Iconoclast Rode the Rails for the WPA Guides

August 7, 2009
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A number of hoboes made their way from freight cars to the federal payroll of the WPA Writers’ Project. The Soul of a People book features the stories of three: Rudolph Umland in Nebraska (featured in this review and this online exhibit), Eluard Luchell McDaniel in California, and Harry Partch.

Partch was born in California, grew up in Arizona, and as a young man bounced around the West, feeling freer among hoboes than in straight-laced society. Partch would later become famous as an avant-garde composer whose works were so iconoclastic that he had to create new instruments and scales for them. In between his times on the bum, he worked on the WPA guides to Arizona and California. He later memorialized his wanderings in U.S. Highball, which the Kronos Quartet recorded in the 1990s. John Rockwell, the New York Times critic, called Partch’s compositions “the musical counterpart to the Watts Towers,” that monument of folk art that rose over the working class L.A. neighborhood.

Partch will be featured at a September event in the Soul of a People series at the San Jose Public Library. The Harry Partch Foundation is based in San Diego.

More about Harry Partch from that talk here.

You can now watch the Writers’ Project afternoon at the Library of Congress with excerpts from the film. Click here.

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