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Article Songs of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl Migrants

Moses Platt driving mules.
Poster for the Los Angeles production of Hall Johnnson's "Run, Little Chillun". Prints and Photographs Division POS-WPA-CA.01 .R96, no. 1 (H size). Select the link for more information and a larger image.

During the Great Depression songs provided a way for people to complain of lost jobs and impoverished circumstances. Perhaps the most famous of these is "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" by E. Y. Harberg, published in 1931. Songs could also be used to raise people's spirits and give them hope for better times. "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries," with lyrics by Lew Brown and music by Ray Henderson, also published in 1931, told listeners "Don't take it serious, it's too mysterious." The song from the film Gold Diggers of 1933, "We're in the Money," with lyrics by Al Dubin and music by Harry Warren (1933), asserted that the depression had passed: "Old Man Depression you are through, you done us wrong." But the effects of the Depression were far from over.

As part of a set of government-funded programs to put people to work, the Roosevelt administration's Works Progress Administration (WPA) created programs to document the traditions of rural peoples through writing or sound recordings. Scholars from fields such as folklore, anthropology, sociology, and the nacent field of ethnomusicology took up the cause of documenting folk songs, narratives, and other expressions, by writing them down by hand or using recording equipment if it was available to them. The Library of Congress lent recording equipment to scholars as possible in order to obtain this documentation for the collections. "Bolero sentimental," sung by Elinor Rodriguez is an example of a song about the depression in Puerto Rico documented by ethnomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell in central California in 1939 as she attempted to locate singers and musicians of many ethnic groups, particularly recent immigrants. "The United States Needs Prayer, Everywhere," sung by Lulu Morris and chorus, which expresses the hopes and concerns of a troubled nation, was documented by folkorist Herbert Halpert in Mississippi in 1939. In Florida, folkorist Stetson Kennedy headed a project to document the songs and tales of the diverse groups in that state. Among the participating scholars was anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. Since Hurston had done much of her PhD research without sound recording equipment, using her memory and transcriptions alone to document African American songs, Herbert Halpert and Stetson Kennedy recorded her singing a few of the songs she collected and then describing their uses, such as the recording of "Halimuhfack," in which she describes how she learned songs.

Depression-era programs, such as the Federal Theatre Project and the Federal Music Project also created opportunities for artists to have their work presented to audiences that would not have otherwise been able to afford to attend. Free concerts and other productions provided educational experiences for the public and work for artists. Composer Hall Johnson, whose musical, "Run, Little Chillun," showcased formal arrangements of African American sprituals that he had heard in his father's church in Georgia, is an example of an African American artist whose work was made more widely known as a result of these programs. The show first appeared on Broadway in 1933, but was shown in other parts of the country with support from the Federal Music Project.

Will Neal being recorded by Sonkin and Todd.
Will Neal plays the fiddle while being recorded by Robert Sonkin (just to the right of Neal) and Charles "Lafe" Todd (wearing headphones). Select the link to view the larger image available in the online collection.

The Roosevelt administration also created public works projects in order to improve the country's infrastructure while creating jobs. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was one such project, that put people to work on roads, dams, and the national parks. "Loveless CCC," sung by Tommy Rhoads, is a blues song composed by a CCC worker about the hardships of such work (select the link for the illustrated video version of the song. For the unillustrated field recording select this link). Songs sung by three CCC workers on the Shasta Dam, brothers Pat, Bogue, and Warde Ford, were recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell in 1939.

The Dust Bowl

An environmental disaster accompanied the economic disaster of the depression as man-made-erosion and a natural drought combined to create what came to be called the "Dust Bowl." People of the middle and south western states left their destroyed farms and became migrant workers in unaffected states, such as California. Government studies showed that these people spent more than they earned on transportation to and housing in places where they harvested crops, so assistance was provided in government-run camps. Available in this presentation are songs, poems, stories, and camp meetings of Dust Bowl migrants, many describing the loss of their homes and subsequent difficulties documented in California Farm Security Adminstration camps by ethnographers Robert Sonkin and Charles L. Todd.

"I'm Going Down this Road Feeling Bad," is a traditional song that may date from an earlier period, but that expresses sentiments surely felt by displaced workers during the Great Depression. In this presentation there are versions sung by Warde Ford, who traveled to Wisconsin to California to find work with the CCC and by Dust Bowl migrants Ruth Huber and Lois Judd.


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  • Songs of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl Migrants


  • -  great depression and world war ii (1929-1945)
  • -  Songs and Music
  • -  Articles

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