Styles & Forms | Thirties | Jazz & Blues

As if at the convenience of history, the stock market crash in the final weeks of 1929 severed the 1920s from the 1930s. The breach was economic but its consequences were pervasive, sweeping away economic values and social illusions, and affecting all aspects of life for Americans and Europeans alike.

America’s compliant 1920s middle class became the 1930s ‘new poor’. Rural African-Americans were pitched back into conditions akin to slavery; those in the urban North and West after the Great Migration struggled anew to adapt. Poverty’s ubiquity lent it unusual moral standing, reflected in movies and songs. Businessmen lost status; the wealthy were subjected to cultural ridicule and liberal reform unleashed by one of their own, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Clashes over small-town and big-city values were replaced by battles over wages and hours between capital and labour.

Popular culture found easy ways forth. Network radio, paid for by advertisers, took hold; outlets competed for local and niche audiences, hiring bluesmen to host shows aimed at African-American listeners, for example. The record industry almost expired, but live music, especially for dancers, thrived. Movies, combining social realism and romantic fantasy, offered the decade’s most iconic imagery. Within 10 years, movies and touring bands displaced theatre and vaudeville as transmitters of a popular culture, available for the first time to millions simultaneously, sea to sea – and beyond. That culture was centred on jazz, steeped in the blues, immersed in transition. In April 1939 the New York World’s Fair opened a vision to a future dominated by technology, which 1930s music and art had essentially come to represent. Five months later the decade ended with the beginning of the Second World War. Music and art were to face another wild ride.

Sources & Sounds

The early part of the 1930s was dominated by one major event: the collapse of American financial institutions that led to what is known as the ‘Great Depression’. The disaster was underway as the decade began, and hit its lowest point in 1932. Significantly, in the final quarter of that year, there was not a single blues recording session anywhere in America. The Depression hung over America like a dark cloud and economic conditions improved very slowly. While the government instituted many reforms and programmes to help the unemployed, it could do only so much. It would take a wartime economy in the next decade to pull the country out of the doldrums.

Political Change

The 1930s also saw a rise in radical political activity. Critics of capitalism found eager followers, workers banded together in labour unions, and artists and intellectuals were drawn to Marxism as a solution to the problems of America. The infamous trials of the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama, involving rape charges by two white women against eight black men, dominated the news pages during 1931–32 and the Communist Party (CP) was in the middle of that battle. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909, had been working to...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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