The 1920s had been a wild party for the city slickers but bad business, as usual, for the bulk of the Dis-United States – for folk who ploughed the fields, hacked the coal, or weaved till their minds broke and their hands bled.
Hard times were nothing new to the toilers of the hinterlands. They had had them up to here for decades. They scrabbled about for survival; they owned their own music for dance and lamentation; they could see they were better off than their black neighbours.
But for the playboys and their goodtime gals the Great Crash came as bad as a Frisco earthquake. How funny that when the party ended with the crumpling of that Wall Street paper castle of dreams on Black Thursday 1929 the Casa Loma Orchestra, down the street, was recording Happy Days Are Here Again. President Hoover, sour lemon-faced but soon made savvy by his staff to the potency of pop, would have approved this serendipity. Later, as darkness faded to black, he received Rudy Vallee, king crooner of the airwaves, at the White House.
President: Are you still pleasing people with your songs?
Crooner: I do hope so, sir.
President: Well, if you can sing a song, a cheerful one that would make people forget their troubles and the Depression, I’d give you a medal.
For the rest of the country he recommended ‘more and harder work’, adding that, ‘the cure for unemployment is to find jobs’. Or simply: Do Something.So Americans improvised, an activity they had always been good at, from the revolutionary war to jazz: St. Louis golfers gave up their plus fours for clothing drives; Al Capone started up a Chicago soup kitchen, donating three hundred dollars a day. And in New York’s Tin Pan Alley, the songwriters, slicked up from forty years of manufacturing practices, turned out encouraging numbers, geared to boosting morale, even calling for action: Smile, Darn Ya, Smile, Whistle and Blow Your Blues Away, Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams. For the more reflective customers a little light philosophy was offered: Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries.
Fifteen years earlier, when America joined the war in Europe, the Alleymen had buckled down to patriotic duty providing go-get-’em marching songs like We Don’t Want the Bacon – What We Want is a Piece of the Rhine, treating a distant conflict like an out-of-town vaudeville show. But now, in the eerie quietness of these early hard times for urbanites, the message was milder. The suggestion was Let’s Have another Cup of Coffee or Let’s Put out the Lights and Go to Sleep, rather than a goose-step to an apocalyptic rendezvous with destiny, as they would be doing in Germany.
Actually, in nearby England the native songwriters were recommending a brisk walk – I’m Happy when I’m Hiking – in long shorts (or short longs) as an antidote to an unfortunate turn of events in the stock market, not to be confused with the ongoing rotten state of things ever since the Great War had shaken the Empire and let upstart Americans strut about, flooding the isles with their jizzy-jazz and slang. In London’s own Tin Pan Alley my songwriting uncle and his colleagues were censuring the limited range of Yank song subjects as ‘indoor poodle-faking’ involving the ‘lugubrious lamentations of a disappointed lover’.
In other words, mere love ballads, even as turned out by such masters as Rodgers & Hart and Irving Berlin, were unhealthy. My uncle hit back with the exotic tale of the Lady of Spain in lively paso doble rhythm so that you could get up and jig about and lose weight. Then he came up with Let’s All Sing like the Birdies Sing, instructing one and all to Tweet Tweet Tweet Tweet! Both numbers were taken to heart in America, perfect tonics for ridding yourself of the blues.
Tweeting was like whistling – a physical exercise that relieved mental stress; every doctor and psychiatrist worth his salt knew that to be a self- evident truth. Even in the 1930s, with enticements to passivity like radio, records and movies, people still liked to sing communally and to whistle as they worked or walked. Nobody much does that today, do they? Hoover should have been giving out medals to whistlers, tweeters and hummers. Bing Crosby, about to take Rudy Vallee’s crown as King Crooner, whistled at the drop of a hat on his records; Elmo Tanner’s whistling made Heartaches a smash; Carson Robison, New York based creator of hillbilly hits, could whistle in two-tone harmony; Arthur Tracy, The Street Singer and Wandering Vagabond, whistled even as he played a plangent accordion; Harry Woods, who had bucked everyone up with his Red Red Robin Bobbin Along, provided Tracy with a formula for making skies turn blue and for returning your lost one into an arm-in-arm stroll: a little sacred bird’s Whistling Waltz.
In October 1932 Bing Crosby was recording the latest batch of Harry Woods feel-good songs only a few days after Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been elected President. How similar in some ways was FDR to the Crooner! Both radiated charm and serenity; both had an easy way with words; (muttered the doomed Hoover: ‘The world lives by phrases!’) Bing would soon have his pipe and his golf; FDR waved his trademark cigarette holder jauntily in the air like a wizard’s wand.
