Popular Music of the 1930s: The Great Escape


They didn't call it the Great Depression for nothing. America was in a huge down-slide in the 1930s: the stock market, the Dust Bowl, bread lines, looming war. Bad news everywhere. Where to find a place to smile? Easy – the movies, Broadway, dance halls and radio. In this nostalgic Active Minds program, we'll relive those upbeat hit tunes and understand their importance. “Happy Days are Here Again,” “Get Happy,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street” – popular songs that once again remind us of music's healing powers.


Art reflects life, often with brutal honesty. But it also seeks to improve life – to give us hope when things are bad, to show a path toward self-betterment in rough times. Look no further than the direction of entertainment during one of America's darkest periods: the Depression. Even the name given that era tells us that things were really grim. Bread lines, millions out of work, suicides after the Stock Market crash, farms ruined by the Dust Bowl, the growing cloud of war hovering over Europe. And yet, there was sunshine to be found. The movies, battling a drop in attendance, embraced positive themes with a host of feel-good stories such as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The cinema also served up cheery musicals with nonsense plots, just as Broadway presented plenty of high-energy revues featuring happy singing, dancing and silly vaudevillian acts. Radio had become a nationwide medium in the late '20s, and was well-established in the decade of the Depression, sending out music, comedy and dramatic serials to millions of Americans. It's easy to dismiss such superficial escapism, but there was clearly a need for some sort of relief from the nationwide spread of unemployment and agricultural failures. Significantly, there was no single superstar ruling the airwaves, the dance halls,  Broadway stages or movie theaters. In fact, the country produced an amazing array of talent – and many of those artists remain household names decades later. A large number of those legendary stars emerged from the vaudeville stage in the 'teens and '20s. Some became leading figures in the so-called Golden Age of Broadway: the Gershwins, Ethel Merman, Al Jolson and numerous others. The Great White Way glowed with hit musicals that delivered great songs and fabulous singers. During the '30s, recordings introduced a hugely improved sound (including experimentations in stereo reproduction!). The film industry, entering its own Golden Age, also instituted upgrades, such as the development of three-color film (Technicolor), and improved sound – remember, motion pictures started talking just a few years earlier. These advances did more than simply add to the movie experience – they became an integral element as well. Consider the switch to color in “The Wizard of Oz,” when Dorothy opens a door and discovers a brilliant new world, leaving black-and-white Kansas behind. There were memorable hits songs as the decade began: “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and what served as an Anthem of Despair, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” But with the nomination and election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, America embraced the anthem of the Democratic Party that signaled the prospect of a change for the better: “Happy Days Are Here Again.” That song and FDR seemed to become intertwined, as the road toward recovery began, aided in no small part by those upbeat songs and movies of the era (and, some have suggested, aided by the country's later entry into World War II). It was a time of contrasts. Ted Lewis sported an off-kilter top hat and greeted his audiences with “Is everybody happy?!” No, a lot of folks were very unhappy and barely getting by – but thanks to great entertainers, they were given a ray of hope.

Exploration Questions

  • What was the Hays Code, and how did it impact movie-making?
  • Why did America celebrate like crazy on Dec. 5, 1933?
  • What was Wingy Manone's “Tar Paper Stomp” and why is it important?

Reflective Questions

  • Who were/are your favorite stars of the '30s in music and movies?
  • If you were to write a song for today's troubled times, what might it be?
  • In 1939, “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind” were released. Which do you think is greater?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Lindop, Edmund. America in the 1930s (decades of Twentieth-Century America). Twenty-First Century Books. 2009. 144 pages. Brightly illustrated and cleanly organized, this book covers all aspects of that tumultuous period in our history, with chapters devoted to the arts and popular music, as well as coverage of the monumental changes in politics, the economy and social structure.
    Click here to order