THE GREAT DEPRESSION and the Second World War forever changed the structure of American society. By 1931 over 8 million Americans were unemployed, and by 1933 more than four in ten of the nation's banks had closed. Many Americans relocated in search of work, and the sweeping regulatory changes and social policies instituted after Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1933 changed the relationships between the government, banks, employers, and people. Following the nation's entrance into the Second World War in 1941, millions enlisted in the war effort, leaving vacancies at home and cementing a relationship between government and labor unions that forever changed the workforce.

The Depression and war inspired a variety of popular songs written by individuals from all walks of life. While the composers of Tin Pan Alley still dominated the music business, many innovative songwriters came to the forefront as songs became tools for expressing differing opinions. Moreover, technological advancements continued to make songs more readily available to everyone, so songwriters catered to an ever-expanding audience of Americans. The expansion of radio networks, improvements in phonograph recordings, and introduction of sound into motion pictures all had a significant impact on popular culture during this time.

Genres that were popular earlier in the century continued to flourish and evolve. Home to Broadway and the publishers of Tin Pan Alley, New York City remained one of the nation's important musical centers. Blues and jazz were also important parts of New York's musical life, and regional variants appeared in many cities across the country. Nationwide, big-band jazz became the preferred music for dancing, typified in the music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and many others.

New genres also emerged. With the introduction of sound into silent movies, many musicals were transferred to the big screen, thus allowing for wider dissemination and larger audiences. Between the Depression and the war, movies became an important social activity. While music had been played and even specifically composed for silent movies, the introduction of synchronized sound in 1927 created a vast audience for new material. Many popular song composers, such as Harry Warren, Richard Whiting, and Johnny Mercer, moved to Hollywood to fill the demand for songs for the movies.

Country music—then known as "hillbilly"—significantly increased in popularity in 1927 when both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family signed recording contracts with Victor Records. These and other stars were also heard on radio programs, such as National Barn Dance out of Chicago and the Grand Ole Opry from Nashville, which were aimed at audiences in the Upland South, Appalachia, and northern cities such as Chicago, where an increasing number of communities of migrants from the South were forming. In addition, popular cowboy films starring country music singers such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry led to the further dissemination of hillbilly music.

The era also saw the commercial rise of folk music and new music written in folk styles. The collecting work of John Lomax (1867–1948) and his son Alan Lomax (1915–2002) revealed a little-known area of song repertoire and established the Archive of Folksong at the Library of Congress in 1938. Together they rectified what they felt was poor representation of Black folk songs by making extensive trips throughout the southern states. Looking for "pure" southern music, they recorded songs at many penitentiaries and prison camps. John Lomax discovered the blues musician Huddie Ledbetter, known as "Leadbelly," in a prison. They also discovered many white folk musicians, including Woody Guthrie, whom Alan Lomax met at a benefit concert for the impoverished.

Mexican and Mexican-influenced genres continued to thrive in the Southwest and were increasingly distributed through recordings and film, paralleling the influx of migrants and immigrants into all areas of the country. Influenced by older styles and genres popular along the border, such as corrido, norteña, and mariachi (see VAT, Unit 6), a new commercial genre appeared in the 1930s and 1940s: ranchera. This genre of romantic song, typically accompanied by a mariachi band (strings and trumpets), was popularized by Mexican singers such as Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante. The songs, which express the hopes and concerns of the Mexican and Mexican American working class, influenced other genres of American music, such as hillbilly and Tin Pan Alley.

In these years, almost every composer and lyricist in every genre had something to say about the impact of the Depression and Second World War. Their music reflects how these events affected different demographic groups and individuals, and it documents the profound changes that occurred in American society.

By the 1920s, New York City was firmly established as the nation's theatrical capital. Even though most musicals were composed and staged along New York's Broadway, many were accepted as being characteristic of other parts of the nation. For example, Oklahoma! (first staged in 1943) came to portray middle America, although it was written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, two people who had spent their lives in New York City. Similarly, the musical Show Boat (1927), with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Hammerstein, about life on the Mississippi River, for many came to represent life in the South.

These musicals are representative of a shift away from most earlier shows, which feature comic situations and dancing girls to attract an audience. Although the shows still contain their share of comedy and dance, Oklahoma! culminates with the tragic death of one of the main characters and Show Boat deals with the pertinent issue of racial prejudice. Songs from these musicals, such as "Old Man River" and "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning," became popular standards performed by many singers, in part because they expressed sentiments applicable to many situations. "You'll Never Walk Alone" from Carousel (Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1945), for example, came to represent a sense of optimism necessary during times of war and economic depression.

