By Ronald D. Cohen

University of North Carolina Press. 201 pages. $27.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-14696-288-13

Reviewed by Jim Burns

“Surprisingly, the Depression was also the scene of a great cultural spectacle against the unlikely backdrop of economic misery. The crisis kindled America’s social imagination, firing enormous interest in how ordinary people lived, how they suffered, interacted, took pleasure in one another, and endured”.

Ronald D. Cohen uses that quote from Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression (Norton, 2009) on the first page of his book, and it seems to me apt to use it in my review. Dickstein’s words really do point to what was almost an outpouring of literature, both poetry and prose, theatre, music, art, and much more. Even Hollywood was affected and some would suggest that the 1930s were years when it passed through one of its “golden ages”.

Cohen’s emphasis is on music, and particularly the area of it that is usually referred to as “folk music”. And it’s useful to cite his definition of what he includes when he talks about folk: “My story is rooted in a broad definition of folk music, including hillbilly (country) songs, rural blues, spirituals, cowboy songs, western swing, ethnic music and performers, singer-songwriters, labour songsters, and various others”.

It’s a wide range of music that Cohen covers, and some might raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of, for example, western swing, which had commercial potential. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were very popular in their day, and so was Spade Cooley. But there must have been many other bands playing a similar sort of music, often on a local basis, and presumably drawing on traditional sources for at least some of their basic material. With this in mind, it’s only fair to accept Cohen’s definition as a reasonable one.

Even if a singer or group achieved some wider recognition, their music usually had a basis in the local and what might loosely be termed the folk style. They often simply refined it to appeal to a wider audience. That was what happened with the Weavers, whose recordings of folk-like songs such as “Goodnight, Irene”, “Old Paint”, “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”, and “On Top of Old Smoky”, were popular around 1950, at least until they were blacklisted. They had previously, though not under the name of the Weavers, used material which indicated their left-wing inclinations, and it caught up with them when Senator McCarthy and others began their investigations of supposed subversives.

Cohen refers to “labour songsters”, and it needs to be noted that they are only a small part of what he deals with, though the sub-title of his book may tend to suggest otherwise. But the point he is making is that the research and recording that took place in the 1930s was sometimes done by enthusiasts who did have specific political links: “There were a few significant individuals, such as Charles and Pete Seeger and John and Alan Lomax, perhaps with connections to the Communist Party (CP) or its affiliates, but the large number of folklorists and musicians had no overt political agenda”.

And even the people he names did not aim to document only radical or protest songs, which were probably in relatively short supply, anyway. Songs were sometimes produced in response to a particular event, such as a strike, but were often virtually forgotten when the strike ended. Cohen mentions Ella May Wiggins, who wrote songs when she was one of the Gastonia mill strikers in North Carolina in 1929, but they were fairly basic compositions and used well-known melodies. They were never recorded and mostly not relevant outside their immediate context. A recent book, Martyr of Loray Mill by Kristina Horton (McFarland, 2015), prints a few of Ella May’s songs, one of the best-known of which was “Mill Mother’s Lament”, the music for which was taken from an earlier ballad, “Little Mary Phagan” : 

                                            We leave our homes in the morning,          
                                            We kiss our children goodbye,                                                                                                    
                                            While we slave for the bosses
                                            Our children scream and cry.

We don’t know how this sounded when performed by Ella May because, as noted earlier, she didn’t make any recordings, and she was, in fact, killed when vigilantes ambushed a truck taking her and other strikers to a union meeting.

How many working-class people, beyond the immediate audience that Ella May sang to, heard songs like this, or even read the texts when they were printed in left-wing magazines and newspapers, is debatable. It’s more than likely that the reading audience could have been restricted to a small number of working-class radicals, often involved with the CP, and middle-class intellectual supporters of the party in cities like New York and Chicago. Cohen is right to point out that  commercialised “protest” songs like “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” or “Remember My Forgotten Man,” powerfully performed at the conclusion of the Hollywood film, Gold Diggers of 1933, reached a bigger number of people and had a greater impact.