Wizardry – just what was needed: in 1929 there were two million unemployed, in 1930 there were five million. Now the number was nearing fifteen million. FDR recognised the potency of pop: his campaign song was Happy Days are Here Again, successfully sold to him by a plugger who, after bursting into the candidate’s convention tent during a cocktail break, had been permitted to demonstrate the song’s positive vibe.
FDR was not alone in recognising the importance of rousing campaign music. Huey Long, fast becoming the dictator of Louisiana and FDR’s nemesis, had come up with, Every Man a King, a pretty catchy tune harnessed to words that summed up his demotic message, a sugar coating for despotism. Another Louisiana governor, the more temperate Jimmie Davis, owed not a little of his success to his self-penned You Are My Sunshine.
Do we sing along to any memorable music associated with these times of Obama and McCain? Truly a long-vanished career enhancer.
To return to the Crosby recording session: after the Harry Woods sunny disposish stuff, he turned to tackle a hot new Broadway hit, something far removed from happy days, whistling and blowing.
Brother Can You Spare a Dime?, with rueful lyrics set to a mournful melody (based on an old Russian lullaby) by two feisty writers raised in the school of hard knocks and nurturing a left-wing agenda, came about during an exercise break during the composition of the score for a revue, Americana. Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney, pacing Central Park, were approached by a young man dressed shabby genteel. With collar turned up and slouch hat pulled down to hide the eyes of humiliation he whispered, ‘Buddy, can you spare a dime?’
The final song’s emotion of bewilderment and barely suppressed anger at the state of the nation glares through in Bing’s recording. Gone is his usual insouciance; there is no chance of any whistling. But neither song nor singer offers any solutions.
FDR, not too keen on this slice of social criticism and more comfortable with Home on the Range, was about to offer a lifeboat of solutions adhering to the rules of trial and error, an almost jazz solo of rugged improvisation. Confronting a world gone inexplicably awry, FDR, in his radio ‘fireside chats’, would use the Crosby totem mike as a weapon of mass reassurance. As Europe fell into the abyss and Hitler rose to power German newspapers crowed ‘America is ripe for a dictator’. The Soviet Union glittered with its time-tabled utopian plans; American Stalinists waited with grimfaced glee for their chance to round up the masses and tell them what to do; US army chiefs longed for a Strong Man, fearing that Americans, noses to the pavement, might be in a revolutionary mood.
Thus FDR was counting on Bing to return to the fold and bleat out the homespun while government could get down to work using old-fashioned pragmatism rather than foreign ideology. Bing obliged with a sweetly nostalgic recording of Home on the Range, a Victorian ballad from a Kansas where hardly ever was a discouraging word heard.
On the whole the music industry was to follow FDR’s glow of good cheer. ‘Fine! Fine!’ was his favourite expression when some brainy came up with another agency idea. Fine, fine was to be the emotional weather in the escapist musicals of Hollywood and the soft interior ballads of the Alley. Good old Harry Woods assured us that The Clouds Will Soon Roll By. Apart from the recycling of the ‘Brother’ protest into Hollywood’s Remember My Forgotten Man, the closest the industry got to addressing the Depression again in a semi-serious way, was in another weather song. Rain (1934), concerned with the God-made disaster of Dust Bowl drought, is a prayer for the heavens to shower their golden blessings so that cows and sheep will no longer have to worry that ‘something is wrong’.
This unusual angle was written by Billy Hill, a conservatory-trained violinist from Boston who rode the rails west to become a cowpuncher, a Death Valley mining worker, and finally a jazz band leader in a chop suey joint in darkest Utah. So he had won his spurs in the school of hard knocks. Returning east he joined a buzzing fraternity of professionals toiling in Tin Pan Alley’s burgeoning business: cowboy and western product, whose earthy subject matter could sometimes run dangerously close to social subversion.
The market, underground but operating parallel with mainstream Show Biz, had opened up earlier, back in the 1920s, as strictly Eastern hillbilly, in response to radio’s need for song fillers to occupy endless hours of broadcasting between advertisements. From Chicago down to Texas, radio stations were crying out for melodies of hill, dale and ranch. Clinches on a couch in a New York penthouse were foreign to the folk.
Next came the record labels who, desperate for sales after radio had stolen much of their income by offering free music, tapped into this folk field. In 1923 the men from Okeh Records ventured down into the field to record Atlanta radio sensation Fiddlin’ John Carson, a genuine backwoodsman, scraping zippily The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster Crowed and singing in a shrill whine that disc boss Ralph Peer found ‘pluperfect awful’.
