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).