Music and the Great Depression


 Hanna Risher


Everyone is familiar with the Great Depression whether it was discussed in a middle school history class, or it had a major effect on your past family. The Great Depression was known has the longest economic down fall that happened in the late 1920s to the late 1930s. Few Americans were left untouched by the economic suffering (Kurian 279). Events that occurred during this time include the stock market crashing, riots dealing with unemployed workers, banks crashing, and a famous Presidential election. The amount of panic can be recognized by the popular culture and the influences it had in the music. While these times seemed impossible to get through, arts and music helped give relief to the people struggling in the means of entertainment and a way to simply vent. Since listening to the radio was means of free entertainment, people around the world would tune in and listen to music such as Big band and Jazz along with radio shows such as Little Orphan Annie for children. Popular songs of the Great Depression were “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” “We’re in the Money,” and “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries.” Each song had a cunning way of bringing humor, sarcasm, and real life as it’s happening to listeners. In 1930 people sang “Happy Days Are Here Again,” versus 1931 when people were singing “I’ve Got Five Dollars (279).”


“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” – “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” is one of the most well-known and well-written songs in the time of the Great Depression. It was written by Yip Harburg and sung by Bing Crosby in 1931. When you first listen to the song it seems like just a catchy tune, but when you look closer to the lyrics it gives the song more meaning. It cleverly reflects how thousands of men were unemployed during the Great depression and World War I. The song shows much symbolism of the time including “Yankee Doodle Dum,” railroads, and “towers.” In the lyrics, these are represented by, “Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?...Once I built a tower, not it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime? (Lavender)” This is further dissected to mean the men who built the railroads and skyscrapers later were to them out of work and unable to find money to pay for their families. The term “Yankee Doodle Dum,” is believed to represent the men that camped out in Washington D.C. waiting for the money that was promised to them.

“Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” – “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” is a song that takes on less symbolism and more irony and sarcasm. During the Great Depression, life was difficult and only got more challenging as time passed. The song, “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” brings an ironic look to this era. In the lyrics, it says “Don’t take it serious, life’s too mysterious you work, you save, you worry so, but you can’t take your dough when you go…(Lavender)” This can be further analyzed to mean that life may be grand in one moment, but then next moment your job could be taken from you- Life is just a bowl of cherries, isn’t it? This brings a sarcastic tone to the song and to the lyrics as well.  

“Migrant Mother” – “Migrant Mother” is a world-wide famous photograph done by Dorothea Lange in 1936. During the time that she captured this moment in time, Lange joined the Farm Service Administration photographic division (Bondi 82) while she found interest in photographing images including rural life. In this well-known photograph, it practically roars sadness and desperation. In the image, it is a portrait of a mother and her two children around the time where little hope was left in such a time of economic depression. Lange was known for pictures to have respect and valuve along with emotional complexity (82). Anyone can view this piece of art and judge its rough edges differently. Most would view this as a piece of music within itself, while others view this as a life as we known it frozen in a frame.


YouTube Videos:

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (1931) – Bing Crosby

 “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” Lyrics by Lew Brown, music by Ray Henderson (1931)



“Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange (1936)


Works Cited
Bondi, Victor. "Dorothea Lange." American Decades 1930-1939. 4. 1995. 81-82. Print.
Kurian, George. Encyclopedia of American Studies. 2. New York: Auspices of the American Studies Association, 2001. 278-281. Print.
Lavender, Catherine. "Songs of the Great Depression." . N.p.. Web. 13 Nov 2012.< http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/cherries.html>.


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