Happy Days are Here Again
When Orson Welles was doing his turn as ne’er-do-well Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949), he is said to have added his famous Ferris-wheel speech to the script to better explain his character’s bad deeds. Atop the well-known landmark (the Wiener Riesenrad) in post-war Vienna, he described to his confused friend, played by Joseph Cotton, the greatness in badness: Italy, in a few bloody and brutish decades with the Borgias at the top, produced the Renaissance and the cultural blossoming of Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Meanwhile, with half a millennium of harmony and peace, the Swiss only managed to fashion clocks with cuckoos inside (while yodelling could have been added to this short list, HR Giger’s Alien designs came a few decades too late to be included).
It has been argued that a positive cultural shift can also take place during periods of economic collapse, with monetary and financial bloodletting providing the inspiration or the circumstance to bring out the best in the art forms of the time. Music is no exception and, in the first of a series of blogs, we will examine a few of the greatest tunes that defined the economic downturns of the last century or so.
First up: the Great Depression.
The excesses of the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age (despite the introduction of prohibition in the US – think of the Cotton Club or The Great Gatsby) seemed to be the perfect antidote to the shocks of the Great War and the influenza pandemic that followed soon after. In America, boom-time beckoned, particularly in the upper echelons of society.
However, in the stockmarket, the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 came about after nearly a decade of gains, as equities were boosted by speculation. The collapse, which had its largest and most infamous falls on Black Thursday and Black Tuesday, did not cause the Great Depression but certainly added to a cocktail of overproduction, problems with the banking system and the gold standard, and government policy errors. These were all triggers for an economic malaise that was nasty, protracted and felt around the world.
It doesn’t take too much digging to appreciate that many of the musical favourites arising from this economic nadir seem very upbeat indeed, perhaps written as an attempt to focus on the positives during a difficult period. Alternatively, perhaps these songs were simply a manifestation of the good times in an age of plenty for the fortunate few, who were managing through the crisis relatively unscathed. Conversely, there is a vast array of sad and reflective songs, which is understandable, given a backdrop of stymied industry, heavy unemployment, failed harvests and mass migration in the years following 1929.
The mellifluous pickings were rich, as Miller, Goodman and Shaw’s swing bands were coming to the fore, jazz and blues were developing (Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Memphis and Delta), and country music was moulded and boosted during the lean years by the ‘wireless’ and the Grand Ole Opry. Meanwhile, movie music of the all-new ‘talkies’ could propel a song like never before (indeed, Hollywood weathered the storm of the Depression pretty well, as the advent of cinematic sound gave a boost to proceedings). Al Jolson, in the first-ever talking movie, set the tone, and Irving Berlin and the Gershwin brothers made their mark at the start of the golden age of the studio musical.
Now it’s time for the rundown, pop-pickers…
America’s prairie states were stricken by drought at the time of the Depression; the dry and empty fields were damaged by soil erosion as huge storms whipped up the dust. This added layers of misery to those already cruelly affected. Families were forced, in their thousands, to move west in search of work. John Steinbeck brilliantly captured the hardship of the dust bowls of Oklahoma in The Grapes of Wrath. His musical equivalent was Woody Guthrie, the ‘dust bowl troubadour’, whose 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads captured the plight of the Great Plain migrants, of whom he was one.
His songs, which were from the political left, highlighted the plight of the common man. The track Do Re Mi covered the difficulties of the journey – be it from Oklahoma, Texas or Tennessee – and that the end of the road, in California, was not the paradise that many on the exodus expected.
Ethel Merman could carry a tune – and she certainly gets a lot of coverage in Copylab’s Glasgow office for some reason. In 1931, she warbled out this answer to the question of ‘What does it all mean?’ Cherries became a clear metaphor for the spend, giggle, have-fun-and-be-damned approach to life.
Written by Irving Berlin and sung by Fred Astaire in the movie Follow the Fleet (1936), this epitomises a happy-go-lucky view of confronting the future with a positive attitude and a skip in your step. Things may turn out to be less than agreeable, we will have to cover our debts, and the music will stop but, hey, whatever the soothsayer is a-saying, there is smooching and dancing to be done in the meantime.
First featured in the film Chasing Rainbows (1930), the song was to become the campaign ditty for Franklin D Roosevelt in 1932, as it was seen as a good match for his team’s efforts to haul the US out of the doldrums. Furthermore, it seems to have gained credentials as a drinking song, corresponding with the celebratory attitude of those wanting to raise a glass to repeal of the 21st amendment – the end of Prohibition – which came to pass soon after Roosevelt’s term in office began.
This song is perhaps the one most closely associated with the Great Depression. Written by EY ‘Yip’ Harburg, composed by Jay Gorney and recorded by many of the musical standard-bearers of the day, it was a top seller, sung from the perspectives of those who’ve hit the bottom after having played a part in forming America – whether raising skyscrapers, laying railroads or fighting in wars. Soup kitchens and a life on the streets were now the reality for these nation-builders; the song captures these circumstances perfectly.