Music for the Recession

Chuck Eddy on why there isn't a modern soundtrack to our economic woes. When American Graffiti, revolving...

Chuck Eddy on why there isn't a modern soundtrack to our economic woes.When American Graffiti, revolving around a 1962 radio station's "oldies weekend," hit theaters in 1973, the pop hits of the 1950s-all newer then than the first Beastie Boys album is now-seemed ancient, as if dropped from some alternate universe. But over the past quarter-century, as songs of the 20th century's early decades have rematerialized first on vinyl reissues, and then on CD box sets, and have eventually become ubiquitous everywhere from movie soundtracks to Starbucks to MP3s available at split-second notice, the music has managed to lose its remoteness. Somehow, technology has the effect of compressing time.So maybe it shouldn't come as a shock that now, as we scarily slump our way into an economic downturn destined to put Carter/Reagan-era stagflation to shame, music that came out around the Great Depression is feeling curiously current. In 1998, the venerable reissue label Yazoo Records compiled 46 songs of bank failure, credit collapse, rent inflation, joblessness, and panhandling, on a two-volume set entitled Hard Times Come Again No More; five years later, the Sony/RCA imprint Bluebird Jazz gathered up 24 such performances on a disc called Poor Man's Heaven. When these collections were released, they didn't receive much media attention, maybe partly because their themes still seemed distant. But since then, history has flipped, and now, it's impossible to hear these old 78s without thinking about what you read in the business section this morning.What's weirder still is that it's hard to think of any new music released in recent years that you can say that about. The best examples from 2008 might be mere coincidences of title, like Young Jeezy's keep-on-grinding hip-hop cycle The Recession and Jamey Johnson's druglife-recovery country dirge "The High Cost of Living." "Spend Spend Spend," a miraculous and universally ignored 2008 track by Brit metal matrons Girlschool, comes closer ("Getting hard to borrow, pay the bills tomorrow"), but it's technically about England. Shouldn't working-class hero Kid Rock have done something on Detroit's autopocalypse by now? Especially when Poor Man's Heaven opens with a monologue called "Eddie Cantor's Tips On the Stock Market," in which the old Borscht Belter jokes about everybody getting a bad break except his uncle, who died in September: "Poor fellow had diabetes at 45. That's nothing, I had Chrysler at 110." Ba-dum bum.The Cantor routine is actually one of two Poor's Man Heaven tracks that aren't songs; the other, a lilting church sermon from Atlanta Baptist preacher and sometime gospel vocalist Rev J.M. Gates, is called "President Roosevelt Is Everybody's Friend." But this year, when you hear Gates praise "our president," FDR might not be the one who comes to mind. For the urbane stage-musical selections toward the beginning, the most successful formula pits upbeat rhythms against downbeat melodies, and sets them to darkly comic words about lost prosperity; that's certainly what's going on in Leo Reisman's epochal rendition of "Brother Can You Spare A Dime?" and George Hall's similarly themed "Remember My Forgotten Man"-the latter recorded for Gold Diggers of 1933 and seemingly referencing World War I vets demonstrating in Washington, D.C. in 1932. "Poor Man's Heaven" itself, credited to country duo Bud Billings and Carson Robison, goes so far as to fantasize violent revolution: "We'll own all the banks / And shoot all the cranks / And won't give a durn who we hurt." Later, a Texan named Joe Pullum does a high-pitched piano blues about how Roosevelt's Civil Works Administration helped him not need his woman anymore. The oldest song, and one of the most familiar, is hobo-turned-labor organizer Harry "Mac" McClintock's work-spurning "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," a revamped public-domain ditty published by the Wobblies in 1908 but revived as the title song of an Al Jolson movie in 1933.Unlike the frequently upper-class-slumming Poor Man's Heaven, the often deliriously raucous "early American rural songs of hard times and hardship" on Yazoo's Hard Times Come Again No More almost exclusively reside along an as-yet-undemarcated crossroads between impending blues and hillbilly music, occasionally reaching back to minstrel shows and Celtic ballads for inspiration. Certain specifics-boll weevils destroying crops, dust storms blowing Okies west, train-hopping tramps killed on the rails, tenant farmers bleeding sharecroppers dry-are necessarily tied to their time. But "Wreck Of the Tennessee Gravy Train" by Uncle Dave Macon and Sam McGee directly addresses a catastrophic 1930 bank failure, hardly a esoteric situation in this season of bankruptcies and bailouts. And the songs' overriding preoccupations-middle classes losing their footing, loans and eventually meals getting tougher to come by-are as pertinent now as when the lyrics were written, or soon will be.Several titles actually contain the phrase "hard times"; it's no wonder the late Studs Terkel gave that name to his indispensable 1970 oral history of the Depression. But here's something just as interesting: A half-century after the 1929 Wall Street crash, as an oil-shock recession dragged the 1970s into 1980s and hip-hop was first mapping out its place in the world, both Kurtis Blow and Run-D.M.C. recorded "Hard Times" raps. Country neo-traditionalist John Anderson opened his 1980 debut with a song called "Havin' Hard Times" as well. So where are the hard-times songs now? Right around the corner, I fear.Further listening:Down In The Basement: Joe Bussard's Treasure Trove Of Vintage 78s, 1926-1937 (Old Hat, 2002) In a record collector's Maryland cellar, string bands still hoot and holler about greenback dollars.Good For What Ails You: Music Of The Medicine Shows, 1926-1937 (Old Hat, 2005) Under a tent at the outskirts of town, blackface hucksters keep an 19th-century tradition alive, peddling wizard-oil cure-alls on the side.The Music Of Prohibition: The Soundtrack To The A&E Special Presentation (Columbia/Legacy, 1997) Sir Duke, Satchmo, Cab Calloway, and more, honoring bootleggers and low-down hoochie-coochers before the 21st Amendment made drunks honest again.Shake Your Wicked Knees: Rent Parties and Good Times: Classic Piano Rags, Blues & Stomps, 1928-43 (Yazoo, 1998) Pinetop professors barrelhouse all night long, to keep the landlord at bay.White Country Blues: 1926-1938 A Lighter Shade Of Blue (Columbia/Legacy, 1993) Down-and-out banjo daddies and drunk-and-nutty brother duos cross the racial line, decades before Elvis had a chance.
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