Pop Culture during the Great Depression: Radio, Movies, Big Bands and Swing Music

Some 104 million records were sold in the United States in 1927 along with 987,000 record players. When the economy crashed, the recording industry crashed with it. Only six million records were sold in 1932, a 95 percent drop in sales. People simply had no money for luxuries like records. On the other hand, radio was becoming increasingly popular, and music and other entertainment could be heard without purchasing records. By the early 1930s, 90 percent of Americans owned at least one radio. Music was also available on the new “juke box,” which was “a commercial record player that blared out the latest popular songs in luncheonettes, diners, drugstores, ice-cream parlors, bars and cabarets all over the nation.” (Turner, p. 394.) Radio—just like movies—proved to be a great escape for the millions of Americans then suffering the ravages of the Depression.

The standard radio format consisted of music, news, and entertainment programs, with paid advertisements liberally sprinkled in between. Some programs featured specific storylines: dramas, comedies, soap operas, westerns, and romances. Others were variety shows, featuring musical performances and comedy skits. The latest popular songs and rhythms were broadcast live from hotel ballrooms, where the era’s top Big Bands were performing.

National radio networks, National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), emerged and brought professional programming into American homes. Among the most popular radio comedy shows   were    “Amos ‘n’ Andy” where white comedians Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll adapted the minstrel “blackface” tradition to invent a world of stereotyped coloreds for their millions of listeners. Abbott and Costello were also a very popular radio comedy duo.

Radio also developed the soap opera format, which was aimed mainly at women working in the home. These serials alone constituted 60 percent of all daytime shows by 1940. They revolved around strong, warm female characters who provided advice and strength to weak, indecisive friends and relatives. “Ma Perkins,” “The Romance of Helen Trent” and “Clara Lou and Em” were popular radio “soaps.” Weekly “thrillers”, such as “Inner Sanctum” and “The Shadow” emphasized crime and suspense with great use of music and sound effects to sharpen their impact, also dominated the evening airwaves. Other popular action (adventure) serials were “Little Orphan Annie,” “Dick Tracy,” “Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy,” “Flash Gordon,” “The Lone Ranger” and “Buck Rogers.” (TFC, Vol. 4, pp. 75-94.)

Perhaps the most famous radio broadcast of the 1930s was Orson Wells’ The Mercury Theatre on the Air’s broadcast of “War of the Worlds,” a dramatic simulation of a Martian invasion of New Jersey and around the country on Halloween Eve. Listeners fled, clogged phone lines seeking information, prayed, went into shock, and contemplated suicide rather than die at the Martians’ hands. In Trenton, New Jersey, the broadcast crippled city communications as two thousand callers phoned the police department in two hours. (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~1930s/RADIO/WOTW/frames.html)

Sports broadcasts, primarily of major league baseball and college football, had listeners glued to their radios. Musical shows, such as “Your Hit Parade,” which played the pop songs of the day, big band shows featuring the popular swing music and classical/symphonic music presentations like “Kraft Music Hall,” “NBC Symphony Orchestra” and “The General Electric Concert” were an important part of radio programming.

Also, radio news arrived in the 1930s. Network news and commentary shows multiplied rapidly over the decade. Celebrity radio journalists included Walter Winchell, Edward R. Murrow, Hans von Keltenborn, and Walter Lippman. Reporter Charlie Nielsen’s of Chicago radio station WLS dramatic description of the explosion of the Hindenburg airship at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937, was heard around the country. (https://youtu.be/0Ad9tholMEM)

Big bands played a form of jazz music in the 1920s and moved on to swing music as it developed out of jazz in the mid-30s. The beginning of the Swing Era conventionally dates from the Benny Goodman Band’s gig at the Palomar Ballroom in August 1935. (Denning, p. 329.) A big band had 12 to 25 instruments in a musical ensemble of saxophones, trumpets, trombones, rhythm section, and singers known as vocalists. Big bands sometimes were referred to as dance bands, society bands, stage bands, jazz bands, jazz orchestras or jazz ensembles. However, rather than being improvised spontaneously like jazz, big band music was arranged in advance on sheet music.

Danceable swing was the dominant form of American popular music from 1935 to 1945. Popular dances in the 1930s included the Big Apple, the Little Peach, the Shag, the Susy Q and the Jitterbug. The Jitterbug was an immensely popular form of dancing to big band swing music. This fast-paced style of dance, also known as the Lindy Hop, Jive, and East Coast Swing, swept the nation. Cab Calloway was a popular entertainer associated with the Jitterbug. The word jitterbug had been a slang term for an alcoholic who might have suffered the “jitters” or delirium tremens while withdrawing. The jitterbug image of frenzied movements became associated with swing dancers.

