecroppers, New York City Jewish needle workers, Pennsylvania steelworkers, western copper miners, cowboys, railroaders, Chicago slaughter houses, etc. (Id. at 143.)

The Federal Writers Project is perhaps best-known for its American Guide Series, intended to produce comprehensive guidebooks for every state, plus Alaska, Guam, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. Similar guides were published for many localities. Each guide included detailed descriptions of towns and villages, waterways, historic sites and the like, often along with extensive collections of oral history and folklore, that included valuable oral histories of former slaves, studies of ethnic and Indian cultures, and pioneering collections of American songs and folk tales, essays about local life, photographs and other artwork. To this day, the American Guide Series constitutes the most comprehensive encyclopedia of Americana ever published; several volumes have been reissued recently, some in updated form. (Mangione, generally)

Other activities of the FWP included studies on such topics as architecture, science for children, and American Indians. Among the most important are oral history archives created by FWP workers, including priceless archives like the “Slave Narratives” (See, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, which contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. ) and collections of folklore. In addition to working on FWP projects, writers provided research, writing and editorial services to other government agencies. The Writers Project produced 3.5 million copies of 800 titles by October, 1941. Famous American writers who worked for the FWP included Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, Margaret Walker, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps and John Steinbeck. (Mangione, generally)

By 1938, a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats began to press their opposition to these New Deal cultural projects. Late in July 1938, as a seeming prologue to Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, Representative J. Parnell Thomas of the House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities (“HUAC,” also known in the ’30s as the “Dies Committee,” after its chair Martin Dies) claimed that he had “startling evidence” that the Theatre and Writers Projects were “…a hotbed of Communists” and “…one more link in the vast and unparalleled New Deal propaganda network.”

Dies believed that Roosevelt was using the Depression as an excuse to socialize the country. He stated “[The] WPA was the greatest financial boon which ever came to the Communists in the United States. Stalin could not have done better by his American friends and agents.” He announced that an investigation would be launched. (Bindas, pp. 27-30; Rob. Cohen, pp. 301-304; Filene, p. 159; Mangione, The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers’ Project, 1935-1943, pp. 302-323.) In its first six weeks of investigations, centering on activities in Boston, New York City and San Francisco, the Dies Committee commanded some 500 column inches in The New York Times (as well as extensive coverage in other media) with no chance for rebuttal from either project. The Committee produced a small parade of disaffected former WPA workers who testified that the Projects were tools of the Communist Party designed to breed class hatred in the United States. The Dies Committee reported that the FWP and FTP were “…doing more to spread Communist propaganda than the Communist party itself.” (Filene, pp. 159-60.) The Dies Committee also asserted that “Communist phraseology had been inserted in guides from the states and here in Washington.” (Mangione, Id.) No significant wrongdoing related to the New Deal was ever uncovered by the Dies Committee.

Given the huge scope of the WPA, it is not surprising that many songs were written about the project. Some of those songs are set out below.

“WPA Blues, written and sung by Casey Bill Weldon (1936) ( reflects the mixed emotions involved in losing a home to make way for a WPA project. (Big Bill Broonzy’s version can be found at

Everybody’s workin’ in this town, and it’s worried me night and day
Everybody’s workin’ in this town, and it’s worried me night and day
It’s that mean workin’ crew that works for the WPA

Well the landlord came his morning, and he knocked on my door
He asked me if I was goin’ to pay my rent no more
He said ‘you have to move if you can’t pay’
And then he turned and he walked slowly away

So I have to try find me some other place to stay
That house-wrecking crew’s coming from the WPA

Well, well went to the relief station and I didn’t have a cent
If that’s the only way you stand, you don’t have to pay no rent
So when I got back home they was tacking a notice on the door
This house is condemned and you can’t live there no more

So a notion struck me I better be on my way
They’re going to tear my house down, ooo that crew from the WPA

Well, well I went out next morning, I put a lock on my door
I thought I would move, but I have no place to go
The real estate people, they all done got so
They don’t rent to no relief clients no more

So I know I have to walk the streets night and day
Because that wrecking crew’s coming, ooo from that WPA

Well, well a notion struck me, I’ll try to stay a day or two
But I soon found out that that wouldn’t do
Early next morning while I was laying in my bed
I heard a mighty rumbling and the bricks come tumbling down on my head

So, I had to start ducking and dodging and be on my way
They was tearing my house down on me, ooo that crew from that WPA

“The W.P. and A., written and sung by Frank Proffitt,   who lived in Watauga County and may have worked for the WPA. WPA jobs were much sought after in the Appalachian region of the country. To be eligible for a WPA job, the general rule was that you had to either be on some form of relief or eligible for it. If he did work for the WPA, the major project in that county was the construction of Cove Creek School, and he would have made $1.00 a day. This song reflects the appeal of the WPA and some resentment from those who were unable to get jobs.