Ira and George Gershwin were especially prolific in the 1930s, producing shows such as Strike Up the Band (1930), a political satire about the United States and Switzerland sparring over high chocolate tariffs, Girl Crazy (1930), and Of Thee I Sing (1931), a musical satire about presidential elections and love that won the Pulitzer Prize. Their Porgy and Bess (1935) was a more serious opera that dealt with such difficult issues as poverty, rape, infidelity, and oppression in a Black community. Cole Porter's Anything Goes (1934) has been called the definitive 1930s musical comedy with its portrayal of mistaken identities and a peek into the lives of the rich and sophisticated. The success of these musicals is indicative of how important the genre was as a distraction, but also how they came to reflect the times.

Drastic times call for drastic measures. With fewer resources and less cash during the Depression, composers and lyricists needed to be creative. Along with musicals came an increased number of shorter works or revues. As with outspoken folk songs, many were noted for their sociopolitical satire, such as Yip Harburg's Americana. Pins and Needles (1937), with songs by Harold Rome, was a pro-labor revue that was actually produced by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The revue included such notable songs as "Sing Me a Song of Social Significance" and "It's Better with a Union Man."

Broadway Melody (1929), billed as "All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Dancing," was the first all-sound film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture despite its ho-hum plot. This success paved the way for the film musical that became increasingly popular through the work of Busby Berkley, who integrated elaborate dance numbers to distract audiences from hard times.

Music of the movies was on everyone's lips, as songs specifically composed for a film became successful. Songs like "Chattanooga Choo-choo," composed for Sun Valley Serenade (1941), became a popular hit on its own, as did "Over the Rainbow," composed for The Wizard of Oz (1939). Harburg's lyrics, although taking its perspective from a child, incorporate ideals and aspirations that adults identified with as well.

There were many patriotic musical films made in the 1940s, and their songs were especially popular. "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," a song popularized during the Second World War and still widely known today, was written for Buck Privates (1941), a wartime propaganda movie that featured the Andrews Sisters and also introduced the comedy duo Abbott and Costello. The same movie featured the tremendous hit "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else but Me," a song that articulated the fear of lost relationships during war.

Even animated movies featured songs that became enormously popular. "Whistle While You Work," from Disney's first feature-length animated film, Snow White (1937), became popular with adults perhaps even more than children. "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," from Song of the South (1946) and Pinocchio's "When You Wish Upon a Star" (1940) also resonated with many adults, especially during these difficult times.

Cartoons were a relatively new art form and led to creative use of popular characters. "Any Bonds Today?" peddled war bonds and was especially effective as sung by Bugs Bunny in a cartoon played at the cinema:

  The tall man with the high hat and
the whiskers on his chin
Will be soon be knocking at your
door and you ought to be in.
The tall man with the high hat will
be coming down your way.
Get your savings out when you hear him shout "any bonds today?"
Any bonds today?

"Der Führer's Face" was another cartoon written to support the war effort and promote war bonds. The Disney short film depicts Donald Duck having a nightmare about being a Nazi working in an oppressive German factory; when he awakes, he is relieved to discover that he is in America. The film includes a song, also called "Der Führer's Face," which parodies a Nazi anthem. The song was recorded by Spike Jones and His City Slickers and released prior to the film.

During the Depression, songs increasingly dealt with the sorrowful side of the trying times. Even Tin Pan Alley songwriters, who continued to focus on songs that sold, issued songs such as "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" and "We Sure Got Hard Times Now." Harry Warren's "Remember My Forgotten Man," composed for the movie The Gold Diggers of 1933, is characteristic in its portrayal of a veteran of the First World War caught in the midst of the Depression:

  Remember my forgotten man?
You put a rifle in his hand
You sent him far away
You shouted hip-hooray
But look at him today.

Folk singers such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie emerged in this era as "cultural activists." Their songs expressed discontent with the status quo, a theme that would be revived and developed further after the war (see VAT, Unit 8). They performed many songs about the economic trials of the Depression, such as "Seven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat" (sometimes sung as "Five Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat"), which addresses the extreme fluctuations in prices that made it difficult to earn money and even more difficult to purchase expensive items. The song asks, "Flour up high and cotton down low / How in the world can we raise the dough?"

