In the 1930’s the U.S. was in the throws of the Great Depression. People were lined up waiting for bread and soup and some were selling apples just to survive. Many who had enjoyed fortunes during the roaring twenties found themselves with nothing. Many businesses had to close because people could no longer afford their services. In the midst of this calamity, however, many musicians enjoyed huge popularity and success. One of these musicians was Thomas “Fats” Waller. Waller came to prominence in the ‘20s with his group “Fats Waller and His Rhythm” performing and recording popular tunes of the day along with many of his own compositions, like Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Honeysuckle Rose. He’s one of my personal favorites from that period and his charming style and knack for entertaining remain unmatched. And let's not forget that little wonder Shirley Temple who gave joy to so many with her song and dance numbers in many movies like Bright Eyes through the decade. Also, in spite of the Depression, Broadway musicals were booming, with new shows coming out all the time. Cole Porter’s Anything Goes starring Ethel Merman is a great example of a show that lifted spirits and helped people get through a trying time. Songwriters like Rogers and Hart were busy composing music and lyrics for their many shows like Babes in Arms. Music also played a role in film soundtracks through the decade such as 42nd Street which featured lively dance numbers and great singers and who could forget The Wizard of Oz and its wonderful songs. Music, both on the radio and in musicals and movies, helped people forget their troubles if only for a short time. It was the soothing balm providing much-needed relief from the strains of poverty and uncertainty brought on by the Great Depression.
Waiting for soup, from Wikipedia's article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Depression
During the years the U.S. was involved with World War II (1941 - 1945), music played a crucial role in entertaining troops overseas and bringing people together at home. The war years are often associated with the “big band” sound, most notably Glenn Miller and his orchestra, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and other musicians who were incredibly popular like clarinetist Benny Goodman and vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. Dance halls that featured these bands led by charismatic bandleaders became very popular and provided distraction from the war and its anxieties. Hits such as Don’t Get Around Much Anymore by Duke Ellington and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy by the Andrews Sisters became standards. Other popular songs included A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square by Glen Miller and Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer by the Song Spinners. People tuned in on their radio to hear these songs performed live. Also, for the first time in history, American troops were able to tune in and hear these broadcasts. Many historians agree that the music of the war years gave us a strong sense of identity and grounded us in the culture that we were fighting to preserve.
The Andrews Sisters, from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boogie_Woogie_Bugle_Boy
Later, came the tumultuous ’60’s, which brought the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and subsequent protests, Woodstock, the “sexual revolution” and other social changes led by the “baby boomer” generation. Music was front and center in the changes that America witnessed during that period, from the civil rights song We Shall Overcome to the performance of Jimi Hendrix’s Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock. These were compounded with The Beatles and their promotion of meditation and achieving a higher level of consciousness as evidenced in their song Tomorrow Never Knows. The music was the sound of that generation. Singer-songwriters like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan gave poetic voice to the times, as described in Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. This was also the time when changing attitudes about women’s roles and environmental concerns were taking hold. How far would these movements have gotten without music to give them intellectual depth and palpable emotion? Music helped jockey people, getting them angry about Vietnam or causing them to think twice about how we were treating the environment. (It also probably helped create a lot of off-spring, of which I am one!).
Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimi_Hendrix
As a side note: I’ve focused here on popular music through these periods, but there were interesting developments in classical music as well. Composer Arnold Schoenburg fled Nazi Germany in the ‘30‘s and wrote several famous pieces in the U.S. including his Violin Concerto, Op. 36. He had developed a new system of music composition called the “Twelve Tone Row” which produced numerous works with a very unique sound. Olivier Messiaen wrote his famous Quartet for the End of Time while in prison during the war. And, through the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman broke barriers using new composition techniques as evidenced in such innovative works as Cage’s 4’33” and Feldman’s Intersections (see my entry “Decisions, Decisions: Thoughts of the Improvising Composer”). Classical music would never be the same.
One wonders what role music will play in the future as we deal with coming challenges: climate change, a shifting global economy and the rise of social networking just to name a few. No one knows exactly what will happen but one thing’s a pretty safe bet: that music will be there to lift us up, calm us down and - hopefully - open our minds.