UKULELE MUSINGS, 29 October 2021: “From the Dark Side to the Sunny Side!”

I don’t know about you, gentle readers, but I am increasingly finding the news of the day disheartening if not depressing; too much “this and that,” too little “that and this.”  I am reminded not just of the deeply worn depressions found in too many of the streets in our little part of New England, but also of the phenomenon of economic and social depression—particularly that rocky chunk of American history known as the “Great Depression.”

Few of us around today lived through those days, but all of us have heard the admonitions of our parents or grandparents: “Make do or do without;” “Poor folks have poor ways;” or “Think about the children from—wherever—who don’t have enough to eat.” 

However, there are silver linings on the dark clouds of those days and these fit right in with these musical musings I have been posting for the past five or six years; it’s in many of the songs we remember, play, and sing today as we troll through our songbooks and strum away on our favorite little musical instruments.

There were dozens and Dozens and DOZENS of songs written in the time span between presidents Hoover and Roosevelt. 

Many of these were in the blues, country, and protest song traditions and reflected the woes of the time. 

Still others, mostly in the jazz and popular traditions, focused on the optimism that everyone needed to survive. 

After all, songs on the radio (if you were lucky enough to have one in those days) were free and (it was said by many) that: “You can’t be sad when you’re dancing!” 

So, let’s take a look at just a few of these songs–from both sides of the cloud, of course–to illustrate my point and, then hopefully, give us a bit of cheer once we set aside our newspapers (screens today!) and pick up our ukes!  

To begin, fellow strumers, let’s “eat our spinach before our desert” and look at the most quintessentially woeful song, the one that defined the Great Depression: “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

Without a doubt, this is one of the best-known American songs of the era of bread lines and soup kitchens and, in effect, has become the anthem of the Great Depression. Written in 1931 by lyricist Yip Harburg (who, incidentally, wrote all the songs for “The Wizard of Oz”) and composer Jay Gorney, the song was part of the 1932 Broadway musical revue “Americana.”

The melody begins in a minor key—unusual for a popular song at the time—and is based on a Russian-Jewish lullaby that Gorney had grown up with as a child. The song tells the story of the universal everyman, whose honest work was towards achieving the “American Dream.” 

Although blues songs often reflected a dark, more rural or racially oriented take on the times,

Brother Can You Spare a Dime” became one of the few Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songs of the era to shine on the darker aspects of the county’s collapse.

Click or tap on the next image or link to listen to this song that defines the dark side of the era.

But, enough of the dark side!  Let’s, indeed, move over to the—shall we say—sunnier side of the street. 

American popular music reacted to the Great Depression with optimism—albeit guarded—and a spate of lighter songs became radio and Broadway hits.  Many of these have endured and, in fact, have found their way into our Blue and Yellow books.

A happy song from the sad days is “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” a 1930 tune composed by Jimmy McHugh, who wrote another great depression era song, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” with lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Her other contribution to this “try to feel good” genre includes the lyrics for “Pick Yourself Up, And Start All Over Again.”  All three songs have been covered by scores of performers over the years.   

Click or tap on the next image or link to hear Cliff (Ukulele Ike) Edwards’ version of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” with the rarely included verse as well as the well-known chorus. 

Now, click or tap on the next image for a ukulele take on “Pick Yourself Up  .  .  .” with phenomenal strumming but, alas, not so phenomenal singing.

Now, tap or click on the next image or link for Ella’s interpretation of “Sunny Side  .  .  .” 

And, just for fun, here’s a jazzy ukulele version. Click or tap on the next image or icon for a quick listen.

Now here’s another happy tune from our songbooks. Although written a couple of years before the 1929 Stock Market Crash that sparked the Great Depression, “Side by Side” became one of the most popular songs of the 1930s and, today, is considered a standard. 

It was written by Harry Woods, who practiced songwriting only as a sideline, and, as a bit of trivia composed his songs on the piano despite the fact that he was born without fingers on his left hand!  He wrote a couple of other Blue and Yellow Book favorites: “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin Along,” and “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover.”  

Click or tap on the next image or link to see a war-time movie version of “Side by Side”: 

Oh yes, here are a couple of Art Deco style ukuleles from my collection in a style that was popular, to say nothing of symbolic, during the Great Depression—an inexpensive uke fancied up with an inexpensive paint job.  What’s not to like?

And, of course we have to end with probably the most optimistic song of the Great Depression—at least at the beginning of its end—you know what it is! 

I’ve used this YouTube before, but it’s too good (and wacky!) not to include here.  And, besides, we need a bit of levity to raise us out of what ever DEPRESSION we’re in, GREAT or NOT!  Click or tap on the next image or link for a nosefull!

And to come back to reality, click or tap on the next image or link for an jazzy instrumental of “Brother  .  .  .” on a beautiful looking and sounding baritone uke.  Enjoy!  

So, stay safe, stay un-depressed, and STAY TUNED! Because, perhaps, hopefully . . .

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton, Mass.

Hi Fellow Strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. These are my personal thoughts, not those of any group or sponsor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

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