Prohibition Blues – Clayton McMichen

Prohibition is the period from 1919 to 1933, during which the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol for consumption was banned as mandated in the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The "Volstead Act", the popular name for the National Prohibition Act, passed through Congress over President Woodrow Wilson's veto on October 28, 1919 and prohibited the sale of alcohol, but it did little to enforce the law. The illegal production and distribution of liquor, or bootlegging, became rampant, and the federal government did not have the means or desire to enforce every border, lake, river, and speakeasy in America. In fact, by 1925 in New York City alone there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs.

During Prohibition, large numbers of people began making their own alcoholic beverages at home. The biggest problem in homemade liquor was toxic lead -- it would get into the bootleg mash if fermentation took place in a ceramic vessel such as an old bathtub with a lead glaze. But most often it was introduced when old car radiators were used as condensers in distilling. Radiators in those days were constructed with lead solder. Another toxin used by unscrupulous bootleggers was methanol or wood alcohol. A small amount of methanol added to moonshine with 25% alcohol could taste like 50% alcohol but if too much was added it often lead to blindness or death.

Prohibition became increasingly unpopular during the Great Depression, especially in large cities. On March 23, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Cullen-Harrison Act, allowing the manufacture and sale of certain kinds of alcoholic beverages and Prohibition was over.

Brother Can You Spare a Dime
– E.Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney

No song explains the Great Depression as well as "Brother Can You Spare a Dime."  The narrator of the song is bewildered at having to beg for a dime after he's contributed so much to the building of the country and fighting in its wars.  The song was inspired by the plight of an "army" of unemployed World War I veterans who came to Washington D.C. in the summer of 1932 to lobby for the bonus Congress had promised them. They were led by an unlikely hero from Portland Oregon named Walter Waters, who returned from the trenches of WWI suffering from what we now would call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was perplexed at his inability to "take up the threads of my life where I had dropped them some three years before" and as an unemployed cannery worker found himself standing up and speaking in a meeting of veterans. The veterans were discussing sending petitions to Washington asking that the Bonus Bill be approved and monies owed the veterans be paid. Waters told the veterans that "When big business wants action on vital legislation, it does not content itself with merely sending letters; it sends lobbyists who insist that their interests be recognized." He suggested the veterans do the same. So he and about 150 other unemployed veterans from Portland hopped freight trains and headed to Washington D.C. Eventually, more than 40,000 vets and their families made their way to the makeshift camps of the "Bonus Army."  But President Hoover and the Congress had no intention of paying the veterans and instead sent the U.S. Army, under General MacArthur, to force the veterans out, burn their camps and move them out of Washington. Hoover refused to even meet with Walter Waters but his routing of war veterans by force from their own capitol was hugely unpopular to the majority of Americans and contributed to Hoover's defeat in November. The Bonus Bill was eventually passed during the Roosevelt administration as well as the G.I. Bill of Rights. Many of the "Bonus Army" unemployed veterans found employment in the C.C.C. and other New Deal work programs.

No Depression – Carter Family

This Appalachian song written by A.P. Carter in 1936 is about the effects of the Great Depression and offers the hope of a better life in Heaven once you've left "this world of toil and trouble."  The song uses Biblical imagery to portray the dark hopelessness of life in the Depression and reflects the fears of many religious people in the South that the hard times signaled the foretold end of the world.

All in Down and Out Blues – Uncle Dave Macon

Speaking directly to the facts of life, Uncle Dave Macon's song "All in Down and Out Blues" tells his story with humor, a bit of anger, but with stoic acceptance of his circumstances. The song is one of the hillbilly songs written which spoke of the effects of the Great Depression. It is almost a catalog of the era's calamities; losses on Wall Street, gambling losses, trying to escape reality through alcohol (although, as he says, bootleg liquor was too expensive); problems with the police and jail because he couldn't make bail. Lack of money is the thread that runs through the song and is the cause of all the bad luck. "It's a hard time, when you're down and out."

Breadline Blues – Slim Smith

The Breadline Blues was written in 1931 as a campaign song urging people to vote for Franklin Roosevelt. The presidential election of 1932 took place as the effects of the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression were being felt intensely across the country. President Herbert Hoover's popularity was falling as voters felt he was unable to reverse the economic collapse, or deal with prohibition. Franklin D. Roosevelt used what he called Hoover's failure to deal with these problems as a platform for his own election, promising reform in his policy called the New Deal. Hoover was widely blamed for the Great Depression; for more than two years, Hoover had been issuing statements that the worst was over, only to have the economy make further downturns. Along with the anti-sentiment from the deaths of veterans in the Bonus Army incident his chances of a second term were slim to none. Roosevelt and the Democratic ticket won a sweeping victory over Hoover and the Republicans, extending their control over the U.S. House and gaining control of the U.S. Senate. Twelve years of Republican leadership came to an end, and 20 consecutive years of Democratic control of the White House would follow the historic victory.

The Rich Man and the Poor Man – Bob Miller

One of the causes of the Great Depression was the wide disparity between the rich and the poor. In 1929 the richest 0.1% controlled more than 42% of the wealth. Three-fourths of U.S. families earned less than $ 2,500 a year while the top 1% saw their incomes rise 75% during the 1920s. However, Bob Miller's song "The Rich Man and the Poor Man" does not just deal with the unfairness of the unequal distribution of wealth, but illustrates how that fact corrupts the system of justice which should be blind to power, wealth and privilege.

White House Blues  

This 1932 parody of a song of the same name by Charlie Poole conveys satisfaction at Franklin D. Roosevelt's victory of Herbert Hoover in the 1932 election (472 electoral votes for FDR to 59 for Hoover) and to the hopes of the common man for an improvement in their situations.

Hard Travelin’ – Woody Guthrie

"Hard Travelin'," by Woody Guthrie, conveys the life of migratory and itinerant workers during the Depression. Jobs were few and people were forced to travel long distances between industrial centers searching for work or following the agricultural jobs from state to state. Many thousands of people became migratory workers, hitchhiking, hopping freight trains, trying to get to someplace, anyplace, that had a job for them. Many independent farmers lost their farms when banks came to collect on their notes, while tenant farmers were turned out when economic pressure was brought to bear on large landholders. The attempts of these displaced workers to find work were frustrated due to the high demand for jobs and the highest unemployment rate in history.

Goin’ Down This Road Feelin’ Bad – Woody Guthrie

"Goin' Down This Road Feelin' Bad" (also known as "Lonesome Road Blues") has been sung for well over a hundred years. In the 1930's, the migrants from the southwestern plains (the "Dust Bowl") made the song nearly the theme song of the "Okie" migration.  When the famous director, John Ford, was making the movie "The Grapes of Wrath" he wanted a song for the scene where the Joad family stops for the night in a travel camp on their way to California. He asked the character extras he recruited (who were from states like Oklahoma and Arkansas) to sing something known to every "Okie, Arkie or Mizoo" and without hesitation they began singing "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad."  Woody Guthrie recorded the song more than once and in different versions, including one on his "Dust Bowl Ballads" LP called "Blowin' Down this Old Dusty Road."  It is a song that not only speaks to the hardships and misfortunes of an entire population but rings a note of both defiance and hope.

Big Rock Candy Mountain – Harry “Mac” McClintock

"Big Rock Candy Mountain" is a song about a hobo's vision of utopia. In the song the things that homeless men fear most are rendered harmless (the bulldogs have rubber teeth, the police have wooden legs and jail bars are made of tin) and the things that they lack are plentiful and easy to come by (handouts grow on bushes, farmers' trees are full of fruit, hens lay softboiled eggs, cigarettes grow on trees and alcohol trickles down the rocks). Behind the satire and irony hides the bitter truth of the real lives of homeless and unemployed migrant workers. 