Roosevelt’s ascendancy to the role of President brought action to counter the effects of the Depression. Various organisations were set up to provide employment for writers, painters, and many others in the general field of the arts. But there doesn’t appear to have been any substantial support for the kind of music defined as folk by Cohen. That may have been because, on the surface, at least, much of it appeared to have commercial potential and its practitioners could therefore stand a chance of earning some money by playing it. It should have been obvious that many of those who sang folk songs for their own pleasure, or to entertain friends and neighbours, would never make a living doing so.

But their voices could be recorded, and the words of their songs transcribed. It would involve extensive travelling, and a dedication to the task in hand, to ensure that a documentary record was established before the often elderly performers died off and their songs were forgotten. The advent of radio in the 1920s, and the wide distribution of phonograph records, meant that even the most out-of-the-way communities could be in touch with the latest fashions in music. Alan Lomax said: “Commercial music via the radio, the movies and the slot phonograph is usurping the place of traditional and homemade music”. 

Alan Lomax, and his father John, were among the most dedicated of musicologists who took their frequently-cumbersome recording equipment into places like Kentucky and West Virginia, to track down versions of songs that had their origins in the British Isles and had survived due to the isolated nature of individuals and small communities in the Appalachians. They luckily had some backing from the Library of Congress, though they also faced opposition from conservative elements among both Republican and Southern Democrat politicians. The Lomaxes always had to tread carefully in terms of not appearing to favour songs with in-depth political content, or allowing their own political sympathies to become obvious. Alan Lomax, in particular, became a person of interest to the authorities, and Cohen says that the FBI eventually had a substantial file on him. 

It is a fact that the Communist Party did take an interest in certain aspects of “grassroots music,” especially if they seemed to have elements of “protest” about them. Black musician and singers could be seen as representing their race at a time when the party was anxious to make an impression among black communities. It’s unlikely that they ever did on any kind of mass scale, and performers like Josh White and Lead Belly probably appealed more to white left-wingers in New York and other major metropolitan areas. I would guess that blacks in general listened to blues singers who weren’t making obvious political points, or to bands like those led by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and others who attracted large audiences to the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.

The same opportunism could be seen at work in the party’s interest in white artists, though there seems to have been a degree of snobbishness evident, with the kind of spontaneous, and sometimes sentimental strike songs that someone like Ella May Wiggins wrote, looked down on. But then, most of the white working-class, when they listened to music, preferred country sounds, or, if they lived in large urban districts, the popular music they could hear on the radio or records. Swing was the music that accompanied the sit-in strikes of the 1930s.

In William Herrick’s Jumping the Line: The Adventures and Misadventures of an American Radical (University of Wisconsin Press, 1998) there’s a passage where he says that in all his time on the road in the thirties, he “not once encountered a wandering minstrel…..like Guthrie singing working class songs on the road. Once in a while you’d see a guy playing a uke or banjo on some street corner, his hat at his feet, hoping for a couple pennies. Buddy, can you spare a dime? Life is just a bowl of cherries. Three little words, I love you. Later, you might run into him at the Hooverville out of town”.

In pointing out that a broad range of popular music (swing, country, etc.) probably appealed more to most people than songs with a political bias (and especially those which promoted a political group like the Communist Party), I’m not attempting to play down the hard work and dedication of Alan Lomax and many others who went out to collect songs, and sometimes even to encourage people to write them in response to their situations. Cohen mentions Don West. Myles Horton, and Agnes “Sis” Cunningham as activists who could be found around the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, and the School for Workers at the University of Wisconsin.

It couldn’t have been easy to operate within a framework that included forces hostile to them, but they persevered and published collections of songs with titles like Songs of the People; Commonwealth Labour Songs; Songs for Southern Workers, March and Sing! and many others. As Cohen says: “The country was soon awash with labour songbooks, filled with songs gathered from a variety of sources, old and new”. And the Communist Party, by now embarked on its Popular Front programme, began to look favourably on folk music.