The regulatory reforms introduced in 1933 gave rise to a great expansion of union organizing, and many folk musicians wrote and sang music to recruit workers into unions and support union efforts. The pro-union "Which Side Are You On?" became very popular, and the significance of the labor-union songs of Joe Hill (see VAT, Unit 6) became evident. In 1936, Earl Robinson wrote a new "folk" song, "Joe Hill," which memorialized Hill and his work.

African Americans were hardest hit by the Depression. "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," written in 1922, struck a chord with listeners after it was recorded by Bessie Smith in 1929. Although written before the downturn, the song signaled the worsening situation for African Americans. In addition to experiencing higher rates of unemployment than whites, African Americans also faced discrimination in government assistance programs. Some of these programs became the subject of critical songs. Peetie Wheatstraw expressed such dissatisfaction in "Working on the Project," as did Casey Bill Weldon in "W. P. A. Blues," for example.

Some struggling whites directed their anger toward African American workers, whom some saw as occupying jobs that should belong to whites, and this anger contributed to lynching and violence. The lynching of large numbers of African Americans in the South dates to the era of Reconstruction, and in the 1910s the NAACP launched an organized anti-lynching campaign. Despite the campaign, federal anti-lynching legislation failed in 1922 and repeatedly throughout the 1930s. It was not until 2018 that federal legislation finally passed.

Despite the failure of the legislature, the NAACP-led anti-lynching campaign of the 1920s and 1930s was effective in shaping public opinion and contributed to the decline of lynching after 1930. Musicians played an important part in this effort. One of the most poignant songs of the era is Aber Meeropol's "Strange Fruit," which Billie Holiday recorded in 1939. It was the one of the first songs to directly address lynching:

  Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

For the farmers of the Great Plains, the Great Depression was intensified by the results of decades of over-farming combined with drought. The result was the Dust Bowl, called such because the earth became so dry that winds would whip up the dirt and grit into a cloud of dust that, in some cases, carried hundreds of miles to cities on the East Coast. As a result of the Dust Bowl, hundreds of thousands of farmers relocated to the West Coast, where they became known as "Okies" because many of them came from Oklahoma. Many songs capture the stories of these migrants. "Do Re Mi" and "Pastures of Plenty," for example, are two songs by Woody Guthrie about the Dust Bowl and the troubles of migrant workers traveling to California.

“Hobo songs” about drifters became popular. Songs such as "Big Rock Candy Mountain," "Hobo's Lullaby," "So Long It's Been Good to Know You," and "Wabash Cannonball" romanticized the vagrant lifestyle, chronicling the sentiments and adventures of men who became drifters for lack of consistent employment, and even some who were simply attracted to the transient life. The Dust Bowl not only spawned the composition of songs about hobos and other migrants but also inspired benefit concerts for the poor, such as the concert where Alan Lomax first encountered Guthrie.

In addition to triggering new migrations, the Great Depression also had an impact on already established migratory patterns. In the decades prior to the crash, the US government not only tolerated but also facilitated international migration across the southern border as a means of filling vacant jobs and propping up industries that needed workers (see VAT, Unit 6). But during the Depression immigration and migration was tempered to preserve jobs for US citizens, and the migrant workers that remained were often greeted with hostility.

It was in the corridos, the stylized ballads of the Mexican culture, that these changes were most often documented. The workers' harsh treatment, especially in the Southwest, and their migration further northward in search of better opportunities are described in these texts. In the midst of their misfortunes, including violence, humiliation, and frequent forced returns back across the border, Mexicans and Mexican Americans maintained pride in their culture, which is also reflected in their music. Lalo Guerrero's popular song, "Canción Mexicana" reflects the nostalgia for their home country that many Mexican Americans felt as they crossed the US border and moved northward.

The Great Migration of southerners to northern cities, which had begun in the late nineteenth century (see VAT, Unit 6), experienced its final large wave in the Great Depression, although it would continue into the postwar period (see VAT, Unit 8). By the 1920s, the number of African Americans that moved to the North in an attempt to escape the Jim Crow laws and find better opportunities for employment reached 75,000 each year. This last surge of the Great Migration was important in the dissemination and further development of African American musical styles. One new style was the Chicago blues, which originated when Delta bluesmen such as Son House and Muddy Waters left the South for the Windy City, where they "plugged in" and created an electric version of the blues.

