The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 19301945
Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development
Meet Me at Jim & Andy’s: Jazz Musicians and Their World
“It seems quite clear today in retrospect,” writes Gunther Schuller, who was at the time entering his teens, “that the Depression years and their aftermath were culturally and artistically the richest this nation has experienced in this century.” Probably many more people would today agree with this proposition than would dissent from it, but not many would be convinced by the author’s comment that this was so because
with financial and material acquisition virtually at a standstill, those lean years forced most Americans to turn to themselves—to rely upon and appreciate more their own creative imaginative instincts and impulses. Self-expression, whatever personal form it might take, became almost of necessity more important than commerce and career.
For the American arts and culture that in retrospect we regard as the glory of the Thirties were essentially commercial, if only because the huge apparatus of patronage and public subsidy, which has made so many writers and composers into dependents of the system of higher education in the late twentieth century, was not yet in place. Federal money undoubtedly became important in the Roosevelt years, but how much of the extraordinary achievement of that period would be lost if we imagined that everything financed, say, by the WPA, suddenly disappeared from the record? True, the work it sponsored was substantial, and the creative talents it helped to keep alive were numerous and impressive; but even in the field in which public patronage made its greatest impact, in the recording of folk culture and folk music (notably by Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress), its essential function was conservation and salvage rather than construction. Even so, if we would not have the work of Leadbelly but for Alan Lomax, and his father, John Lomax, who found him serving his prison sentence in Angola, Lousiana, we would still have the likes of Robert Johnson, who was recorded by a commercial company.
The major cultural achievements of the 1930s undoubtedly belong essentially to a box-office culture, if only because in the US there was no alternative to it. This applies not only to the arts for which Variety made itself the spokesman, then as now concerned with grosses rather than immortality, but to serious literature, to an extent that surprises observers accustomed to the self-contained literary milieus of the old world and of contemporary America. Moreover, whatever the state of the US economy, show business generally was anything but depressed, though like American society as a whole, it rested (and still rests) on an unusually deep foundation of marginal, insecure, expendable men, women, and styles. Since students of jazz history have been largely concerned with black performers, most of whom, by the nature of their skin, lived, as Bessie Smith’s Back Water Blues put it, in permanent danger of submersion, incidents like the temporary collapse of the jazz and race-record market in the early 1930s have attracted much attention. Nevertheless, by and large, as readers of Studs Terkel’s marvelous Hard Times …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.