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Prelude to New Music

A Review of William H. Young’s Music of the Great Depression

William H. Young is a freelance writer and independent scholar. He recently retired from teaching English, American Studies, and popular culture at Lynchburg College in Virginia for 36 years. He has published many books and articles on various subjects of popular culture.


Famine, hunger, and poverty brought despair to Americans during the Great Depression. Many people suffered, failed, and experienced frustration. However, even in that catastrophic time, there was a one hope left in Pandora’s Box. How was high quality music produced during this time of serious depression? Music of the Great Depression by William H. Young demonstrates the importance of music history in 1930s, because many circumstances contributed to development of popular music, bringing a revolution in music. The rise of music media, the influence of Broadway music, and Hollywood music ushered in a new age in music history during this period. The Swing Era also arose during the 1930s, an epoch-making development of music history. Legend has it that after being asked to explain “swing” pianist Fats Waller said, “If you have to ask, you’ll never understand it.”1These factors all contributed to the unique music period of Great Depression.

A big transition occurred between 1920s and 1930s. Millions of Americans owned radios and listened to music on them. At the beginning of the 1930s, little over 600 AM stations broadcast to almost 14 million receiving sets. By the mid-1930s, due to financial problems, the number of stations dropped slightly, but Americans continued to buy new radios. The impact of radio was a huge part in American life.

People today might not agree to this, but the development of technology was very important in music history. Electrical amplification proved more accurate and more economical than acoustic amplification. High and low notes could be produced more accurately and small amplified electrical loudspeakers replaced bulky horns. However, sheet music, the oldest media, suffered during the time of Great Depression compared to recordings. Sheet music had an advantage before the 1930s due to its longevity. Large amounts of sheet music allowed people to purchase songs at any time at their convenience. On the contrary, recordings only had a three to six month lifespan due to their availability. But sheet music also had another, fatal problem. A time lag of at least ten weeks between composition and distribution existed in the sheet music business. As a result, people did not purchase as much new sheet music as recordings. In addition, publishers had to cut their prices when economy suffered. After the 1930s, sheet music could not achieve success in popular music business. With the power of media, this decade also became the golden age of American songwriters. During the 1930s, people like Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, and Harry Warren went down in music history. American popular music was influenced by many other factors such as jazz, swing, and rhythm and blues. Songs were commonly built on phrases and followed short instrumental openings that were sixteen bar phrases. The verse shows the rhythm and tempo of the music. For American songwriters, verses were the critical medium for their songs. It established the succeeding phrases or choruses. Many hit songs were produced during the Depression era. For example, in 1931, unemployment reached sixteen percent of the labor force. To ease the crisis, Americans needed music to calm their soul. During the 1930s, artists produced an average of thirty to forty songs per week. This shows how much commercialization and distribution existed. Several events also contributed to change of music industry. The rise of swing, orchestras, classical music, and arrangers organizing music in distinctive manner created a new style. Music of the Great Depression was so fresh that the old question was spreading to the audiences: “Which came first, words or music?”2 The answer varied depending on the composers and the lyricists of the music.

In the 21st century, most audiences listen to music on the television, internet, and in digital format. However, in the early 20th century, Broadway and Hollywood were the places for popular songs. Most Americans outside New York City knew about the theatrical hits through radio and recordings. It was important to look at Broadway songwriters’ enduring tunes that created hits. Broadway had about 190 musicals between 1930 and 1940. Irving Berlin, for example, was an important songwriter for Broadway. His lyrics were trenchant and revealed great emotions. His “Lonely-Heart Column, Easter Parade, and Suppertime” were big hits during the 1930s.2 Irving Berlin created meticulous melodies for audiences. He was an incredible man who understood the audiences’ desire for music. George Gershwin, a successful composer and an amazing pianist, is also famous in American music history. His peculiar mixture of jazz and contemporary music brought his success in Broadway music. Songs like “Embraceable You,” “But Not for Me,” and “I Got Rhythm” exemplified his talents. Audiences enjoyed the great music of Gershwin and his unique repertoire. All of these musicals had a huge influence on American music and theaters. Hollywood also existed as great figure competing music with Broadway. People like Jerome Kern ensured the success of Hollywood films with music. Jerome Kern’s relationship with Hollywood lasted a long time throughout his life. His work, “I Dream Too Much” features the rising opera star Lily Pons and demonstrates the operatic presentation. One of his films, “Swing Time” ranks as the best of the nine Astaire-Rogers pictures produced during the 1930s. The golden pair, Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, made prime time in the depression era. Hollywood used their talents to produce the audience’s unquenchable appetite. During the depression, the pair performed “Love Me Tonight” and “Isn’t It Romantic” to ease the emotional pain for audiences. Their various works left a legacy in American music history.

