The Great Depression

The Cradle Will Rock Poster
Poster for New Line Theatre performance, St. Louis, 2001

Go stand on someone's neck while you take him
Cut into somebody's throat as you put
For every dream and scheme, depending on whether
All through the storm
You've kept it warm
That nickel under your foot

From "Nickel Under the Foot" by Marc Blitzstein

The decade that gave birth to Abel Meeropol's powerful anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit" was an explosive time for the American protest song, as the Depression inspired artists to decry the harsh realities around them. In Harlem and elsewhere, the African American tradition had changed music forever, and jazz now reigned supreme in its third decade. With the influence of jazz on popular music, the distinct African American and European American protest song traditions began to come together for the first time in songs like "Strange Fruit."

Other musical forms also carried voices of protest. In New York City, Marc Blitzstein's opera/musical The Cradle Will Rock was the only Broadway musical closed down for fear of social unrest. The pro-union musical, set in Steeltown, U.S.A, focuses on the themes of unionism, corruption and prostitution. "Nickel Under the Foot," for example, is a song about a prostitute working to make ends meet.

Beyond New York, young Woody Guthrie was working his way across an American countryside deeply scarred by the Depression, singing at workers' meetings and writing the songs that would make up the 1940 Dust Bowl Ballads, a breakthrough album of protest songs. In Kentucky, Aunt Molly Jackson was singing songs with striking coal miners, writing an important chapter in the history of protest music. Amidst this prolific production of protest songs attacking racism, classism and the economy, one song soared to number one on the music charts: Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby's, "Brother Can You Spare A Dime?" by E. Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney.

Read the lyrics to"Brother Can You Spare A Dime?"

Public lynching of Blacks in the South
Public lynching, 1930
Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
and the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

From "Strange Fruit"
by Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol)

All lyrics are provided for informational and educational purposes only.
Lyrics are subject to all U.S. copyright laws and remain property of their respective owners.

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