Format Hardcover
Publication Date 04/02/24
ISBN 9781639365715
Trim Size / Pages 6 x 9 in / 272

Request a review copy or press kit

A Chance to Harmonize

How FDR's Hidden Music Unit Sought to Save America from the Great Depression—One Song at a Time

Sheryl Kaskowitz

The remarkable story of a hidden New Deal program that tried to change America and end the Great Depression using folk music, laying the groundwork for the folk revival and having a lasting impact on American culture.

In 1934, the Great Depression had destroyed the US economy, leaving residents poverty-stricken. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt urged President Roosevelt to take radical action to help those hit hardest—Appalachian miners and mill workers stranded after factories closed, city dwellers with no hope of getting work, farmers whose land had failed. They set up government homesteads in rural areas across the country, an experiment in cooperative living where people could start over. To boost morale and encourage the homesteaders to find community in their own traditions, the administration brought in artists to lead group activities—including folk music.

As part of a music unit led by Charles Seeger (father of Pete), staffer Sidney Robertson traveled the country to record hundreds of folk songs. Music leaders, most notably Margaret Valiant, were sent to homesteads to use the collected songs to foster community and cooperation. Working almost entirely (and purposely) under the radar, the music unit would collect more than 800 songs and operate for nearly two years, until they were shut down under fire from a conservative coalition in Congress that deemed the entire homestead enterprise dangerously “socialistic."

Despite its early demise, the music unit proved that music can provide hope and a sense of belonging even in the darkest times. It also laid the groundwork for the folk revival that followed, seeing the rise of artists like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Odetta, and Bob Dylan.

Award-winning author and Harvard-trained American music scholar Sheryl Kaskowitz has had the unique opportunity to listen to the music unit’s entire collection of recordings and examine a trove of archival materials, some of which have never been made available to the public.

A Chance To Harmonize reveals this untold story and will delight readers with the revelation of a new and previously undiscovered chapter in American cultural history.

Sheryl Kaskowitz, PhD, is the author of God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song, which won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Book Award for music writing. Her articles have been published in the New York Times, Slate, Bloomberg News, and other outlets. Kaskowitz earned her PhD in music with an ethnomusicology focus from Harvard in 2011 and completed her BA in music at Oberlin. She has served as a lecturer at Brandeis University and Brown University and lives with her family in Berkeley, California.

Buy it now in print:

Buy it now in ebook:

Endorsements & Reviews

“The first full-length study of one of the New Deal’s most ambitious cultural initiatives. A Chance to Harmonize, as well as giving a picaresque account of a remarkable archival project, offers a corrective to the male-dominated narratives of the folk-song field. So much of what we know of American grassroots music, now a cherished part of our national heritage, comes from the efforts of these unheralded pioneers, who worked in the field and on the fly. A Chance to Harmonize, at last, gives them their due.” The Wall Street Journal
“Kaskowitz offers a spellbinding account of the New Deal’s Music Unit, a 1930s government project that aimed to foster solidarity among out-of-work Americans through folk music. Kaskowitz backgrounds the bureaucratic maneuvering and evolving ideology of the Music Unit with a sweeping on-the-ground narrative of the Great Depression’s hardest hit regions. It’s an exhilarating slice of American history.” Publishers Weekly (starred)
“Kaskowitz tells the fascinating and largely forgotten story of the ‘music unit,’ a New Deal initiative that was both short-lived and under-the-radar. Aficionados of American music will be familiar with the work of Alan Lomax, head of the Archive of American Folk Song, who sent a team to California to record the songs of Dust Bowl refugees living in work camps. Kaskowitz shows us that the music unit was a direct precursor to Lomax and a missing link in the birth of the American folk music revival.” Booklist
"In A Chance to Harmonize, Sheryl Kaskowitz vividly illuminates a unique moment in American history, when an agency of FDR’s New Deal brought music and hope to struggling homesteaders, and reaped musical riches in return, sewing the seeds of the American Folk revival. The Music Unit’s demise provides a telling lesson for our own times: it was shut down after only two years by conservatives in Congress who deemed it 'socialistic.’” Susan Quinn, author of Eleanor and Hick
"Who knew that a book about government bureaucracy could create such an incredible adventure story? Sheryl Kaskowitz manages to do just that. Captivatingly written and exhaustively researched, A Chance to Harmonize brilliantly illuminates this critical yet often overlooked moment in American cultural history." Mark Davidson, author of Bob Dylan: Mixing up the Medicine
“What could be more ambitious, fraught, potentially disastrous, and deeply inspiring than the New Deal’s creation of planned, cooperative homesteads for victims of the Great Depression? The idea that folk music was the key to it all. And yet such was the mission of the Resettlement Administration’s semi-clandestine Music Unit, which Sheryl Kaskowitz rescues from obscurity in this lively, nuanced chronicle. In her skillful telling, the story of the Music Unit—and especially the trials and triumphs of two crucial women, the brilliant Margaret Valiant and the implacable Sidney Robertson—becomes an absorbing, dual meditation on the political uses of music and on the New Deal’s groundbreaking, messy entanglements with American folk culture.” Scott Borchert, author of Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America, winner of the New Deal Book Award  
“In the depths of the Great Depression, the US government embarked on an enigmatic mission to lift the spirits of the nation with music. Sheryl Kaskowitz’s chronicle of the hidden history of the Music Unit and its cross-country search for American folk songs is rich in detail and rife with fascinating characters. A Chance to Harmonize is a deeply sympathetic account of how ordinary Americans, at the worst of times, sought solace and strength in music, and a clarion call for the intangible power of art.” Melissa L. Sevigny, author of Brave the Wild River
“A heartening account of music’s ability to create cooperation and community and restore dignity and hope. Kaskowitz brings to vivid life the history of the Resettlement Administration’s Special Skills Division, which developed art activities on American homesteads.” Kirkus Reviews
Praise for Sheryl Kaskowitz

"Probing and insightful...illuminating and thoughtful. An engaging portrait of how the song infiltrated patriotism, business and sports." The Washington Post
"A model of song biography. From the mountains to the prairies to the White House to the ballpark, Kaskowitz's 'surprising history' offers a compelling journey into the complicated and contradictory American soul." Jeffrey Magee, author of Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater