At first, it seemed as if the Depression would have disastrous consequences for the nation's music industry. Record sales, which had reached 100 million copies a year during the mid 1920s, plunged to just 10 million in 1932. But growing radio networks, car radios, and movie soundtracks helped the music industry through the rough times.
During the Depression, a variety of factors helped to create a shared musical culture in the United States. The growth of nationwide radio networks allowed people in all parts of the country to hear the same music. Car radios meant that Americans could hear music outside the home. Hollywood soundtracks and musicals also popularized songs and musical styles. The Federal Music Project brought classical music to much larger audiences than in the past. The result was that by the end of the 1930s, most Americans would have been familiar with the folk and protest songs of Woody Guthrie, the classical works of Aaron Copland, the jazz of Duke Ellington, the gospel music of Thomas A. Dorsey.
American music was extraordinarily diverse during the 1930s. There were social protest songs, like "Strange Fruit," a denunciation of lynching. There were Broadway show tunes, such as George and Ira Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm," Irving Berlin's "Heat Wave," Cole Porter's "You're the Top," or Roger and Hart's "The Lady is a Tramp." Alan Lomax, the celebrated collector of folk songs brought Leadbelly, Jelly Roll Morton, Muddy Waters, and other folk greats to public attention. What was new was that wide varieties of music, which had previously been confined to particular regions or social groups, were now available nationally. Many of the decade's most popular songs seemingly had no connection to the decade's hard times. Yet dance bands and Broadway and Hollywood musicals generated music that helped to unify and cheer up a depressed nation.
The decade's most popular music was swing, a flowing style of jazz played by big bands. Listened to by adults, it was danced to by the young, who embraced the Lindy Hop, the Susy Q, and other lively dances. Swing's influence could be heard in the movies, in classic music (especially in the works of Copland and William Grant Still), and in many other genres.
"Hillbilly" music broke into mass culture in 1923, when a Georgia singer named "Fiddlin' John" Carson sold 500,000 copies of his recordings. "Country" music's appeal was not limited to the rural South or West; city people, too, listened to country songs, reflecting a deep nostalgia for a simpler past.
Because of radio and phonograph records, music which would have once existed on the margins of American society now could reach audiences across the nation.
Muscle Shoals Blues
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