Music and Lyrics (of the Great Depression)

Music of the Great Depression
Amid watching Something Borrowed and finding myself wanting more John Krasinski at every moment (he’s Jim on The Office for those who don’t know second-rate romantic comedy movies), I was struck by how much fun the soundtrack was. It narrated nicely the life and times of the now 30-year-old main character and her travails in love and friendship.
And, of course, some time historical eras have better sound tracks than others. Some speak volumes about their times. The Great Depression is certainly one of them. For class discussion today, I’m going to balance the readings from Major Problems with some music from the era to ask questions about the effects of the Great Depression on American life.
The songs are: “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”; “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries”; “This Land is Your Land” (which some students will sing along to); and Victoria Spivey’s “Detroit Moan.” They match with the Major Problems essays well, because they do not directly speak to government efforts, but rather focus on the overall wrenching effect of the depression. While the Major Problems articles (one of which is the lyrics from “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”) brilliantly show the political debates over what the government should do during such hard times, these songs bring up some other questions. What are the meanings of material goods? Who owns the land? Who made America? Where should one go for happiness? Ultimately, I try to get my students to see that the Great Depression was so cataclysmic that it left Americans openly wondering if they could be happy on earth, whether they owned the land or not (and if they did, they had to fight for it), and that African Americans encountered particular forms of troubles that other Americans now endured as well (as “Detroit Moan” so beautifully voices and the Major Problems essay on the Scottsboro Boys so poignantly details).
Together, the music and the essays show how influential the depression was not only on American politics and its political-economy, but also on the overall psyche of the nation. And to really rock their cultural worlds, I then show clips from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). They’ll never think the same about “Whistle While You Work” or “Heigh, Ho, Heigh Ho, It’s off to Work I Go” in the same way!
Another way to teach this through culture would be with comic books. Hist has a wonderful little bit on Superman being developed in the era, and you can have students see the first issues on line here.

Teaching tip: I always try to put up the lyrics of a song as it plays (ideally, the Youtube video will have the lyrics, but sometimes they don’t). I often have a hard time knowing exactly what a singer is saying and being able to read and hear the lyrics, I think, helps students examine the tune. I also include the lyrics on the course webpage (called blackboard here) so that students can refer back to it for their essay papers or exam preparations (and I do ask questions about the discussion songs on the exam).

4 thoughts on “Music and Lyrics (of the Great Depression)

  1. Great article. Of course we fully understand and appreciate the power of music and learning/teaching. Thought you might be interested in hearing our Great Depression song. And I totally agree about your point about the lyrics. So I will post them here for you too.

    The Great Depression
    By Mr. and Mrs. Gillenwater

    The 20’s were roaring, the economy soaring
    Herbert Hoover assured us, nothing could touch us
    Farmers cranked out produce with no intention to reduce
    The massive over production for cheap consumer consumption
    So prices continued to dive, because of this oversupply

    And the Great Depression was coming
    On daddy’s face, fear is tugging
    9 years old and full of hope
    But I feel tension grow and grow

    When people started buying less, farmers couldn’t profit
    Nervous investors cashed in stocks bought once on margin
    And more and more started to sell, till everyone was selling like hell
    Then the roaring 20’s died, October 29, 1929
    Black Tuesday- oh so black – the stock market crashed like that!

    And the Great Depression began
    I wander the streets with an old tin can
    9 years old, laid off folks
    Everyone I know on skid row

    So much on Hoover’s plate, helping out a little too late
    Broken spirits, broken wills, shantied up in Hoovervilles
    We need guidance from the top, so many daddies just need jobs
    A steady hand could take us far, we elect FDR
    Roosevelt boldly declares, “the only thing to fear is fear itself!”

    And the Great Depression continued
    I give my little brother all my food
    9 years old and losing hope
    Don’t know how we’re gonna cope

    Roosevelt wants to help us heal, cautiously we accept his New Deal
    He’s given banks a holiday, and is only reopening those who pay
    He tells us the truth with cold hard facts, reassures us with ‘fireside chats’
    He’s got new programs, laws, and groups, to the rescue, Alphabet Soup!
    TVA, CCC, WPA, and FDIC

    And the Great Depression carried on
    But glimmers of hope were seen around
    9 years old when it all began
    Now I find myself a strong young man

    (I’m off to fight the Nazis in Germany…
    … and the Great Depression ends, just as World War II begins!)

    People will argue was FDR right?
    So much government now touches our lives
    He’ll be accused of packing the courts
    With judges and justices who gave him support
    In the end was FDR right? I thank him in my prayers every night.

    Thank you President Roosevelt and let’s pray this never happens again

  2. The article I will be discussing is Document number one, “Song of the Depression: ‘Brother Can You Spare A Dime?’ 1931.” I think this song goes along great with our next essay question of “what made the Great Depression so depressing.” The contrast in this song highlights the great affluence of the 1920’s, to the sheer poverty of the 1930’s. This man is singing about all of the things he did before the depression. He even built a railroad and a tower, but now they are done, and he has nothing left to do with his life but beg for just a dime. There were jobs for him to work on in the 1920’s, an he was a part of “building a dream.” His life had purpose and meaning, but then the depression took that all away, and now he is standing in line for bread. The depression was such a miserable time to Americans because of what affluence they were living in just 10 years before. I believe that this song is a great source for this contrast.

    The question that I have about this document is what significance does the name Al have in the second to last line of the song? “Say don’t you remember they called me Al; it was Al all the time.” And also, is the line “ Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,” refer back to the civil war?

  3. Music has always caught my attention throughout learning history. So much of an era s captured subtly in the style of the music, but more pronounced in the lyrics. In “Brother, Can you Spare a Dime?” from Major Problems, the lyrics tell of not only the darkness of the depression, but the reason for why it was so depressing. In the lyrics “they used to tell me I was building a dream”, tells the listener of the time before the depression filled of hopes and dreams. The writer tells about his following of work for the peace and glory that it would bring. “Once in khaki suits…” to “don’t you remember, I’m your pal? [Buddy,] can you spare a dime,” marks the transition from the glorious life before the depression to the lows of the Great Depression. Singing about people turning the other way on an old friend because times were so hard. Such emotion and detail can be captured in song that cannot be captured in books. Listening to the music of time is the best way to feel what was happening at that time.

  4. Can anyone supply information or more verses to this song please?

    Poor old (put a name in this space, eg Michael) all tattered and torn’
    Was eating the grass on our front garden lawn.
    I said “Poor old Chap’
    Alas and a lack’
    You’ll find it much longer around at the back”.
    Turaloo turalay, turaloo turalack
    You’ll find it much longer around at the back.

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