We attended a Chautauqua program recently. The performers — a lady named Jane and a guy named Hoyle — presented a “Brief Historical Timeline of the Great Depression” covering the 10-year period from 1929 to 1939 in the United States.
Jane sang and played guitar while Hoyle also sang and played piano, mandolin, guitar. He probably could play any stringed instrument he touched, and play it well.
The program included songs of the time as well as quotations from famous and semi-famous people. The song titles tell the story: “If I Ever Get a Job Again” (1932), “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (1932), “Hungry Blues” (1939).
Will Rogers (1879-1935) was a favorite observer during that awful time. Jane and Hoyle shared a few of his observations as well. Here are some samples:
A fool and his money are soon elected.
It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.
Politics has become so expensive that it takes a lot of money even to be defeated.
As I thought about it later, it was obvious these stories told about a horrible time in our country are still appropriate today, about 80 years later.
In my day job I’ve interview survivors of that decade. They can’t find words to describe the horror of starving children and families who have lost hope. They end up saying, “You just can’t understand.”
We’re beginning to. One in five New Mexicans is currently receiving food stamps.
Woody Guthrie was quoted as saying, “I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard travelling. I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood… I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my own kind of songs and to sing the kind that knock you down still farther…But I decided a long time ago that I’d starve to death before I’d sing any such songs as that.”
Guthrie also advised, “All of you cowboys, fight for your land.”
We need Chautauqua now. It was begun in 1874 at Lake Chautauqua in western New York State. The idea was to provide education and entertainment to rural people who couldn’t easily travel to the population centers.
Here’s the history lesson we can keep: American people are strong and flexible, and much of that strength comes from our ability to see the humor in even the worst situation.
Here’s a great example: “Cheer Up! Smile! Nertz!” (1931) “Can’t even get drunk, (Prohibition, you know) And all the while, they tell us to smile.”