The big bands were known by their band leaders, who led the band with a particular musical instrument identified with the leader. Usually, big bands featured solo singers (male or female) and often had solo instrumentalists. The female soloists were known as “canaries.” They were “…beautifully coiffed and made up, costumed in an elegant gown, [and] performed in clubs, lounges and…concert halls.” (Women & Music, Hoke, p. 259.) The men singers were called “crooners.” (Young, Music in the Great Depression, p. 5.) Each band had a signature song. The most popular big bands of the swing era were:

  • The Benny Goodman Orchestra

Goodman, who played the clarinet, was known as “The King of Swing.” Martha Tilton was Goodman’s vocalist, and Gene Krupa was the featured drummer. Other featured performers were Harry James, and Lionel Hampton. Sing Sing Sing, (https://youtu.be/6_YG9XBX04Y) by Louis Prima and Benny Goodman, featuring Gene Krupa on the drums, was the band’s signature song. (http://www.biography.com/people/benny-goodman-9315335)

  • Artie Shaw’s Band

Shaw was the “King of the Clarinet” and he had a rivalry with Goodman since they both played the same instrument. Shaw’s band was one of the first integrated bands, featuring singer Billie Holliday. He scored his first big success in 1938 with his version of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine. (https://youtu.be/zNcPnEc99UE) (http://www.biography.com/people/artie-shaw-9480862.)

  • The Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra

Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey headed the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, but, later they went on the lead their own individual bands. Each of the bands was very popular in their own right. Tommy Dorsey was a trombonist, while Jimmy played the clarinet and alto sax. Tommy’s nickname was “The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing.” His signature song was “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You. (https://youtu.be/cKQc-cbAvdQ) (http://www.biography.com/people/tommy-dorsey-9277676 ) Jimmy Dorsey’s band featured two extremely popular singers, Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell. The band had hits with “Amapola,” “Tangerine,” and “So Rare. (https://youtu.be/FMwRwt_Cqpc) (http://www.biography.com/people/jimmy-dorsey-9542033)

  • Glenn Miller

Miller led his orchestra while plying the slide trombone. With their distinctive swing jazz style, Miller and his orchestra became the country’s top dance band. Marion Hutton was the band’s vocalist. One of the most famous songs from the entire Swing Era was Miller’s “In the Mood. (https://youtu.be/_CI-0E_jses) Other swing classics identified with Miller are “Moonlight Serenade,(composed and arranged by Miller himself); “Little Brown Jug,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “A String of Pearls,” “Serenade in Blue,and “Chattanooga Choo Choo. In 1942, Miller enlisted in the U.S. Army and was assigned to lead the Army/Air Force Band. He boosted the morale of the troops with his many popular songs. Miller and his band followed the D-Day invaders into France the day after the invasion. The Band reportedly played 89 separate shows in Europe during August 1944. (Pieslak, Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War, p. 47.) Miller died on December 15, 1944, mysteriously disappearing on a flight from England to Paris, France. (http://www.biography.com/people/glenn-miller-37990)

  • Count Basie’s Orchestra

This big band was led by William James “Count” Basie, who was a jazz pianist, organist, bandleader, and composer. Basie’s signature theme song was “One O’clock Jump, (https://youtu.be/08jyOwx96Ig) and Joe Williams was the singer most often associated with the band. (http://www.biography.com/people/count-basie-9201255)

  • Harry James

James was one of the great trumpet players of the Big Band Era. His band was called the Music Makers. His orchestra succeeded Glenn Miller‘s on a program sponsored by Chesterfield cigarettes in 1942, when Miller disbanded his orchestra to enter the Army. His featured vocalist was Helen Forrest. His version of You Made Me Love You (https://youtu.be/bMaCoxOGXPM) was a big hit and a favorite of many through the war years. James was a great discoverer of talent, finding Frank Sinatra working as a waiter in a New Jersey restaurant and giving him a job singing in his band. James also gave Dick Haymes, Kitty Kallen, and Connie Haines their first real break. (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0416548/bio)

  • Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington

Ellington came to fame in 1927 when he and his band started at the Cotton Club in Harlem where they remained (aside from occasional tours) until 1932. Ellington created one of the most distinctive ensemble sounds in Western music and continued to play what he called “American Music” until shortly before his death in 1974. ( http://www.notablebiographies.com/Du-Fi/Ellington-Duke.html#ixzz3aogxVtUo) Ellington christened swing with his 1932 hit record, “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing, which was sung by Ivie Anderson, a favorite female vocalist of Duke’s band. (https://youtu.be/YbwDRdRXP3k) Other famous Ellington songs included: “Concerto for Cootie,” “Cotton Tail,” “Ko-Ko,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Solitude,” “Satin Doll,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” Mood Indigo,and “Take the A Train.