African American migrants also brought gospel music from their southern churches to northern cities such as Chicago, as shown in the music and career of Thomas A. Dorsey. Born in Georgia in 1899, Dorsey moved in 1916 to Chicago, where he helped establish the first gospel choir in the city in 1931. As Dorsey facilitated the organization of gospel choirs in cities across the country, the gospel style spread. With the help of radio broadcasts, musicians such as Mahalia Jackson became increasingly popular. Jackson, whose career culminated in the 1950s, influenced many singers, and her legacy had a significant impact on the next generation of African American artists (see VAT, Unit 8).

As with the First World War, the subject matter of Tin Pan Alley's songs for the Second World War varied, reflecting the socio-cultural impact of the war ("Rosie the Riveter") or boosting morale by poking fun at the war ("Gee, But I Wanna Go Home") and encouraging recruitment.

Sentimental songs such as "I'll Be Seeing You (In All the Old Familiar Places)," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," and "White Christmas" were popular expressions of longing for home during the war. Some songs sentimentalized the end of the war, as in "When the Lights Go On Again" and "(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) the White Cliffs of Dover":

  There'll be bluebirds over the white
cliffs of Dover tomorrow,
Just you wait and see,
There'll be love and laughter and
peace ever after,
Tomorrow, when the world is free.

In composing patriotic songs, the same formula used for the First World War worked again for this war. "Coming In On a Wing and Prayer" and "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" were songs made popular by the mix of religion and patriotism, while "He Wears a Pair of Silver Wings" appealed to those who maintained a romantic view of soldiers. These are but a few examples of the formulaic Tin Pan Alley songs that became so popular during the war, exuding patriotism and inspiring more men to enlist.

In September of 1940 the Conscription Law was passed, and on October 16 President Roosevelt announced that more than 16 million men had registered for the draft. It was the president's assertion that he was against war while initializing plans to increase defense that led two members of the folk group the Almanac Singers, Millard Lampell and Lee Hayes, to write "The Ballad of October 16" (sometimes called "The Ballad of F. D. R."). The lyrics call attention to the contradiction between the president's words and actions:

 

It was on a Saturday night and the
moon was shining bright,
They passed the conscription bill
And the people they did say for
many miles away
Was the President and his boys on Capitol Hill.

Chorus:
Oh Franklin Roosevelt told the
people how he felt
We damn near believe what he said
He said "I hate war and so does Eleanor"
But we won't be safe til everybody's dead.

"The Ballad of October 16" was included on the Almanac Singers' first album, Songs for John Doe, an album of peace songs, in 1941. The rebellious nature of the group, whose initial members included Pete Seeger, Peter Hawes, and sometimes Woody Guthrie, prompted their record company to produce the album anonymously. The members of the group were dedicated to singing only for worthy causes and they rarely made money.

Country musicians contributed to the war effort with patriotic songs, such as Elton Britt's "There's a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere," a song whose popularity transcended the traditional country audience. It tells of a country boy who is unable to serve in the war due to a physical handicap but still dreams of being a war hero. Some songs, such as Carson Robison's "We're Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap," encouraged Americans to enlist. Other songs valorized soldiers and memorialized significant events in the war. Examples include Denver Darling's "Cowards Over Pearl Harbor" and Bob Wills's "White Cross on Okinawa." Songs such as Gene Autry's "At Mail Call Today" express the challenges soldiers faced. "At Mail Call Today" refers to the war as "worse than all hell" and portrays a soldier's despair upon learning that his girlfriend at home has left him for another man.

During the Second World War, the number of African Americans serving in the military swelled from under 4,000 to 1.2 million, but the military remained segregated. African Americans initiated a "Double V" campaign, for victory in both the war abroad and civil rights at home. Many jazz musicians and jazz-inspired popular songwriters played a significant part in this campaign by calling attention to African American participation in the war. Luther Henderson's "A Slip of the Lip" (1942), written for Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra, was an especially popular jazz song among whites as well as Blacks. It encouraged people to "be wise and trick those Nazi spies" by not revealing important military information. Further, "What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear" observes that the well-dressed Blacks of Harlem now wear fatigues, and Langston Hughes's "I'm Marching Down Freedom's Road" and Andy Razaf's "We Are Americans, Too" express the eager willingness of Black Americans to serve.

The US military remained segregated for the duration of the war. In 1948, after Congress failed to pass legislation addressing the controversy, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which indicated that "there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."