The Great Depression: American Music in the '30s (CD & cassette)

The music contained in this collection can also be heard in Blackside Inc.'s seven-part documentary, THE GREAT DEPRESSION.

music from the era

Extraordinary crises which challenge the human spirit also inspire many of its most enduring monuments. Each day millions of Americans use public buildings, parks and roads built some 60 years ago in public works projects of a scope unsurpassed in our nation's history. We still enjoy the fiction of John Steinbeck, films of Frank Capra, and populist-themed symphonic works of Aaron Copeland and Roy Harris. All these works -- the art no less than the public buildings -- came to life in response to the Great Depression. It was a time of both agony and exuberance, an era when creative enthusiasm seemed to outweigh the burdens of poverty and the specter of impending war. Of all America's periods of crisis, the Depression is the one we look to with greatest pride and with the fondest hope of inspiring us to vanquish similar challenges today.

Collected here is representative music of the Great Depression. In it you'll hear echoes of emotions ranging from despair to exuberance from a very different America still living in memory for many of us.

We are lucky to have much of it, given the economic devastation visited on the recording industry by the Depression. The sale of an estimated 104 million records in 1927 plummeted to a mere 6 million in 1932.

Recording activity surged again when 'swing' became the craze of mid-1930s youth culture, and this collection evidences notable recordings waxed even in the torpid lull of 1931-1934. The range of material reflects an America which was scarcely homogeneous, and whose diversity was targeted by record companies with everything from Delta blues to sophisticated swing. Lyrics, as much as styles, paint the era's portrait: along with song celebrations of heroes like Joe Louis and employment offered by the National Recovery Administration, there are hopeful fantasies of love and prosperity offered by Tin Pan Alley craftsmen. Their songs were popularized by both radio crooners and spectacular movie musicals. "A nation in crisis had become the songwriter's golden opportunity," wrote Patricia Dubin McGuire in her biography of her father, Lullaby Of Broadway: Life And Times of Al Dubin (Citadel Press, 1983, Secaucus, NJ). Along with composer Harry Warren, Dublin supplied songs to many of the Depression-era Busby Berkeley musicals which, his daughter recalled, "helped many people forget about the grimness of unemployment, overdue bills and unpaid rent, if only for an hour." The problems plague us still, but perhaps the vitality of these Depression-era songs will encourage us to persevere, as it did the Americans of that time.

The Songs

"Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?"
Rudy Vallee, 10/27/32

Only days after the debut of the short-lived 1932 musical, Americana, Bing Crosby was in a New York studio to record the show's outstanding song, "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?" Two days later, rival crooner Rudy Vallee waxed this version, and both 1932 recordings enjoyed considerable popularity in a year when few Americans were buying records.

This downbeat song reflected the plight of unemployed World War I veterans, thousands of whom encamped in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1932 to lobby for payment of the 'bonus' Congress had pledged they would get in 1945. The brutal routing via tank, saber, and tear gas of the so-called 'Bonus Army' on the night of July 28, 1932, by forces commanded by Army Chief-of-Staff Douglas MacArthur roused public sympathy and inspired Yip Harburg's bitter lyric about bread lines and a once-proud soldier reduced to begging.

"All Of Me"
Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, 1/27/32

Armstrong's romantically bittersweet "All Of Me" scarcely suggests the desperation of many Americans as he recorded this then-new standard during the Depression's bleakest winter. National income had declined by 50 percent since 1929, and 14 million Americans were unemployed at the outset of 1932. Americans were giving their all that winter just to survive. Legions of homeless scavenged for scraps and huddled in shanty towns dubbed 'Hoovervilles' after the President who said, "What the country needs is a good, big laugh." Secretly, Hoover urged Congress not to cut Army and Navy pay, as well-fed troops might soon be needed to quell a revolution.

"It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)"
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, 2/2/32

Duke Ellington had a gift for transcending shifting tastes and making music both trendsetting and timeless. The deep freeze of 1932's winter is belied by the hot vitality of this classic performance, featuring Ivie Anderson's vocals. Years later, Duke would observe: "We did not foresee then that the world would take it ['It Don't Mean A Thing'] to its own as a theme of an era." The swing era waited for Benny Goodman, but Ellington heard it coming.

"Hungarian Varsovienne"
Henry Ford's Old Fashioned Dance Orchestra, 1/14/27

This pre-Depression recording exists thanks to Henry Ford's ironic role as patron of the folk arts. The automotive mogul had a 19th-century rural sensibility, even as his assembly lines and Model-Ts inexorably pushed America into the 20th century. He sponsored fiddling contests and a dancing school, their uplifting value lost on the worker who told Edmund Wilson: "A man checks 'is brains and 'is freedom at the door when he goes to work at Ford's." In this case, the "Hungarian Varsovienne" (a relative of the mazurka) reflects the magnet the automobile industry was for immigrants of varied backgrounds. To Ford, a lover of American dance music, the irony of his own recording may have been lost.

