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Exemplar: Music of the 30s and 40s

Page history last edited by cbennett 11 years, 8 months ago

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"And perhaps a man brought out his guitar to the front of his tent.  And he sat on a box to play, and everyone in the camp moved slowly in toward him...until the circle was closed and tight, and then he sang... and the circle sang softly with him... And now the group was welded to one thing, one unit, so that in the dark the eyes of the people were turned inward, and their minds played in other times, and their sadness was like rest, like sleep," (Steinbeck 192-193).





The 1930s and 1940s were a difficult time for the citizens of the United States of America.  The Great Depression engulfed the American people in 1929 making earning a living hard for most.  The Dust Bowl struck just a few years later, further devastating the lives of Americans.  Music was an important part of culture in those days.  One of the only comforts that the working class could enjoy was music and dancing.  It was a release for them from their grueling work, and encouraged them to keep on going.  It reminded them of happier and easier times.


This WPA photograph taken by John E. Allen proclaims the dire times most people were forced to endure. 


"But I like to think how nice it's gonna be, maybe, in California.

Never cold. An' fruit ever'place, an' people just bein' in the

nicest places, little white houses in among the orange trees. I

wonder- that is, if we all get jobs an' all work- maybe we can get one

of them little white houses. An' the little fellas go out an' pick

oranges right off the tree. They ain't gonna be able to stand it,

they'll get to yellin' so"  (Steinbeck 100).                                               


This is a photograph of 'Okies', a derogatory term for those people from Oklahoma after the dust storms, driving to California on Route 66 during the Great Depression.   Families piled their meager possessions on their jalopies and headed west in hopes of finding work.


  "'Them Okies? They're all hard-lookin''.                                  

  'Jesus, I'd hate to start out in a jalopy like that.'

  'Well, you and me got sense. Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain't human. A human being wouldn't live like they do. A human being couldn't stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They

ain't a hell of a lot better than gorillas.'

  'Just the same I'm glad I ain't crossing the desert in no Hudson Super-Six. She sounds like a threshing machine'" (Steinbeck 122).                           


"And the girls were damp and flushed, and they danced with open mouths and serious reverent faces, and the boys flung back their long hair and pranced, pointed their toes, and clicked their heels. In and out the squares moved, crossing, backing, whirling, and the music shrilled," (328).


The previous era of music was known as the Jazz Age.  This revolutionary age of music emerged in America after World War I, during the 1920s.  During the 1930s, the rhythm became faster and more aggressive.  This new age of music was known as the Swing Era, which took place approximately from 1935-1946.



Woodrow Wilson Guthrie


Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, more commonly known as Woody Guthrie, was a prominent musical figure of the 1930s and 1940s.  One of his most famous compositions, "This Land Is Your Land", remains a widely renowned folk song.


Woody, like most other Americans, faced a difficult time with the Great Depression, and was profoundly impacted by the Dust Bowl.  He found it nearly impossible to support his young family.  Woody used his artistic abilities to earn money - he painted signs/advertisements, and sang as he hitchhiked his way to California, looking for stable work.  While he faced scorn in California for being an "Okie", he was hired to sing on the KFVD radio.  Woody's old fashioned folk songs attracted much attention, especially from suffering workers in migrant camps.


    "The sheriffs swore in new deputies and ordered new rifles; and the comfortable people in tight houses felt pity at first and then distaste, and finally hatred for the migrant people.                       

     In the wet hay of leaking barns babies were born to women who panted with pneumonia. And old people curled up in corners and died that way,so that the coroners could not straighten them. At night, the frantic men walked boldly to hen roosts and carried off the squawking chickens. If they were shot at, they did not run, but splashed sullenly away; and if they were hit, they sank tiredly in the mud" (Steinbeck 360).  


  Surprised by his success, Woody moved to New York where he joined a band called The Almanacs and helped lead radical political movements - note the "This Machine Kills Fascists" logo that Guthrie wrote on his guitars.


Below is one song that Woody Guthrie wrote, called "The Great Dust Storm" (Dust Storm Disaster).  This song describes the hardships that farmers in America had to cope with when the Dust Bowl struck in 1935, and shows similar stories as the ones described in The Grapes of Wrath.


  "In the roads where the teams moved, where the wheels milled the ground and the hooves of the horses beat the ground, the dirt crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back

again"(Steinbeck 67).        


   "They knew it would take a long time for the dust to settle out of the air. In the morning the dust hung like fog, and       

the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth. It settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it

settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees" (Steinbeck 75).                                                                 


The Great Dust Storm

(Dust Storm Disaster)


On the 14th day of April of 1935,

There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky.

You could see that dust storm comin', the cloud looked deathlike black,

And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track.

From Oklahoma City to the Arizona line,

Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande,

It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down,

We thought it was our judgement, we thought it was our doom.


The radio reported, we listened with alarm,

The wild and windy actions of this great mysterious storm;

From Albuquerque and Clovis, and all New Mexico,

They said it was the blackest that ever they had saw.


From old Dodge City, Kansas, the dust had rung their knell,

And a few more comrades sleeping on top of old Boot Hill.

From Denver, Colorado, they said it blew so strong,

They thought that they could hold out, but they didn't know how long.


Our relatives were huddled into their oil boom shacks,

And the children they was cryin' as it whistled through the cracks.

And the family it was crowded into their little room,

They thought the world had ended, and they thought it was their doom.


The storm took place at sundown, it lasted through the night,

When we looked out next morning, we saw a terrible sight.

We saw outside our window where wheat fields they had grown

Was now a rippling ocean of dust the wind had blown.


