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A Year in Music: 1931, the suppression of depression

Cab Calloway dancing on stage. Photo: Gilles Petard/Redferns. - Credit: Redferns

The economic turmoil of the Great Depression produced plenty of downbeat realism but also escapist whimsy. SOPHIA DEBOICK reports

The industrialised world was in the grip of the Great Depression in 1931, the devastating effects of the Wall Street Crash still being felt and only getting worse. As the Empire State Building was completed as a symbol of a prosperous United States, the spectacle of soup kitchen queues and bank runs indicated another reality – that of millions plunged into poverty.

In Europe, political and economic turmoil fed each other as the collapse of the Austrian bank Credit-Anstalt in May sent shockwaves through the continent and provoked a political crisis in Britain. Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government undermined its raison d’être by proposing to cut unemployment benefit in an attempt to balance the budget, and the party was decimated in October’s general election – Britain’s largest ever electoral landslide.

That these were disordered times was an impression reinforced by the jarring and bizarre images of the year. From Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein, to Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, and even a sandal and loin cloth-wearing Gandhi photographed on wet London streets as he attended talks on the future of India, everything seemed out of kilter.

Popular music had two divergent reactions to this tumultuous state of the world. While some songs spoke directly of poverty and broken dreams, others provided escapist fantasies of whimsy and romance, and the story of the music of 1931 is summed up by both Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? and Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries being written in that year. But as the opposite impulses of realism and schmaltziness tussled for supremacy, several timeless classics emerged, to become enduring emblems of Western romantic ideals.

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? was the ultimate Depression-era song, with an almost atavistic emotional pull by virtue of being based on the tune of an old Russian lullaby. The song’s lyricist, Yip Harburg (later responsible for another classic of the yearning soul, Over the Rainbow), said its protagonist – one of the faceless millions who built America’s railroads and skyscrapers, tilled its land and fought its wars – ‘just doesn’t understand what could have happened to make everything go so wrong’. It indeed captured a sense of vulnerable bewilderment, the lyrics asking ‘They used to tell me I was building a dream/ With peace and glory ahead/ Why should I be standing in line/ Just waiting for bread?’, while the switching from major to minor throughout was a sonic representation of dashed hopes.

While Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? was written in 1931, it only got exposure the following year when it was recorded by both Bing Crosby and the singer and bandleader Rudy Vallée – one of many figures with a claim to the title of first pop idol in the modern sense – who was once referred to as ‘the male Clara Bow of the orchestras’. But 1931 had already seen songs about someone down on their luck, subsisting on the margins of society, become huge hits. Cab Calloway & His Cotton Club Orchestra’s million-selling Minnie the Moocher concealed its grit with playful call and response choruses but it told the story of a ‘red-hot hoochie-coocher’ caught up in drugs and haunted by dreams of wealth – ‘a home built of gold and steel/ A diamond car with a platinum wheel’.

Even more downbeat was ‘Mr Entertainment’ Ted Lewis’ Just a Gigolo, based on the 1920s song Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo, for which the context was the devastated social fabric of Central Europe after the First World War and its lost souls. Although versions were released by Bing Crosby and bandleader Leo Reisman in 1931, the creepy mournfulness of Lewis’ recording made it stand out, as he spoke rather than sang the song, its eponymous character ‘just a soul on hire to the highest buyer’, with a ‘heart that breaks from sorrow’.

In the face of such misery, it was little surprise that other Depression-eras songs rejected the reality of the times in favour of a defiant carefreeness. Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries, written by Tin Pan Alley team Ray Henderson and Lew Brown, would be taken on by Rudy Vallée and the Grenadian-born British cabaret star Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson in this year, and its lyrics simply dismissed earthly concerns: ‘Life is just a bowl of cherries/ Don’t take it serious; it’s too mysterious/ You work, you save, you worry so/ But you can’t take your dough when you go, go, go.’

As Time Goes By, another hit for Vallée among others, made the same argument for the ephemeral nature of worldly strife as Henderson and Brown’s effort. Written by Herman Hupfeld for the 1931 Broadway musical Everybody’s Welcome, the song’s lyric ‘The fundamental things apply/ As time goes by’ made its point with particularly elegant economy. But the now little-heard original first two verses of the song were very much rooted in the times, being a manifesto for keeping a cool head in a rapidly modernising world. Referencing Einstein, whose presence in the US to research at the California Institute of Technology early that year had received much press attention, the lyrics stated:

This day and age we’re living in

Gives cause for apprehension

With speed and new invention

And things like third dimension

Yet we get a trifle weary

With Mr. Einstein’s theory

So we must get down to earth at times

Relax relieve the tension

And no matter what the progress

Or what may yet be proved

The simple facts of life are such

They cannot be removed.

Despite being inspired by such a specific moment in history, the universalist sentiments of As Time Goes By made it a timeless standard, and it was joined by All of Me, a hit for Ruth Etting, and Dream a Little Dream of Me, recorded by both Ozzie Nelson and Wayne King within days of each other in February, as achingly romantic, immortal songs of 1931.

King would also record English song writing team Ray Noble, James Campbell and Reg Connelly’s Goodnight, Sweetheart that year, which although it hasn’t aged well, was a huge hit in 1931 and was covered by a litany of artists in those 12 months including Noble himself, with British crooner Al Bowlly, Bing Crosby and Ruth Etting, but it was bandleader Guy Lombardo who would make the song a No.1 hit in the US that year.

It was the quirkiest hits of the year that fared worst in standing the test of time, but they perhaps best represent the desperate desire for escapism of the Depression era. I’ve Got Five Dollars from Richard Rodgers’ Broadway musical America’s Sweetheart was a slice of optimistic whimsy, pulling between scarcity and potential in the manner of Nina Simone’s Ain’t Got No/I Got Life: ‘I’ve got five dollars/ I’m in good condition/ And I’ve got ambition/ That belongs to you/ Six shirts and collars/ Debts beyond endurance/ On my life insurance/ That belongs to you!’ Although also recorded by other artists in 1931, it was through the warm likability of yodelling contralto Lee Morse – an unusually eccentric figure in an era of emergent sophistication in popular music – that it became most lively. Morse would also record I’m An Unemployed Sweetheart that year, as did English dance band leaders Harry Bidgood and Bert Ambrose, and the song represented the crazier end of songs that defied the Depression, transposing the theme of joblessness into one of looking for romance: ‘I want a job in the moonlight/ Under the stars above/ For I’m an unemployed sweetheart/ Lookin’ for somebody to love.’ Along with the big band sound of hits like Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo and Isham Jones’ Stardust, which was another form of escapism, these peculiar songs showed the breadth of cultural reactions to social and economic collapse.

The founding of Abbey Road Studios and the issuing of the first 33? records made 1931 a crucial one for commercial music, and for As Time Goes By, All of Me, and Dream a Little Dream of Me alone, it deserves recognition as a crucial year for popular music. The shape of the world was changing, with Mao’s appointment as chairman of the Soviet Republic of China, Stalin enforcing collectivisation and rapid industrialisation, and the Nazis exploiting economic and social turmoil to secure electoral success the following year. War would soon see matters worsen beyond imagination, but 1931 had decisively shown how popular culture can act as an interpreter – and a salve – in painful times.

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