Author Sheryl Kaskowitz @ North

Author photo Sheryl Kaskowitz
A Chance to Harmonize Book Cover
Living New Deal logo with text Still Working for America
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Sheryl Kaskowitz in conversation with Alexis Harte, with an introduction by Harvey Smith. This event is co-sponsored by The Living New Deal and Mrs. Dalloway's Bookstore will be on hand with copies of Sheryl's book available for purchase.  

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Join us for a lively discussion about the New Deal's connections to folk music and to local history. Author Sheryl Kaskowitz will discuss her new book, A Chance to Harmonize, joined in conversation by composer and songwriter Alexis Harte. The evening will begin with an introduction by The Living New Deal's Harvey Smith.

About the book:
A Chance to Harmonize: How FDR's Hidden Music Unit Sought to Save America from the Great Depression—One Song at a Time tells 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 the mid-1930s, President Roosevelt and his New Deal advisors launched a radical experiment to help Americans suffering from the economic devastation of the Great Depression—Appalachian miners and other rural workers stranded after factories closed, city dwellers with no hope of getting work, farmers whose land had failed. With enthusiastic support from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, 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, and it laid the groundwork for the folk revival that followed.

Sheryl Kaskowitz 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, and other outlets, and she currently writes and produces stories for radio as an Audio Academy Fellow at KALW Public Media. Kaskowitz earned her PhD in music with an ethnomusicology focus from Harvard and completed her BA in music at Oberlin. She lives with her family in Berkeley, California.

Composer and songwriter Alexis Harte was co-founder and creative director at the multi-award-winning Pollen Music Group from 2010 to 2022. His 2017 song "No Wrong Way Home" for the animated short Pearl won him both a Peabody and an Annie Award. He is currently working on a film about the Berkeley Rose Garden and its New Deal origins, based on his song, "Your Rose Garden," celebrating the New Deal in our backyard. Born and raised in Berkeley, Harte holds a BA in English and Journalism from UC Santa Cruz and an MA in Environmental Studies from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Harvey Smith is the author of Berkeley and the New Deal. He serves as a project advisor for the Living New Deal and president of the National New Deal Preservation Association.

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