This 1931 single by Victor Young and his Orchestra is sort of like the “super groups” popular in the 70s and 80s, since it features vocals by many of the biggest names in music: The Mills Brothers, The Boswell Sisters (with a solo by Connie Boswell) and Bing Crosby. It was released on the Brunswick label just before Christmas that year.
The same month New York’s Bank of America collapsed, holding at the time total deposits of more than $200 million. It was the largest bank failure in the history of the United States. The following month Congress created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which lends millions of Federal dollars to banks, insurance companies and railroads — at a time when unemployment is nearing 24%, the program is dismissed by working people as “the millionaire’s dole.”
The popular music of the Depression era expresses an unexpected optimism, although there are also many songs which tell the heartbreaking stories of the depositors left holding the bag, so to speak, as the banks collapsed. Just a couple years later Connie Boswell was one of several people who recorded “Underneath the Arches,” a song about the homeless men who slept under a bridge (her single was not as successful as the Andrews Sisters’ recording). And Bing Crosby recorded one of the defining songs of the time in 1932, “Brother Can You Spare A Dime?”:
An enormous hit when Brunswick released it just before the election of 1932, the song was decried by Republicans as anti-capitalist. It is often described as a defining song of the era, and should be seen to represent in particular the broken dreams of a generation which felt it had not received due compensation for its contributions. The song’s most poignant lines make topical reference to the “Bonus Army” protest march of mid-summer 1932, in which tens of thousands of veterans of the Great War crowded around the Capitol as Congress voted down the Wright Patman bill, which would have provided immediate funds to begin paying veterans their long-promised bonuses.
Two unarmed veterans were shot by police on July 28, and the US Army was ordered to disperse the encampments with rifles, bayonets and tear gas. This all may sound alarmingly familiar.
We don’t have to tell you that these are some troubled times — picking up a newspaper any more is an exercise in how much bad news one’s heavy heart can stand. The headlines report different problems than those from the Great Depression, but times are nonetheless tough in what economists have been calling the Great Recession.
Generation X, to which belong the proprietors of your friendly neighborhood record shop, is likely to be the first generation in American history to find itself poorer than its parents, according to studies from the Pew Research Group. We’re accumulating far more debt, much of it related to college loans, and the things we tentatively invest in like our homes and, if any, our doomed retirement accounts, are at best barely staying above water, while for the Boomers the mere act of buying a home and maintaining a mortgage could set one up for comfort.
Ironically, those so quickly dismissed by Boomers as the “slacker” generation are proving to be more involved in our children’s lives and our communities than our parents were at the same age. Check out this awesome long-term study from the University of Michigan, if you want to feel better about what you’re doing Xers. We’re making more money, accomplish more, but accumulating less for ourselves. We’re actually living more aligned with that 1931 single “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” than the way we were raised.
While most mainstream reports of this phenomenon are accented with images from The Breakfast Club or Reality Bites, and peppered with references to REM (even though we’re, like, so over them) some get it right, and some are just fun to read.
You might have noticed during your last visit to Hymie’s that nearly all the once-vacant real estate along East Lake Street is bustling with activity — we’d say booming but most of these new businesses are being established by Gen Xers. We mentioned earlier that the music of the Great Depression often expressed an unexpected optimism. Bandleader Ted Lewis recorded a pair of sides in January 1931 with an all-star group (one even featuring Benny Goodman), the same month Wright Patman introduced his doomed bill to Congress — one was called “Headin’ for Better Times” and the other titled “There’s a New Day Comin’.” And another Victor Young single issued by Brunswick in 1931 also had some fun lines about food.
Its hard to say if the music of Generation X is as characteristically optimistic, because popular music is so much more fragmented now than it was in the early 30s. Surely there have been waves of oppressive pessimism, like seemingly every corporate rock record recorded by an Xer in the 90s. Today it would all seem characteristically diverse more than anything else. Its amazing how many different things you could hear on an average night here in the Twin Cities, and how wide-ranging the interests of regular customers here at the record shop.
Having finally outlived the shackles of being the “slacker” generation, we’re now regarded as the “Meh” generation.
The positive side of this hardly-apathetic expression is the live-and-let-live attitude it embodies. More and more folks are creating music and other art for the simple joy of creation — here at Hymie’s we’re inspired by the hard-working musicians who balance the artistic ambitions with the obligations of work, parenthood, caring for parents, whatever it is, with grace and dignity. Whether we’re poorer or richer, we’re creating together a richer world.
Our friend Jack Klatt wrote this song, “Life’s a Drag,” a few years ago for his second disc, Mississippi Roll. He didn’t like when we compared him to Bing Crosby, but we meant it in the kindest of ways. A drag or not, life here on East Lake Street is a bowl of cherries.