It covered up our fences, it covered up our barns,

It covered up our tractors in this wild and dusty storm.

We loaded our jalopies and piled our families in,

We rattled down that highway to never come back again.



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Radio Advertising Eliminator!



This is an advertisement for the "Radio Advertising Eliminator" that appeared in the April 1934 edition of Modern Mechanix and Inventions magazine. It was said to block out commercials on your radio by automatically turning itself off when an auditory frequency that sounded like talking was transmitted to your radio.  Thus, listeners could enjoy their music without having to listen to obnoxious advertisements.





Depression Era Entertainment


  "ALONG 66 THE HAMBURGER stands- Al & Susy's Place- Carl's Lunch- Joe & Minnie- Will's Eats. Board-and-bat shacks. Two gasoline pumps in front, a screen door, a long bar, stools, and a foot rail. Near the door three slot machines, showing through glass the wealth in nickels three bars will bring. And beside them, the nickel phonograph with records piled up like pies, ready to swing out to the turntable and play dance music, "Ti-pi-ti-pi-tin," "Thanks for the Memory," Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman" (Steinbeck 152).


     Beginning with The Crash of 1929, the world slid into an economic depression that started in the United States and would last until the early 1940's. This period of time would come to be known as the Great Depression. 

     The Great Depression had many different causes, but it is obvious that the time of the Dust Bowl or the "Dirty Thirties" did not benefit the economic downturn. The Dust Bowl was a time of drought and dust storms caused by farming without crop rotation. Centered on Texas, Oklahoma, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas, the Dust Bowl made land useless to farmers. Not only did farmers not have crops to sell, but they did not have food either. Many families were forced to move west to find work.

The hard times of the 1930's-1940's made entertainment a great escape route from reality.


How Music Changed-

Just ten years earlier, during the 1920's, it was a time of economic prosperity and happiness and the new sound of the jazz era was born. It was a time of happy upbeat dancing music. As time progressed, jazz changed into a new genre of music. In 1935 swing music or swing jazz was distinguished. It was similar to jazz but with a faster beat, much more improvising on the musicians part, and a slightly altered way of dance. However, swing was not the only listening option for the people of the depression.


"The children crowded thickly about the musicians. A boy with a guitar sang the "Down Home Blues," chording delicately for

himself, and on his second chorus three harmonicas and a fiddle joined him. From the tents the people streamed toward the platform, men in their clean blue denim and women in their ginghams. They came near to the platform and then stood quietly waiting, their faces bright and intent under the light" (Steinbeck 275).                                                


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Around the same time that swing music was introduced the Federal Music Project was enacted. The FMP was aimed at improving musicianship, enthusing the public about music, and helping musicians to be self sustained.




How Music Appealed to All-

In the 1930's-1940's there were many different types of music to appeal to all sorts of people. Swing was the newest and hippest type of music, but jazz and folk music were also still popular. Swing and jazz were both used to uplift the depressed, while most folk music sympathized with the depressed.


Some Well Known and Well Liked Artists





"Woody" Guthrie would become one of the most well known folk musicians in the United States. He was a man of the Dust Bowl Era and Great Depression. Guthrie, like many "Okies", traveled to California during the Dust Bowl and learned many folk songs along the way. He began writing and singing his own songs about the hard times he and many others had faced playing his guitar with the words "This Machine Kills Fascists" on it.  His most famous song, "This Land Is Your Land" was written in 1940 and is still well known to this day. 


"Grampa took up the land,and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away. And Pa was born here, and he killed weeds and snakes. Then a bad year came and he had to borrow a little money. An' we was born here. There in the door-our children born here. And Pa had to borrow money. The bank owned the land then, but we stayed and we got a little bit of what we raised" (Steinbeck 21).   


"Sure, cried the tenant men, but it's our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it's no good, it's still ours. That's what makes it ours- being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it"

(Steinbeck 21).                                            

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Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born April 19, 1899 in Washington D.C. where he grew up. Ellington began taking music lessons at age seven. Not only was he a pianist, but we was also a composer and jazz orchestra leader. He was one of the first people to introduce the idea of "big band" or using an orchestra. In th 1940's Ellington and his band reached their prime even performing at Carnegie Hall. This is a video of Duke Ellington, his band band, and other jazz artists performing "C-Jam Blues", written by Ellington, in 1942. 



Another great jazz performer that can't be forgotten is Bing Crosby. Born Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby on May 3, 1903 in Washington, Crosby was also an American actor and appeared in many films. He most well known for his chart topping songs. As John Steinbeck describes in The Grapes of Wrath many of Crosby's records were "ready to swing out to the turntable and play dance music" (Steinbeck, 152). One of his biggest successes was his recording of "White Christmas". It was Crosby's best selling single, song and recording ever. The video is a slideshow of clips from the Great Depression and Bing Crosby singing "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" from 1931.

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Works Cited


Bonnifield, Paul. "1930's The Dust Bowl." 1930's The Dust Bowl. October 5, 2007. October 20, 2010.     <http://www.ccccok.org/museum/dustbowl.html>


“Documenting America – from the Great Depression to World War.” 27 September 2005.<http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsowhome.html>


Ganzel, Bill. "The Dust Bowl." Farming in the 1930's. 2003. October 20, 2010. <http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/water_02.html>


“Humanities Interactive  - Dustbowl.” 27 September 2005. <http://www.humanities-interactive.org/texas/dustbowl/ >













Humanities Interactive  - Dustbowl.” 27 September 2005.http://www.humanities-interactive.org/texas/dustbowl/
“Documenting America – from the Great Depression to World War.” 27 September 2005.<http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsowhome.html>

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