Nevertheless sales were amazing. Closer to the industry’s musical home was Vernon Dalhart with his Wreck of the Old 97. This, too, sold plenty and he went on to specialise in death and disaster titles like Casey Jones,
The Death of Floyd Collins and even The Sinking of the Titanic. None of the country folk who paid good cash for Dalhart’s clearly enunciated interpretations seems to have known or been bothered by the fact that he was a graduate of the Dallas Conservatory of Music and had won acclaim in New York for his appearance in Gilbert & Sullivan.
Dalhart saddled up with Midwesterner Carson Robison who, together with his guitar skills and virtuoso whistling, was also an untiring purveyor of topical songs – child kidnapping, train crashes, bank robberies, you name it – and, most notably, western themes like When It’s Springtime in the Rockies.
Suitably cowboy-hatted and bandanna-ed, Robison cleverly capitalised on the newly iconic image of the All-American Cowboy. Despised in the late-nineteenth century as a ruffian, this muscular action figure was, by the 1920s, transmogrifying, as in a movie dissolve, into a knight- on-horseback, an aristocrat in a democracy. He became a man-boy transcending politics and class, a hero embodying all the good things about the American Dream, galloping down from the sky into a tainted metropolis of corruption in order to right wrongs.
Under the broad protection of the ten-gallon hat – headgear that every president since Teddy Roosevelt had better be pictured wearing if he was to be considered a four square fellow and not a stuffed shirt – the guitar- armed western entertainer, as opposed to the pitch-forked farmer in bib overalls, was able to voice complaints and laments about society, albeit stopping short of calls to political action.
Thus there were cowboy singers who went further than Robison’s records of disaster to speak, on a commercial disc, of union activism in the labour movement. Gene Autry, having recently exchanged business suit for western regalia, recorded The Death of Mother Jones in 1931 for the cut-price Banner label. And Tennessee-born Harry ‘Mac’ McClintock, erstwhile rabble-rousing songwriter for the ultra-radical – nay, revolutionary – Industrial Workers of the World, was celebrating the hobo’s life on the road with all its violence and freedom in a bulging song bag filled during two decades of bumming around the world, dodging cops and the exploiting class.
In 1925 he settled for radio star life in San Francisco, spreading his stories to accompaniment by a cowboy band, ‘The Haywire Orchestry’. Three years later, not long before the Great Crash, he was a Victor recording artist with a hit in The Big Rock Candy Mountains – a classic salesman’s come-on to visit a reverse reality; a paradise for lay-abouts and outlaws where the cops have wooden legs and little streams of alcohol trickle down the rocks; subversion sold by a laughing Pickwickian galoot who posed no threat.
When the Great Crash came, Haywire Mac was quick to release his take on the situation. Ruined by the stock market and deserted by a wife who has run off with a slick-headed saxophone player, our hero, son of an honest farmer, begs Can I Sleep in your Barn Tonight Mister? The record ends with a barked reply: ‘No!’
When the New Deal got rolling in the mid-thirties, the western genre took off like an ardent posse in, naturally enough, Los Angeles, where the flaming brand was passed from the silent screen westerners to the new crooners of horse opera, led by Gene Autry. Local radio was a testing ground for future singing cowboys. At the top of the popular air acts were the Sons of the Pioneers, featuring their founder Leonard Slye, later to be crowned King of the Cowboys under the new name of Roy Rogers. Most of these performers, though dressed as laissez-faire frontiersmen, were staunch Democrats with a strong community spirit.
Riding the rails into town, in 1937, came two Oklahomans – aromatic and dapper Jack Guthrie, a smooth singer and decent yodeler, trailed by his malodorous cousin Woody, hair sticking out wildly but bursting with tales in the Will Rogers style. Soon the double-act of handsome Jack and comic sidekick Woody was broadcasting mornings on KFVD, near the Ambassador Hotel where couples danced nightly to With Plenty of Money and You, the big hit from Gold Diggers of 1937.
Jack sang Oklahoma Hills to Woody’s words and a borrowed (but never credited) Tin Pan Alley ballad from the turn of the century. Woody specialised in minstrel songs about comic blacks and Chinese. After Jack left to try to make it as a silver-screen cowboy Woody teamed with a sweet- voiced girl called Maxine. They hit with homesick exiled Okie listeners.
One day a black college student complained about Woody’s use of ethnic slurs. Shattered, he changed his tune forever.