If the Roaring Twenties was known as the Jazz Age, then the thirties was a time of the Swing Era. Swing is a distinctive form of music that incorporates jazz and various instrumentals, usually using a strong rhythm section of double bass and drums. It is an amalgamation of dance, pop, jazz, and rhythms. This blending creates a form of popular music common to audiences. Swing relies on an ensemble. It is not an individual improvisation. Individuals might think that roots swing and jazz are same, but they have clear differences. “Swing was the new hybrid forswears a certain portion of its parentage for commercial success.”3 Even though depression influenced many citizens, a few new orchestras had hope and came out in front of audiences. Most of these groups were nicknamed “sweet bands.” Sweet band is “a somewhat condescending phrase that showed the aggregations that played in the tradition of country club music, or potted palm music.”4 The famous sweet bands were Larry Clinton, Eddie Duchin, Shepfield and His Rippling Rhythm, Sammy Kay, Hal Kemp, Wayne King, and Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. They created huge congregations with their bouncy rhythms that would not bother audiences during dinner and crooned charming lyrics. Other sweets bands were entertaining as well. Sweet bands were merging popular dance numbers and jazz. This synthesis appealed to audiences. An upbeat tempo, emphasized rhythm, and major keys uniquely identified them. More people discovered these bands and musicians from abroad began to participate, such as Charlie Barnet and Jimmie Lunceford. Swing brought joy to everyone. Almost every American citizen purchased their favorite band recordings. They bought tickets to hear live music and dance freely. Swing could be up-tempo, but it also emphasized melody; it could be hummed, whistled, sung, and for a whole generation, devotees danced to it. By 1938, swing was seen everywhere. As the thirties started to close, a large number of musicians provided swing to public. During the Depression, the Swing Era provided Americans with happiness and encouragement. Although the Swing Era was the driving force the music life, various categories of music existed throughout America. Labor and protest music were an essential part of industry. The Great Depression damaged everyone, so citizens had to relieve their stress in some way. The solution for many was to compose protest music. Music by Woody Guthrie, Sarah Ogan, and Florence Reese encouraged workers to endure and endeavor to survive. While swing dominated the 1930s, other music still impacted the society. In 1930s, Americans had had little acquaintance with country and Western music. Although the style possessed fervent fans, they were still a small minority. At that time, Jimmie Rodgers was called the “The Father of Country Music.” Through his compositions, country music spread to the crowds. He used black blues and jazz toe create his new compositions. This amalgamation of various styles attracted audiences. For example, he incorporated the steel guitars and traditional pop elements to create a song. Another form of music was blues. The blues definitions vary, but they all agree that it originated in the United States in the nineteenth century. The mixture of African chants and rhythms with European-American hymns created a new and unique sound. Blues grew up in New Orleans and spread to Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. By the time of the 1930s, blues had established an important role in American music. Many blues artists performed in clubs, roadhouses, joints, and dives. They told the stories of lost hopes, jilted loves, and desires for a better life. It created a melancholy mood for audiences, but though blues contained sadness and despair, they coexisted with faith and hope. Blues was mainly performed by African Americans. The Great Migration of black laborers from South to northern urban centers also expanded blues to Chicago area. At that time, blues was changing its form. Usually, a single performer played the music, but it began to rely more on group performance, with a vocalist playing guitar or soloist playing piano. The famous blues artists of the 1930s are Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, and Josh White. Also, Gospel music began to flower with blues’ influence on ecclesiastic music. Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey was a popular trombonist and bandleader that caused rise of Gospel music. He fused traditional blues with church hymns and incorporated other musical formats that related to the church. The mix created a new type of music very well. The gray line between sacred and secular made Gospel music unique. His new style of music gained support from African American congregations. Additionally, radio stations started to broadcast uplifting religious music. Blues and Gospel music may seem similar, but blues tends to focus and trial and tribulations, and Gospel music sends a positive message in any situation. The tone remains very joyful and displays evangelical religious feeling in Gospel music. The early twentieth century embraced many musical formats besides these. Much of the music in the thirties became oral tradition. Music historians refer to this as folk music, which was known to audiences mainly due to John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax. In order to support American folksongs and ballads, the two traveled to small towns recording songs of everyday people. The funding from Library of Congress allowed them to improve the recording apparatus and preserve a remarkable amount of music: over 10,000 songs, including folk, blues, labor, protest, and ethnic.

