Red Rocks, Rock n’ Roll, and FDR’s New Deal Legacy

  • Published on July 30th, 2009

I’m such a geek. This week, I’m headed to the legendary Red Rocks Park in Morrison, Colorado, for four sold-out nights of music from the Vermont-based band, Phish, at what is arguably one of the greatest outdoor music venues in the United States, if not the world. And I will, at some point or another, be thinking about the New Deal.


That’s right, in the middle of some twenty-minute swirling, epic jam, my mind will undoubtedly stray a little and wonder about the millions of unemployed Americans that were employed during and after the Great Depression building thousands of roads, bridges, post offices, schools, dams and, well, amazing places like Red Rocks.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s so-called, “Alphabet Agencies”, like the Civil Works Administration, Public Works Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Works Progress Administration gave new strength to America’s infrastructure and put Americans back to work during the Great Depression.

The New Deal in Colorado is strong because the state got more per-capita federal dollars than any other except Washington. It ranked 10th among the 48 states in actual New Deal dollars spent. Among those projects was Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre, tucked in the foothills just west of Denver, where those first schists of sandstone poke out of the earth signaling the beginning of the Rocky Mountains.

From 1936 to 1941 CCC and WPA workers put in long hours at the Red Rocks project in Morrison. Laboring in hot, dry, windy and rainy conditions, the men earned about $35 a month, $25 of which they had to send home to their parents. The work was not glamorous at Red Rocks, or most anywhere else the hard labor brought the men. But it was steady, and workers felt a strong sense of pride that they were part of something that was much larger than themselves.

FDR’s New Deal projects employed a Keynesian approach to stimulating the economy. The New Deal stimulated the economy by getting money in the hands of people who would spend it — lots of people. But the CCC did so much more, it ultimately created opportunities for generations of people to interact with wide open spaces and the natural environment.

“In creating this Civilian Conservation Corps, we are killing two birds with one stone,” Roosevelt said during one of his first presidential radio addresses. “We are clearly enhancing the value of our natural resources, and second, we are relieving an appreciable amount of actual distress.”

red rocks amphitheatre, morrison, colorado

Rather than merely “making work”, as so many critics like to say the New Deal did, it built its legacy on creating portals to the natural world that have brought tens of millions of people into the landscapes they could only read about before.

And if I’m a geek for thinking about that kind of stuff while in the middle of a wall of sound, light, and 9,400 rabid music fans, then so be it.

Images: Wikimedia Commons

About the Author

is the founder of ecopolitology and the executive editor at LiveOAK Media, a media network about the politics of energy and the environment, green business, cleantech, and green living. When not reading, writing, thinking or talking about environmental politics with anyone who will listen, Tim spends his time skiing in Colorado's high country, hiking with his dog, and getting dirty in his vegetable garden.
  • You might be a geek, but geeks are good 😉 Thanks for the history lesson and for sharing these pictures. I really enjoyed the read.

  • Pingback: Red Rocks Amphitheatre: The New Deal’s Rockin’ Legacy | ecopolitology()

  • WOW!!!

  • Make no mistake, what FDR did had nothing to do with Keynes. Keynes was an imperialist, sent over by london to try to thwart FDR's american system approach. For more on this see the 1932 video on

    I would also add that one can even find the documents on the web, where Keynes complains to Churchill that FDR does not listen to him.

  • tz

    "the infamous Tull concert" ? ? ? Ummmm would that involve gate crashers and tear gas and an early afternoon spectator falling off one of the rocks to his death?

    Yeah, great concert on so many levels. Memorable for sure. Especially while tripping the whole time.

  • tz

    "the infamous Tull concert" ? ? ?

    Ummmm would that involve gate crashers and tear gas and an early afternoon spectator falling off one of the rocks to his death?

    Yeah, great concert on so many levels. Memorable for sure. Especially while tripping the whole time.

  • badfrog

    I grew up literally in sight of Red Rocks Park. We used to bicycle and later drive up just to hang out somewhere cool and beautiful; my brother tells me this is no longer permitted. Plus yeah, a lot of concerts, including the infamous Tull concert.

    Roosevelt's Alphabet Agencies did a lot for Colorado infrastructure; much of it is still there in National Parks and Forests and Monuments, and will probably be for centuries. I now live in Connecticut, and the local post office has a lovely mural painted by some locally famous artist.

    It's too bad Obama isn't promoting such, but on the other hand any workers that got injured, even their hurt widdle feelings, would probably find a nice John Edwards style lawyer to sue for them. And of course they would want union wages and perks, and the unions, who pretty much own Obama, would want them to have those wages and perks, and a union card as well.

    Plus we seem to be fresh out of fresh faced farm boys. I suppose the teachers union and the Govt office workers unions would seriously object to their oh-so-productive members actually doing anything, well, productive.

  • Although I disagree with the whole premise of government 'make work' programs, at least in the 30's they spent our money on projects like the beautiful ampitheatre above.

    Current gov't stimulus isn't even make-work, b/c they do it without making anything and without putting anyone to work.

    Enjoy Phish, Trey is awesome live.

  • interesting pictures

  • The WPA left some beautiful legacies up on the North shore of Lake Superior, too.

  • Adam C.

    I love Red Rocks but I never knew it was a New Deal project. Great info. I'm lucky, I live here in Colorado so I get to experience Red Rocks every summer, you're right it's one of the best outdoor amphitheaters in the world, IMHO.

  • chicagorado

    Love the pics, brings back good memories… Red Rocks is hands down the best outdoor venue, maybe even the best overall venue, in the country in my opinion.

  • AA

    I live in Denver, been to Red Rocks many times to see many different acts. My favorite moment was completely surreal — The doors of the 20th Century (basically the original band, but with a damn good replacement for Jim Morrison) — It was a calm but cloudy night, as a storm gently rolled over the lights of Denver, which you can clearly see from inside Red Rocks — a few lightning strikes in the distance, thunder rolling — it begins to lightly drizzle on the crowd — and as if the universe itself was playing, the electric piano comes in with the intro to "Riders on the Storm".

    Unforgettable, magical, once in a lifetime.

  • Gregg

    Hell yeah! I've seen Phish 6 times at Red Rocks and had the same thoughts you're thinking. What a wonderful place Red Rocks is, and what a wonderful legacy for the CCC and WPA.

    Thanks for articulating it so well, and for rounding up the amazing pics. Enjoy the shows!

  • I really enjoyed this post! You must know I have always been pretty geekish about the WPA myself…..

  • First of all, I am so jealous. Second, this is a great post, and I really enjoyed reading it and the photos!

  • Great post about the history of Red Rocks. Saw the Dead many, many times there. I feel like a piece of me still resides among the outcroppings there. Have a great time at PHISH!