ANOTHER MUSICAL MUSING, 24 March 2023, Songs of the Great Depression–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 thinking not just of the deeply worn depressions found in too many of the streets in our little part of New England, but also thinking back on that rocky rubble 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 poor children from—wherever—who don’t have enough to eat.” 

However, there were silver linings on the dark clouds and those 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, saw, tap, or toot away on our favorite musical instruments.

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

As would be expected, many of these were in the blues, country, and protest song traditions. They reflected in song 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 sing along!  

To begin, gentle readers, let’s “eat our spinach before our desert” and look at the most quintessentially woeful song of the times, 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 or Broadway songs of the era to shine on the darker aspects of the county’s collapse.

Click or tap on the triangle in the next image or 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, movie, and Broadway hits.  Many of these have endured and, in fact, have found their way into our songbooks.

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 triangle in the next image to hear a modern version of the “Sunny” song.   

Click or tap on the triangle in 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 triangle in the next image for a Fred and Ginger take on “Pick Yourself Up.” Then, just for fun, click or tap on the triangle in the image after that one to see their phenomenal dance routine to our song.

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 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 triangle in the next image to see a 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! 

Here’s our happy days song in its original, Broadway version from 1930–before it became a campaign song. Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a look and listen. Then, click or tap on the following image for a performance of our song from the 2000s coupled with another appropriate tune. Same optimism? We hope!

So, stay safe, stay un-depressed, keep up with those boosters, and STAY TUNED! Because, perhaps, hopefully . . .

If we all work together as a community!

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and 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. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

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