Where did you get that pretty dress,
All so bright and gay?
I got it from my loving man
On the W. P. and A.

Chorus: On W.P. and A.
On W.P. and A.
I got it from my loving man
On the W. P. and A.

I asked for credit at the store,
The man he said OK
He know’d darn well I had a job
On.. The W. P. and A.

I said hello to my best friend
But nothing would he say.
I seen right then he’d tried to get
On… The W. P. and A.

I asked a man if he would help
Me stack a little hay,
He said, “You go and hang yourself
On… the W. P. and A.”

Farewell to hoeing in the corn
Goodbye cutting hay
I’d rather the W. P. and A.
her go and make my dough
On… the W. P. and A.

Don’t plant no corn, don’t raise no crop
I tell you, it don’t pay
Come join our happy, merry crew
On… the W. P. and A.

When I die just dig a hole
Way down beneath the clay.
And tell them all I killed myself
On W. P. and A.

Another WPA song, “WPA, written by Jesse Stone, was sung by Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers (1940). (

Spoken by Louis Armstrong:
Now wake up boys, get out on the rock
It ain’t daybreak, but it’s 4 o’clock.
Spoken by Harry Mills:
Oh, no, no, no, Pops, you know that ain’t the play.
Spoken by Louis Armstrong:
What you talkin’ ’bout, it’s the W.P.A.

The W.P.A., The W.P.A.
Sleep while you work, while you rest, while you play
Lean on your shovel to pass the time away
T’ain’t what you do, you can jive for your pay.

Chorus: I’m so tired, I don’t know what to do
Can’t get fired, so I’ll take my rest until my work
is through

The W.P.A., The W.P.A., The W.P.A.
Now don’t be a fool working hard is passé
You’ll stand from five to six hours a day
Sit down and joke while you smoke, it’s OK.
The W.P.A.
The W.P.A., The W.P.A.
Don’t mind the boss if he’s cross when you’re gay
He’ll get a pink slip next month anyway
Three little letters than make life OK.
The W.P.A.

Skeets Tolbert & His Gentlemen of Swing also recorded a version of the Stone song (Decca, 1941), but their version ( doesn’t have the spoken intro and has this as a last stanza: The second time through, Tolbert repeats the first stanza in place of the last one.

The W.P.A.
The W.P.A.
Don’t mind the boss if he’s cross when you’re gay
You’ll get a pink slip next week anyway
Nobody peeks if you loaf every day.
The W.P.A.

Peetie Wheatstraw (William Bunch) recorded a trilogy of songs written by Charley Jordan about the WPA. Working on the Project” is the first (1937). (

I was workin’ on the project
Beggin’ for relief for shoes
I was workin’ on the project
Beggin’ for relief for shoes
Because the rock an concrete
Hoo-well-well, now they giving my feet the blues

Workin’ on the project
With holes all in my clothes
Workin’ on the project
With holes all in my clothes
Tryin’ to make me a dime
To keep the rent man from puttin me outdo’s

I am workin’ on the project
Tryin’ to make both ends meet
I am workin’ on the project
Tryin’ to make ends meet
But the payday is so long
Woo-well-well, until the grocery man won’t let me eat

Workin’ on the project
My gal spending all my dough
Workin’ on the project
My gal spending all my dough
Now I have waked up on her
Ooh-well-well, and I won’t be that weak no mo’

Workin’ on the project
With payday three or four weeks away
Workin’ on the project
With payday three or four weeks away
Now, how can you make they meet

Ooo-well-well-well, when you can’t get no pay?

“New Working on the Project” is the second of Wheatstraw’s WPA songs. It was recorded in 1937, around the time the Roosevelt administration was making cuts in some New Deal programs and laying off workers. It’s about a man working on the WPA, who was scared to get his 304 discharge form telling him he’s lost his job. (

Working on the project, what a scared man, you know
Working on the project, what a scared man, you know
Because every time I look around, somebody’s getting their 304

Working on the project with a big furniture bill to pay
Working on the project with a big furniture bill to pay
But time I got my 304, the furniture man come and taken my furniture away

Working on the project, the rent man is knocking on my door
Working on the project, the rent man is knocking on my door
I am sorry Mr. Rent Man, I just got my 304

Working on the project, my partner got his 304 too
Working on the project, my partner got his 304 too
So you better look out because tomorrow it may be you

Working on the project, a 304 may make you cry
Working on the project, a 304 will make you cry
There’s one thing sure, you can tell the project goodbye