"Detroit Moan"
Victoria Spivey and the Chicago Four, 10/15/36

Detroit factories had begun advertising in Southern cities for black workers as early as 1917. Paid less than their white counterparts, they were offered the hardest, hottest work in the auto foundries, called "the black department." Michigan's black population of 17,000 in 1910 soared to over 117,000 in the 1920s. Borrowing from the practices of Southern plantation patriarchs, Henry Ford paid black workers $1 a day in 1931 and invested the other $3 owed them into 'communal enterprises' in the subdivision called Inkster. Blues songwriter and performer Victoria Spivey vented some of the angst of black Detroit in her "Detroit Moan." (The song was originally issued as the B-side of the happier "Hollywood Stomp.")

"We Sure Got Hard Times Now"
Barbecue Bob, 4/18/30

Employed at Tidwell's Barbecue Place in Atlanta, Robert Hicks recorded extensively as Barbecue Bob and with the Georgia Cotton Pickers. He was among the most distinctive exponents of the 'Atlanta 12-string' school of guitarists, until his untimely death from pneumonia at age 29 in 1931. "Hard Times" were on the minds of many black Atlantans: Bob's friend, Buddy Moss, waxed a "Hard Times Blues" in 1933, and the popular preacher Rev. J.M. Gates cut "These Hard Times" as a sermon in 1930.

"Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground)"
Blind Willie Johnson, 12/3/27

This haunting impression of the 'lining out' of a hymn and church 'moaners' in prayer is the distillation, filtered through generations of African-American experience, of a hymn penned in 1792 by English cleric Thomas Haweis as "Gethsemane." Johnson was the greatest of the 'guitar evangelists' who enjoyed a brief vogue on record before the Depression. His work was widely influential and enduring: Roebuck "Pops" Staples still performs Johnson's "Nobody's Fault But Mine." (For more of Johnson's music, see The Complete Recordings of Blind Willie Johnson, Columbia/Legacy C2K 52835.)

"I'm Slappin' Seventh Avenue"
Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra, 4/11/38

New York's famous frenetic energy was unstilled by the Depression. Seventh Avenue was one of the city's major thoroughfares, and Ellington one of its brightest stars. For Depression-era listeners seeking escape to more exotic climes, the flip of the original 78 offered Ivie Anderson singing "Swinging in Honolulu."

"Mean Low Blues"
Blues Birdhead (James Simons), 10/13/29

Evoking the rural South and the dislocation felt by many who left it for Northern cities, Blues Birdhead waxed "Mean Low Blues" in Richmond, Virginia, before the Depression. Whether the obscure harp player's fortunes would have improved had he joined the 1930's flood of New York-bound migrants is another matter. "One of every 20 residents of New York is a Negro," wrote Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in 1935. "There are about 300,000 black, brown and yellow folk. One-half are not working, the other half is existing on the crumbs from the table."

"Happy Days Are Here Again"
Casa Loma Orchestra, conducted by Glen Gray, 10/29/29

The date on which the Casa Loma Orchestra waxed this cheery tune is better remembered as Black Tuesday, the day of the stock market crash. Variety's October 30, 1929 headline read "WALL STREET LAYS AN EGG." How big an egg? An average 40 percent loss in stock values by mid-November, representing nearly 30 billion dollars! This song (sans vocals here) expressed pre-crash exuberance in the film Chasing Rainbows (a young Jack Benny appeared in it), and it became a 'wishful thinking' anthem as the Depression darkened.

"There's A New Day Comin' "
Ted Lewis and His Band, 1/31/33

Released six days after Franklin Delano Roosevelt's inauguration on March 4, 1933, this peppy ode to full employment put on a bright face even as the banking system was collapsing. No matter: Ted Lewis, 'the top-hatted tragedian of jazz,' foresaw full employment for the brewer, and on March 13th the new President asked Congress to legalize beer. The repeal of Prohibition became official on December 5, 1933. Born Theodore Friedman in 1892, Ted Lewis blew a corny clarinet and billed himself "The Medicine Man of the Blues." His career spanned vaudeville to Vegas, and his slogan, "Is everybody happy?," never changed. Lewis aimed to please.

"I Surrender, Dear"
Red Norvo and His Swing Septet, 9/26/34

This is the sole performance in this collection from 1934, a year bitterly remembered by Malcolm X, who wrote in his Autobiography: " . . . by 1934, we really began to suffer. This was about the worst depression year, and no one we knew had enough to eat or live on." The 1934 dollar was still only worth about 60 percent of its 1929 value. But five million previously unemployed Americans were back at work.

The tumult of the times is countered by the elegance of xylophonist Norvo's performance with a stellar group including Artie Shaw on clarinet and Teddy Wilson at the piano. The song helped bring stardom to Bing Crosby back in 1931, and would become the vehicle for a 1948 film, I Surrender, Dear.

"Creole Love Call"
Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra, 2/11/32

The third and final piece of Ellingtonia in this collection reprises a piece Duke first recorded in 1927. This later "Creole Love Call" was released on a 12" 78, allowing more leisurely development of solos. (The flip side offered Crosby singing "St. Louis Blues" with Ellington's Orchestra.) It was recorded in 1932, a year aptly summarized by French socialist Leon Blum: "Looking at the world, one has the impression of an audience. . .waiting restlessly for the end of one act and at the same time listening to the stage hands behind the scenes arranging the scenery for the act that is to follow."

