Saloon Songs for Hard Times
"Saloon Songs for Hard Times"
18-minute video by Alison Baker & Rob Langeder
First presented at the Oral History Association
2010 Annual Meeting, Atlanta, GA, October, 2010
Over the past few years, I have been talking with Americans about their memories of growing up in the Depression, and/or their experience of hard times in the current recession, a project I called "Hard Times," after Studs Terkel's oral history of the Great Depression. When it came to "publishing" some of this material, I realized that there was an extraordinarily rich trove of songs and photos from the 1930s, products of Tin Pan Alley and the WPA. So I decided to use sound and image rather than the printed word. In Saloon Songs for Hard Times, excerpts from interviews with people remembering the Great Depression (and others ruined by Madoff) are interspersed with songs and photos that give a sense of what those hard times looked like, felt like.
I was inspired by a 2009 book, Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, by Morris Dickstein, which led me to some early Bing Crosby recordings. Crosby was America's most popular singer in the 1930s. His voice blanketed the airwaves and his recordings topped the charts year after year. He created a new sound, very different from earlier singers shouting through megaphones or Al Jolson's belting. The microphone was Crosby's instrument, ideally suited to his nuanced, intimate style, and he "played" it expertly, like no-one else.
In the late 1920s, radio swept the country; by 1930 almost every household had a set, a big wooden and cloth box with cathedral arches that dominated the living room. The family would gather around in the evening, listening to Crosby's songs, and FDR's fireside chats. For the first time, Americans felt a personal relationship with their president and a connection to the nation as a whole. Crosby's songs reflected people's anger and despair in the darkest days of the Great Depression, created a sense of community and finally lifted Americans' spirits, giving them hope of better times to come. The first three songs in Saloon Songs are all sung by Bing Crosby:
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? (1931) Plaintive and angry, the only song of the three that deals directly with the Depression.
Dancing in the Dark (1930) Existential despair, wondering why we're here, ending with a call for solidarity—we can face the music together.
Pennies From Heaven (1934) We have to go through hard times in order to appreciate the good times that are coming.
In the last section of the video, we jump to the current recession, focusing on people who invested all their money with Bernie Madoff, and were ruined when his Ponzi scheme collapsed in December of 2008. Self-described "saloon singer" Cynthia Crane sings Cab Calloway's How Big Can You Get? from her recent show John Denver, Bernie Madoff, and Me, with photos of the 30s juxtaposed with ones from the current recession.