Down on Penny’s Farm – the Bently Boys

"Down on Penny's Farm" is a song about "sharecropping" for a man named George Penny. Sharecropping was a system of farming where a landowner would allow a "tenant" to farm his land in exchange for a "share" (often 50% or more) of the crop. Many small land-owning farmers lost their land during the Depression when they could not pay their mortgages. Some of these displaced people became sharecroppers or hired hands on the very land they once owned. Often the land owner marketed the crop and kept all accounts. He charged interest on cash advances, often quite high interest. He also commonly operated a store where the "croppers" had to make their purchases. The normal arrangement was that the cropper got half the proceeds from the harvest but after the landowner deducted cash advances, with the high interest and sometimes dishonest accounting, the cropper often found himself in debt or with very little for his year’s labor. During the Depression of the 1930s, many landowners evicted their tenants and contracted the land to large "factory farms" who bulldozed ("tractored") down the sharecroppers' homes as happened to the Joad family in "The Grapes of Wrath."

Pretty Boy Floyd – Woody Guthrie

Pretty Boy Floyd is a partially fictionalized bio-song about a bankrobber whose real name was Charles Arthur Floyd.  His parents had a small farm, they were dirt-poor. His father spent most of his time trying to stay one step ahead of foreclosure. Droughts, plagues and dust storms brought farm production down to a crawl. In an attempt to help keep themselves fed the family became involved in the bootlegging business. After several petty robberies, Floyd served served five years in prison for a payroll robbery in 1925 in St. Louis, Missouri and when paroled, vowed that he would never see the inside of another prison. He committed a series of bank robberies over the next several years; and earned the nickname "Pretty Boy" when the payroll master at one robbery described him as "a mere boy — a pretty boy with apple cheeks." Like his contemporary Baby Face Nelson, Floyd hated his nickname.

He was a folk hero to the people of Oklahoma who perceived him as a "Sagebrush Robin Hood", stealing from the rich banks to help the poor eat by buying them groceries and tearing up their mortgages during the robberies.  He was a gentleman even in his crimes, always well groomed, immaculately dressed and courteous to his victims.  Legend has it that Pretty Boy Floyd found it easy to hide among the poor farmers and sharecroppers who had little affection for the law or the banks as both were held responsible for so many people losing their farms.

Eventually, Pretty Boy Floyd’s crimes placed him on the FBI’s Most Wanted list as Public Enemy #1 and drew the attention of agent, Melvin Purvis, who eventually caught up with him in East Liverpool, Ohio on October 22, 1934 and, according to some eye-witness accounts, after Floyd was wounded and disarmed, Purvis had him executed.

Floyd's funeral in Sallisaw, Oklahoma was attended by between 20,000 and 40,000 people and remains the largest funeral in Oklahoma history.

Do Re Mi – Woody Guthrie

"Do Re Mi" was written by Woody Guthrie and deals with the experiences and reception of Dust Bowl migrants when they arrived in California. The song takes the form of a warning to would-be migrants to stay where they are (places of origin mentioned include Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia and Tennessee) but is also a protest song that chides the State of California for its treatment of those who’ve fallen on hard times.

Although the weather was comparatively balmy and farmers' fields were bountiful with produce, Californians also felt the effects of the Depression. Local and state infrastructures were already overburdened, and the steady stream of newly arriving migrants was more than many Californians could bear. For those unfortunate people who had survived the droughts, the dust storms and being evicted from their farms by the banks they then found themselves turned away at the California border simply for not having enough money. In early 1936, the Los Angeles Police Department sent 150 police officers to points along the Arizona border with orders to stop anyone without sufficient funds to support themselves until the ACLU filed suit in Federal Court. In addition, laws were passed in California making it a crime to transport an “indigent person” into the state. These laws were later declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court declaring “indigence alone cannot be used by a state to limit a person’s rights as a citizen.”

Pastures of Plenty – Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie wrote "Pastures of Plenty" about the lives of migrant agricultural workers, as described in John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath." Guthrie wrote this after the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) hired him for a 30-day period to write songs about their projects, including the "Grand Coulee Dam." Guthrie poetically tells the story and expands our understanding of the hard work and the inherent dignity of these forgotten workers.