Nobody_Knows_YouToday’s economic hard times have brought memories and references to the Depression of the 1930s – the Great Depression that saw almost 30 percent of America’s population without any income, that saw breadlines stretching for blocks, that saw runs on banks and the failure of financial institutions throughout the country.

A new multi-media package from Shanachie underlines the parallels. “The Panic Is On: The Great American Depression as Seen by the Common Man” contains a CD of period songs, a booklet of excerpts of letters and observations from victims, and, most telling, a DVD of newsreel and movie footage from the time.

Included in the music are renditions that were airwave hits – “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” by Charlie Palloy and his Orchestra, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” by Bessie Smith, “Cheer Up! Smile! Nertz!” by Eddie Cantor. But there are also more obscure songs, tunes that maybe didn’t get the airplay at the time that they deserved.

6804While the choices by white artists tend to be optimistic, like Art Kassel’s “OK, America,” black singers and writers don’t see much in the way of positive change coming. Besides the Bessie Smith classic, there are moving tunes by Barbecue Bob (“Bad Times Blues”), Charlie Jordan (“Starvation Blues”) and Sonny Boy Williamson (“Welfare Store Blues”).

The DVD includes a smattering of hopeful footage – it starts with Jimmy Durante exhorting a group of businessmen to hire the unemployed. But it is weighted toward actual footage of the devastating stock-market crash of 1929 and its effects. There are breadlines, labor strikes, a march by the unemployed, bank runs, a dance marathon and its aura of desperation.

Besides Durante, other stars of the time are featured, including the Boswell Sisters, Fanny Brice, Roy Acuff, Woodie Guthrie, and Fred Allen. They perform songs, cheerlead optimistically, and narrate films depicting work projects.

Allen, popular radio comedian, is the voice of  “The Jazz Age,” a clear-eyed look at Wall Street behavior during the 1920s that was produced and written by Henry Salomon. In the excerpt featured here, Allen catches the boom mentality of capitalism as the market continues – like in recent years – its upward rise: “Nothing can arrest the upward movement!” and then adds the cautionary note born of the knowledge of the coming fall: “The market’s not only discounting the future, it’s discounting the hereafter.”

But the most telling testimony comes from the common people. An excerpt from a letter: “My father lost his job and we moved into a double-garage … we had a coal stove, and we had to each take turns, the three of us kids, to warm our legs.” Or this, written to Eleanor Roosevelt: “Starvation and ejection are staring me in the face.”

Or, in the video, the halting, embarrassed answers given by a taciturn man in the breadline run by Mr. Zero, a wealthy industrialist who gave up his business to help those in need with a mission in the Bowery of New York City.

The selections made by the project’s producers, Joe Lauro, Sherwin Dunner, and Richard Nevins, effectively emphasize capitalism’s boom-and-bust nature. But also evident is the fact that the devastation of the Great Depression has not been repeated this time around. And much of the credit has to go to the financial safeguards instituted in the 1930s by the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt to correct system weakness.

Government-guaranteed insurance against bank failure, Social Security, the implementation of public-work projects – all have been instrumental in preventing another Great Depression. And all are in place in spite of the machinations of the free-market ideologues, the same nay-sayers who are now complaining about government intervention, the same capitalists who were arguing only a couple of years ago for the privatization of Social Security. Hopefully, the lesson will again marginalize those arguments.


Chris Wohlwend

Chris Wohlwend

Chris Wohlwend is working on a memoir titled "Ridge Running: Encounters in Appalachia." He lives in Knoxville.

  1. Well done. Thanks for bringing this to Dewers’ attention Chris— and for reminding the nay-sayers just how blessed we are for FDR and the policies he put in place. When our banks failed this time, we had the FDIC. For all those who curse government intervention, think where we’d be right now if we didn’t have it. Bring back the WPA!!!!

  2. The real unemployment rate in this country — blacks, whites, Latinos and American Indians — approaches 20 percent. Many people who have given up looking or are underemployed are no longer counted in the unemployment rate. Add to that misery the fact that we are such a huge home-owning society, probably the largest in the world, and many of the unemployed and underemployed have lost their homes to foreclosure. In my state we didn’t get the federal 101 weeks that everyone was so on edge about last winter because the state’s unemployment rate was so low, just 9 percent. (Remember last winter, when just about everything liberals hold dear, such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, was held hostage so that the rich could continue getting tax breaks?) We unemployed in Arkansas lost out by mere fractions. I called someone at the unemployment office and we had a nice conversation. She did not know how the rate was calculated and didn’t know why all out of work people were not counted. Somehow I believe it would be easy to do a count.

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