Love for music existed far beyond the thirties. History demonstrates the long love of classical music. Classical music was very difficult to understand, so people were not used to it. Even though classical music was not the driving force, it was still popular in thirties. Radios supported classical music and broadcasted everyday. Composer Aaron Copland was the epitome of classical music. Copland showed that classical music was still powerful enough to touch souls of Americans. His success increased his music’s exposure on radio, recordings, and film. Howard Hanson was young composer who was an expert composer of symphonies. When he was writing symphonies, he usually composed a three-act opera. One of his famous songs, “Merry Mount” remains a legend of classical music. Lastly, Virgil Thompson was a true modernist whose direct phrasing evoked American senses. His symphony and opera established his reputation. In 1936, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), commissioned Thomson to make a documentary film. His music and film were a masterpiece, an unforgettable visual and musical experience for Americans.

In the book, Young’s intent is to demonstrate his knowledge about the music of the great depression to show how essential it was to the American people. Young especially chose this era to display the rapid evolution of American music. The development of music media, the replacement of jazz with swing, traditional classical music development, and the theatrical music industry became steppingstones of contemporary music. The Book Review of Bergenfield, New Jersey proclaims, Music of the Great Depression offers solid historical analysis as well as a cornucopia of names and statistics. The discussion of famous artists with their unique compositions made this book outstanding. This book is valuable both as an analytical survey and as a reference work, which is quite an accomplishment considering the constraints of a short volume intended for both general readers and students of pop culture. However, to make the book truly invaluable as a classroom text, and an ear- as well as eye-opener, teachers must lead their students to the music itself. According to another book review by Choice it compromises brief accounts of nearly every aspect of music in the 1930s. Music of the Great Depression encompasses popular, classical music, swing, and media and shows their huge impact. The economic and social aspects of the Depression serve as a light counterpoint throughout, but the author emphasizes that the underlying force for change was technology. The book underscored music’s spread through the fast development of new media: the radio, recordings, and films, making people aware of different types of music.

This book has valid information about thirties music. The book talks about great detail in radio, media, Hollywood and Broadway films, composers, arranger, bandleaders, development of new music styles, and classical music in great detail. The book contains a lot of information on each subject and readers can learn the history of music in thirties very clearly. However, the author did not include many details on the actual composition of music. If the author had written more about the compositions, the book would have been better. The author did not use many quotes in the book, but it still contains valuable information about music of the great depression.

This period marked a watershed in American music history. The Great Depression caused severe damaged socially and economically, but Americans endured with music. This decade was a period of time that no other decade could match. The development of radio allowed the music industry to succeed since Americans had radios in their houses. New styles such as swing and traditional classical music touched the souls of the citizens that were suffering.

The evolution of music was rapid during 1930s. This period was not like any other period. The importance of lyricists, arranger, and instrumentalists rose until they became indispensable. Music also became easy for citizens to enjoy. Only music could ease the pain of the depression.

Clearly, the 1930s music impacted this country. The dominant music of 1930s showed the great changes sweeping society. Writers and arrangers produced massive amounts of popular works. Broadway and Hollywood began to make great films that fused with great music. This is an important book to study about pop culture.



1: Young, William H. Music of the Great Depression. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005. xiv
2: Young, William H.29.
3: Young, William H. 119.
4: Young, William H. 133.

Student Bio

Paul Yoo is currently attending Irvine High School as a junior. He says that in some day, he wants to travel Europe to eat various foods. He came to America about six years ago from Korea. He likes sleeping and reading comic books. He plays piano very well, and he loves music.


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