  • Jimmie Lunceford

Lunceford and his band achieved a national reputation as one of the top black swing bands. His band differed from many of the other big bands of the 1930s and 1940s in that Lunceford’s group was noted less for its soloists than for its ensemble work. Though not well known as a musician, Jimmie Lunceford was trained on several instruments and was even featured on flute in “Liza. In the 1930s, his orchestra was considered the equal of Duke Ellington‘s, or Count Basie‘s groups. In 1934, the band began a high profile engagement at the famed Cotton Club in Harlem. “My Blue Heaven” is associated with Lunceford. (https://youtu.be/ugAGZglLlpQ) (http://www.swingmusic.net/Big_Band_Music_Biography_Jimmie_Lunceford.html)

The decade of the 1930s produced some of the finest songwriters of the twentieth century. It was the era of “The Great American Songbook,” songs that have endured in popularity over the passing decades, some of which are:

In 1940, as he hitched his way from Pampa, Texas to New York, Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land. (https://youtu.be/wxiMrvDbq3s) This song is reputed to have been written as a retort to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Guthrie’s biographer, Joe Klein, tells the story:

The trip wasn’t very pleasant, as Woody had to hitch rides in the wind and snow. Worse than the weather, though, was the fact that ‘God Bless America,’ Irving Berlin’s patriotic pop tune, seemed to be everywhere that winter. He had heard it in Pampa, in Konawa, on car radios, in diners, and it seemed that every time he stopped in a roadhouse for a shot of warm-up whiskey some maudlin joker would plunk a nickel in a jukebox and play it just for spite…. `God Bless America,’ indeed-it was just another of those songs that told people not to worry, that God was in the driver’s seat. Some sort of response obviously was called for and, as he hitched north and east through Appalachia’s foggy ghost lands, a string of words began to take shape in Woody’s mind.

(Klein, pp 140-41.)

This land is your land, this land is my land
From the California to the New York island
From the Redwood Forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
And saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me

I roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me

There was a big ol’ sign there
That tried to stop me
Sign was painted, said “Private Property”
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing
God blessed America for me.

When the sun comes shining, then I was strolling
In the wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting
This land was made for you and me

This land is your land and this land is my land
From the California to the New York island
From the Redwood Forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

When the sun comes shining, then I was strolling
In wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling
The voice come chanting as the fog was lifting
This land was made for you and me

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
if God blessed America for me.

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

There are dozens of verses to the song many with a populist bent that do not usually get sung or recorded because they were thought to be un-American. In one stanza, the high wall and private property sign keep people out of a part of their country which is supposed to belong to all. Some commentators suggest this could symbolize the injustices of capitalism. In another stanza, interpreters say the line about the relief office symbolizes the inefficiency of capitalism in its failure to support the people in the most fundamental way. That the line is in the shadow of the steeple on a bright sunny morning suggests, perhaps, that the church is also a failed and unjust institution. Other analysts believe it is possible to read these stanzas as condemning injustice and inefficiency in general, and bemoaning poverty and hard times in general, without blaming them on capitalism.

A good summary of the Depression and the New Deal to end this section is “The Great Depression/New Deal Song, sung by One Republic. (https://youtu.be/imqJEJAfFvo)

Back in gold ole’ 1933
we faced Depression here in our country
FDR made “new deals” to help us out
so we could conquer unemployment and drought

I see the cause, of the Great Depression
did anyone forget to mention
the stock market crash in ‘29,
lost 40 billion, down the line

and oh, the bank failures
the deposits were uninsured
people lost their savings,
and stopped all kinds of purchasing

that led to reduction in the workforce,
people losing jobs
and the high tax on all imported goods
gave us money probs debts piled up, money was lost,
and we slipped into Depression, and Hoover didn’t really help the cause


Yo, The Depression impacted the humans
homelessness gave us competition
for work, the unemployed couldn’t feed their family or themselves
so they lived in the dirt

In Hoovervilles, cause it’s Hoover’s fault
living in shacks causes it’s Hoover’s fault
Starvation and illness swept the land
Cuz no one could eat, and its Hoover’s fault

Sure, for one he expanded the government
but he didn’t wanna pay for the veterans
to avoided deficit spending
good thing the election was coming

We had a guy to help the poor
FDR tried to settle the score
He made a new deal, and lots of laws
took our government and expanded the cause

Oh, he made the CCC
which made more jobs for men like me
and that helped out the economy
he also made protection for kids and elderly

Cuz FDR provided jobs and unions,
and made a safety net for the countries back
with social security and positivity,
but of course there was still negative impact

The government’s involvement shot through the roof,
needy citizen motivation went poof!
with all these deals and all these acts
the deficit spending kick our butt


The New Deal lead to big government
political culture was changed for the land
With insured bank deposits by the FDIC
and we bought power for government dams

The New Deal lead to big government
political culture was changed for the land
With fraud protection by the SEC
And retirement pay from social security

Back in gold ole’ 1933
we faced depression here in our country
FDR made “new deals” to help us out
so we could conquer unemployment and drought (Repeat)