Then, at the urging of the liberal station boss, he started writing a column from the road about the dire conditions of migratory field workers. His folksy yet pungent writings caught the attention of fellow broadcaster Ed Robbin who also happened to be California bureau chief for The People’s Daily World, an organ of the Communist party. Robbin introduced him to fellow traveller and Broadway actor Will Geer who caught him bringing down the house with his Talking Dust Bowl blues and such at a Marxist- sponsored union rally concert.
The actor had an epiphany: here was an embodiment of the poor people, reeking of hard travellin’, complete with drawl and guitar – weapons for overturning capitalism and hastening the millennium. We performers may not be actual manual workers but we can contribute in our way. Guthrie must be inducted at once into The Movement! The man himself opined: ‘Left wing, right wing, chicken wing – it’s the same to me. I sing my songs wherever I can sing ’em.’
Soon, at the urging of Geer, he was ensconced in Greenwich Village, New York, ogled at by the happening folksong revivalist clique as if he were an exotic creature caught in the wilds. These urban folkies, led by well-heeled middle-class folklorists bursting with social guilt, had hijacked hillbilly banjoes and veteran Tin Pan Alley tunes for communistic propaganda purposes. For example, Kerry Mills’s delightful turn-of-the-century Red Wing had its lyrics daubed over by Harvard dropout Pete Seeger to emerge screaming leftwing slogans as The Union Maid. Lenin would have been filled with glee. Back when he was creating Soviet ideology he had foreseen that ‘self-loathing liberals will hand us the microphone with which we will then bludgeon them’. The current problem for Seeger and his fellow performers was that despite overalls and twangs no one was fooled into believing these soft-skinned college boys were the real McCoy. But Woody Guthrie seemed just the job. The folkies were ready to fit him into their radical agenda. The masses must be persuaded to toe the party line by use of folk song as a political tool. ‘Getting involved in politics was his downfall as an entertainer,’ said his estranged wife Mary. Cousin Jack felt the same. Despite his new billing as ‘The Real Dust Bowl Refugee’ Guthrie kept in the act the cowboy hat and jeans tucked into western boots. He had great stage timing; he ran his fingers through his hair just like the late Will Rogers, top of the populist cracker barrel. Yes, he was old Will returned to life, but, thankfully, minus the hobnobbing with Presidents.
And now, in 1940, with America being worked up to enter the war in Europe, the claimants to American Music were lining up. ‘Folk Music’ was the hot new title. FDR loved it, filling the White House with string bands, throwing a hoedown for King George and his Queen. The folkies held a big New York concert called ‘Cavalcade of American Song – A Celebration of Folk Music’ where Woody introduced his latest effort, This Land is my Land, a rebuttal to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, which the folkies saw as chauvinistic.
Around the same time, in a sort of synchronicity, Tin Pan Alley threw its own cavalcade concert, claiming to be covering the real American music. For Tin Pan Alley was facing its own impending war. Radio, the gatekeeper that had welcomed the cowboys, was threatening to refuse to pay the Alleymen’s lucrative broadcast fees. Radio, led by spokesman Mr. Lambdin Kay of powerhouse Atlanta station WSB, a prime beamer of country music, said it had uncovered another American music source: hillbillies, cowboys, black bluesmen – all those forbidden entry into the Alley’s exclusive royalty collection club, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. No, no, riposted the Alleymen, we ASCAP members are the only creators and distributors of the Great American Songbook – and we do it in New York.
However it was to San Francisco that the Big Guns were summoned to prove their point in a display of might at a concert advertised as ‘a monument dedicated to art and to peace’. Jerome Kern, George M. Cohan and Hoagy Carmichael put in appearances. Ann Ronell played her melody of confidence, her snub of defiance to the Depression: Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Billy Hill, credited with the ‘greatest western cowboy folk song ever written’, croaked out The Last Round Up. Indeed, MC Gene Buck, ASCAP President, labelled all the songs as ‘folk music’.
In the grand finale Irving Berlin asserted his right as the creator of the new national anthem by leading the twenty thousand-strong audience in a grand finale of God Bless America.
But after Pearl Harbor all this wordplay and in-fighting became moot. There were jobs for all in the war effort. The Great Depression faded away. Alleymen, folkies, and cowboys had their work cut out to produce songs for soldiers, sweethearts and wives – rousing, sentimental, comic, whatever the masses required or should need. So the folkies danced Round and Round Hitler’s Grave while the Alleymen ordered Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition. And the country boys went into action, threatening the enemy with plenty of Smoke on the Water.
Long after the smoke has cleared we can look back from our own hard times at this troubled period. Since we have no current musical balm of our own, gently hum a bit of its legacy – perhaps a snatch of The White Cliffs of Dover with its sweet picture of Jimmy going to sleep in his own little room again.