THE FEDERAL WRITERS’ PROJECT (FWP) left behind a variety of remarkable documents, mostly in manuscript form. Among its printed materials are two important books: “New Hampshire — A Guide to the Granite State,” published in 1938, and “Festal Days: Songs and Games of the Franco-Americans of New Hampshire,” published in 1941.
“Festal Days” focused on the culture of French-Canadian immigrants and their descendants: the Franco-Americans. As explained in the first chapter, the book tells of the “special days that pay honor to the native land, to the family, or to some saint of the church whose virtues are remembered and honored by the people of each generation.”
The book described traditional foods, games, and customs of New Year’s Day, Christmas, the Feast of St. John the Baptist, and other holidays. It also included the words and meanings of several familiar folk songs, some of which had originated in France centuries before.
The FWP’s exploration of the role of music within New Hampshire’s cultural landscape included interviews with rural residents to record old songs that had been passed down from generation to generation. The FWP also collected the sheet music for a 1926 composition, “Old New Hampshire — A Song of the Granite State.” Though somewhat antiquated in style, the song was distinguished enough to have gotten the attention of the FWP staff. The music was composed by Maurice Hoffman, Jr., the organist of the Franklin Street Congregational Church in Manchester, and the words were written by Dr. John F. Holmes, a local physician. The lyrics began: “With a skill that knows no measure — From the golden store of Fate — God, in His great love and wisdom — Made the rugged Granite State.” In 1949 the state legislature adopted “Old New Hampshire” as the state’s official song.
One of the notable unpublished documents produced by the FWP was “A History of Music in New Hampshire,” a 95-page essay by Dorothy VanHouten. VanHouten began her narrative with a description of how hymns were incorporated into Protestant church services in the 18th century. She then told of the proliferation of singing schools beginning in the early 19th century (largely arising because of the generally awful quality of church singing). She outlined the era of concerts, operas and operettas and the formation of musical societies and festivals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. VanHouten also wrote about the popular military and town bands that got their start in the mid-19th century, and she finished by writing about the modern dance bands and the Federal Music Program orchestras of her own time.
What distinguished VanHouten’s work was her thorough research and also her ability to move the story along with clear prose, peppered with quotes from town histories, newspaper articles, and other sources. She further enlivened her essay with gentle humor. For example, she described a scene that took place in a church in Hollis in the late 18th century. One of the longest-serving members of the church choir was a beloved elderly lady known as Aunt Hannah who, when she announced her engagement to her old friend Deacon Stephen Thurston of Bedford, “agreed to the requests that her wedding take place in the church. She probably regretted her decision when, as she walked up the aisle leaning on the arm of her bridegroom, the choir sang a hymn that grew more pronounced with each repetition: ‘I waited patiently, I waited patiently, I waited patiently for the Lord!’”
When VanHouten completed her music history project, she was only 21 years old. She was a high school graduate who lived on Conant Street on Manchester’s west side with her 17-year-old sister Evelyn and her widowed mother Mary, a domestic servant. VanHouten worked for the FWP as a research assistant in 1940-1941, though she listed her occupation as “actress” in the city directory.
Dorothy submitted her finished essay to the FWP on Nov. 24, 1941. Just 13 days later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, thrusting the United States into World War II. In the months that followed, the Federal Writers’ Project and the other New Deal programs that had provided work relief during the Great Depression would be discontinued as the nation turned its attention to the war effort.
Next week: The centennial of the tragic death of Private Henry J. Sweeney in WWI.
Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at email@example.com or at