It’s Boxing Day. The name is of uncertain origin but one thing seems clear about the day: there’s a tradition attached to it, in Europe at least, of giving to those less fortunate. This is good. More so these days, perhaps, because of our inversion of the tradition from a day of giving into yet another day of getting, as the “sales” shout at us from all quarters.
I thought I might “sing” at you instead of hawking wares, sing songs on the theme of hard economic times, because for all of our great wealth, indeed luxury, there are still those among us who lack the basics — who have an insufficient share of the common weal. I’ve chosen songs from my personal tradition, which is that of American protest songs by and large. These typically lament the fate of the commoner, the worker, thrown aside by the convulsions of the market, especially the crash of 1929 and the depression that followed.
I’ve tried to pick interesting — that is to say, good — renditions of these songs, and I’ve suggested alternatives where they exist. As well, where possible I’ve included links that should pop up the lyrics. Clearly there are a great many more songs that I could have chosen, both “ancient” and modern; so please feel free to donate your choices in the comments to this fillip.
- Let’s start with something that antedates the depression era by quite a bit, something typically sentimental of the American pre-civil war period, but a haunting melody for all that: Hard Times, Come Again No More by Stephen Foster (1854), sung here by Mavis Staples [lyrics]: httpa://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ixbah9u234
For a different, and quite lovely, version, you might like to hear it sung by James Taylor, backed by Yo-Yo Ma and two other fabulous strings players.
- In the Roaring Twenties, times were good — and chaotic. Here’s a cautionary tale about someone who had it all and lost it. A riches to rags blues, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” was written in 1923 by Jimmy Cox and is sung here by the incomparable Bessie Smith [lyrics]: httpa://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6MzU8xM99Uo
- Now to 1928 and a song that was prescient about the coming economic disaster, Eleven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat, by Bob Miller, sung here in the original version by Bob Ferguson (which may have been a pseudonym for Miller himself) [lyrics]: httpa://youtu.be/YUnaqoLvcBs
For a more modern version, you might try the one by Porter Wagoner.
- By 1929 the depths of the disaster were becoming evident. Here’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” by “Blind” Alfred Reed, sung here by Ry Cooder [lyrics]: httpa://youtu.be/uUCVVU1qVdY
The original, by Reed himself, accompanied by his son on guitar, is available on the internet archive.
- Full-on depression, now. Here’s a biting protest song written on Tin Pan Alley in 1930 by the great “Yip” Harburg (music by Jay Gorney), “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?“. I’ve chosen a version by Tom Waits, who does growling down-and-out better than anyone, but you may want to have the lyrics up in front of you as you listen. Diction isn’t Tom’s forte. [lyrics] httpa://youtu.be/uUCVVU1qVdY
At the other end of a number of spectrums is this version by Rudy Vallée, extremely popular at the time.
- The dust bowl, together with the general economic depression, impoverished thousands in the southwest of the United States, many of whom, in desperation, upped stakes and tried to migrate to California — where they were met with “border controls” and a kind of means test. Woody Guthrie wrote about it in “If You Ain’t Got the Do Re Mi“, sung here by the man himself [lyrics]: httpa://youtu.be/46mO7jx3JEw
- Roosevelt’s New Deal began to put people to work and to let the poor find their footing again. Here’s a modern take on a song from the period, “Tell My Why You Like Roosevelt“, done by Jesse Winchester with a nice Canadian twist [lyrics]: httpa://youtu.be/XtGCmDP2qh0
- Finally, I return to sentimentality, I’m afraid. This is, after all, a season of high romanticism. And to a time well before the events that prompted any of the songs above: to 18th century England, when finding employment in rural areas was a difficult thing, and, once found, meant a lifetime of very hard work. To lift spirits, perhaps, and to remind the unfortunate that there might be hope, the traditional ballad, “The Farmer’s Boy” tells the success story of an orphan who, by dint of work and a very large dose of luck, found plenty in the end. It’s sung here, as it might be still today in pubs in England, in traditional style by John Kirkpatrick [lyrics]: httpa://youtu.be/yvM55CyInA0