"Gloomy Sunday"
Billie Holiday, 8/7/41

Popular folklore of the Depression has Wall Street pedestrians dodging a hailstorm of failed financiers jumping from skyscrapers. Nothing like that ever happened, but America's suicide rate increased (and its birth rate declined) during the Depression. Edmund Wilson wrote movingly in The American Earthquake of the unemployed man whose last desperate act was rationalized in a coroner's report as due to "ill health, family troubles and no work." Given that background, it may be understandable that Holiday's recording of "Gloomy Sunday" was reportedly banned from radio. This suicidal reverie was written in Hungary in 1933 and first recorded in English by Paul Robeson in 1940. Legend has it that "Gloomy Sunday" (or "Szomoru Vasarnap," as it was known in Hungary) inspired suicides wherever it was heard, hence its nickname, 'the suicide song.'

"Headin' For Better Times"
Ted Lewis and His Band, 1/12/31

Lewis is so relentlessly upbeat that one might have easily overlooked the desperation behind many smiles seen when "Headin' for Better Times" was recorded in January 1931. It was the winter of street corner apple sellers, of whom Hoover observed: "Many persons left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples." America's plight so moved citizens of the Cameroons in Africa that a collection of $3.77 was raised and mailed to New York City with instructions that it be used for "the relief of the starving." For his part, Ted Lewis provided square meals and steady work to first-rate jazzmen on their way up, notably cornetist Mugsy Spanier and clarinetist Benny Goodman, on this performance.

"NRA Blues"
Bill Cox, 8/30/33

"History will probably record the National Industrial Recovery Act as the most important and far-reaching legislation ever enacted by Congress," said FDR as the centerpiece of his New Deal was signed into law on June 16, 1933. Two months later, Bill Cox was celebrating the three R's promised by the NRA -- relief, reform, and recovery -- in his jaunty "NRA Blues." Roosevelt's NRA met with stiff resistance and would not realize all its hopes, but Cox's never wavered.

"Are You Makin' Any Money?"
Chick Bullock and His Levee Loungers, 9/16/33

This pervasive question of the era was first sung in the film, Moonlight And Pretzels. The clever Herman Hupfeld wrote the tune two years after 1931's "As Time Goes By." Vocalist Chick Bullock was featured on over 500 titles in the 1930s, often accompanied by New York's finest jazzmen. Worthy of note in this performance are trumpeter Manny Weinstock and Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet.

"He's In The Ring (Doin' The Same Old Thing)"
Memphis Minnie (McCoy), 8/23/35

On June 22, 1935, one-time Ford motor plant employee Joe Louis laid out Italy's Primo Carnera in the sixth round before a crowd of 60,000 in New York's Yankee Stadium. "Whether it was the South Side of Chicago, St. Antoine Street of Detroit, or the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Negro communities throughout the nation went crazy with joy,"reported the New York Amsterdam Star-News. A folk hero had been born.

One of the great women of the blues, Memphis Minnie reflected that joy in a recording session two months after the Louis-Carnera bout. (She also waxed a "Joe Louis Strut.")

"With Plenty Of Money And You"
Hal Kemp and His Orchestra, 10/26/36

This song expressed the fantasy of many young men during the Depression. Unemployment meant the deferral of family life, and the marriage rate plummeted along with job opportunities. (Couples already married tended to stay so; divorce cost money.) The song debuted in Gold Diggers Of 1937 (Dick Powell sang it), and was one of the memorable collaborations of lyricist Al Dubin and composer Harry Warren for Busby Berkeley's musicals. Band leader Hal Kemp led a popular 'sweet band,' noted for its muted staccato brass and the pallid vocals of drummer Edgar C. "Skinnay" Ennis.

"Dawn Of A New Day"
(Official Song of the New York World's Fair) Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights, 1/26/39

The New York World's Fair opened on April 30, 1939. Boldly futuristic, its theme was "The World of Tomorrow." Like the Fair, the 'official song' offered by the Gershwins was an affirmation that the Depression was over, though songs had promised that since it began! Joan Peyser, author of The Memory Of All That: The Life Of George Gershwin, believes "Dawn of A New Day" was pieced together by Ira and Kay Swift from George's posthumous notebooks. Horace Heidt's band is remembered by one veteran of the era as "a very controlled Mickey Mouse band with good musicianship."

"Whistle While You Work"
Artie Shaw and His New Music, 12/30/37

Shaw's swinging 'cover' of this 'think positive' anthem was waxed just nine days after the world premiere of the film which introduced it, Disney's first animated feature, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Dire predictions for 'Walt's folly' were disproved by the popularity of the film, bolstered by the memorable songs provided by lyricist Larry Morey and composer Frank Churchill. Artie Shaw's talent as arranger, player, and band leader earned him the 'New King of Swing' tag in the wake of his hit rendition of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" in 1938. Ironically, Americans were savoring the optimism of "Whistle While You Work" as the recession of 1937-38 was hurling two million of them back into unemployment. The whistling only became earnest when America turned its energies to defeating the Axis. At a terrible price, World War II ended the Great Depression.

- Mark Humphrey

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