There may be some irony in the fact that, as rural communities increasingly turned to the musical fare offered by radio and records, folk music seemed to gain some popularity in cities, especially New York. There were reasons for this. New York had a substantial left-wing population inclined to be sympathetic towards songs that seemed to express the interests and involvements of workers, blacks, and other groups. Not all such songs were political, of course, but the fact that they ostensibly originated among the people they were about gave them credibility. Record companies and publishers were located in New York. There were clubs that featured folk music. And the Communist Party, important while it supported folk music, had its headquarters in the city.

There were other reasons, often relating to individual circumstances. Some activists, in particular those from Southern States, found that their situations were precarious in terms of personal safety. Sis Cunningham left Oklahoma when the heat was turned on local communists. Police raided the Progressive Book Store in Oklahoma City. A full account can be found in Books on Trial: Red Scare in the Heartland by Shirley A. Weigand and Wayne A. Weigand (University of Oklahoma Press, 2007).  Several people were arrested and charged with criminal conspiracy and convicted, though the judgements were later overturned. But the harassment had its effect in terms of persuading someone like Sis Cunningham that she would be safer in New York. Greenwich Village could offer sympathetic friends who didn’t think that being a communist was a crime.

It was still true that, in Cohen’s words: “While there was a progressive side to folk music promoting racial equality, labour unions, and economic democracy, it remained mostly connected with traditional, grassroots America along with somewhat of a patriotic tinge”. Even when songs composed by local activists expressed a dissatisfaction with conditions they rarely, if ever, questioned the basic system. Dave McCarn’s Cotton Mill Colic”, took a look at what it was like to be employed in the mills of North Carolina:

                                                     I’m gonna starve, everybody will                                                   
                                                     You can’t make a living in a cotton mill. 
                                                     Patches on my britches, holes in my hat
                                                     Ain’t had a shave since my wife got fat. 

The overall effect revolves around what was usually the main aim of most strikes – shorter hours and higher pay – and communists often quickly ran into trouble when they tried to introduce too much left-wing politics or anti-religious propaganda into a situation. Places like Gastonia and Marion in North Carolina had strong Methodist and Presbyterian traditions and didn’t take kindly to anyone speaking against them. Northerners were frequently looked on with suspicion. 

It’s Cohen’s contention that, whatever else was achieved, the activities of people like Alan Lomax laid the basis for what came later: “The stage was now set for the blossoming folk revival of the 1950s and after, spearheaded and symbolised by the movers and shakers of the Depression years: Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, John and Alan Lomax, Josh White, Lead Belly, and so many others”. These are names we remember, but what happened to those like Dave McCarn, who made a few records – “social protest songs, with a comical twist” – and then dropped out of sight? Cohen says that “he returned to North Carolina, where he worked in a variety of industrial jobs and ended up as a radio and TV repairman until his death in 1964 at the age of fifty-nine, having lived a hard life”. You can hear his recording of “Cotton Mill Colic” on a collection of protest songs released in the UK on Not Now NOT2CD453.

There must have been others like him, including many who never got the opportunity to record, and who had little circulation outside their home towns. They perhaps knocked out some words for a picket line or union meeting, invariably setting them to well-known tunes, as the Wobblies did many years earlier, and that was it. When the strike was over they went back to work, unless they were blacklisted and had to go elsewhere for employment. And they were probably soon forgotten.    

Depression Folk is a fascinating book and packs a great deal of information into its briskly-written pages. It doesn’t have a bibliography, but there are extensive notes which provide details of many relevant books. I know that it’s always possible to suggest other books that might be useful to anyone looking further into this subject, but two seem to me worth drawing attention to. Robert Cantwell’s When We Were Good: The Folk Revival (Harvard University Press, 1996) and Robbie Lieberman’s “My Song is My Weapon”: People’s Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930-50 (University of Illinois Press, 1989) are of interest.