Depression Folk: Grassroots Music and Left-Wing Politics in 1930s America

Depression Folk: Grassroots Music and Left-Wing Politics in 1930s America

Depression Folk: Grassroots Music and Left-Wing Politics in 1930s America

Depression Folk: Grassroots Music and Left-Wing Politics in 1930s America

Synopsis

While music lovers and music historians alike understand that folk music played an increasingly pivotal role in American labor and politics during the economic and social tumult of the Great Depression, how did this relationship come to be? Ronald D. Cohen sheds new light on the complex cultural history of folk music in America, detailing the musicians, government agencies, and record companies that had a lasting impact during the 1930s and beyond. Covering myriad musical styles and performers, Cohen narrates a singular history that begins in nineteenth-century labor politics and popular music culture, following the rise of unions and Communism to the subsequent Red Scare and increasing power of the Conservative movement in American politics--with American folk and vernacular music centered throughout. Detailing the influence and achievements of such notable musicians as Pete Seeger, Big Bill Broonzy, and Woody Guthrie, Cohen explores the intersections of politics, economics, and race, using the roots of American folk music to explore one of the United States’ most troubled times. Becoming entangled with the ascending American left wing, folk music became synonymous with protest and sharing the troubles of real people through song.

Excerpt

My agenda will be the role of folk music, broadly defined, during the trying years of the Great Depression in the United States, 1929–40.1 will particularly focus on the role of left-wing political groups and individuals. “Folk music” is a slippery term including older rural, vernacular songs and styles, mostly derived from British and African roots, as well as more modern personal, topical, and event songs played on acoustic instruments. Commercial compositions from the nineteenth century, such as the songs of Stephen Foster, could even be considered folk songs within a few decades.

Historians have interpreted the vibrant and complex Depression years in various and conflicting ways. Michael Denning’s influential book The Cultural Front: the Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century begins with the question, “Why did the left have a powerful, indeed an unprecedented, impact on us culture in the 1930s?” in response, he asserts, “The broad cultural social movement known as the Popular Front was the ground on which the workers theaters, proletarian literary magazines, and film unions stood; it was … a radical social-democratic movement forged around anti-fascism, anti-lynching, and the industrial unionism of the cio.”

This radical political and cultural shift has been explored by numerous scholars, such as Morris Dickstein in Dancing in the Dark: a Cultural History of the Great Depression: “Surprisingly, the Depression was also the scene of a great cultural spectacle against the unlikely backdrop of economic misery. the crisis kindled America’s social imagination, firing enormous interest in how ordinary people lived, how they suffered, interacted, took . . .

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