From Great Depression's Depths, Creativity Reached New Heights
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THE MAKING OF A NATION – a program in Special English by the Voice of America.
Hard economic times and social conflict have always offered a rich source of material for artists and writers. A painter's colors can show the drying of dreams or the flight of human spirits. A musician can express the tensions and uncertainty of a people in struggle. The pressures of hard times can be the force to lift a writer's imagination to new heights.
So it was during the 1930s in the United States. The severe economic crisis -- the Great Depression -- created an atmosphere for artistic imagination and creative expression. The common feeling of struggle also led millions of Americans to look together to films, radio, and other new art forms for relief from their day-to-day cares. Our program today looks at American arts and popular culture during the 1930s.
The most popular sound of the 1930s was a new kind of music -- "swing" music. And the "King of Swing" was a clarinet player named Benny Goodman.
Benny Goodman and other musicians made swing music extremely popular during the 1930s. Swing music was a new form of jazz. Many of its first players were black musicians in small, unknown groups. It was only when more well-known white musicians started playing swing music in the middle 1930s that the new music became wildly popular.
One reason for the popularity of swing music was the growing power of radio during the 1930s.
Radio had already proven in earlier years that it could be an important force in both politics and popular culture. Millions of Americans bought radios during the 1920s. But radio grew up in the 1930s. Producers became more skillful in creating programs. And actors and actresses began to understand the special needs and power of this new electronic art form.
Swing music was not the only kind of music that radio helped make popular. The 1930s also saw increasing popularity for traditional, classical music by Beethoven, Bach, and other great musicians.
In 1930, the Columbia Broadcasting System began a series of concerts by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on Sunday afternoons. The next year, the National Broadcasting Company, NBC, began weekly opera concerts.
In 1937, NBC asked Arturo Toscanini of Italy to lead an orchestra on American radio. Toscanini was the greatest orchestra leader of his day. Millions of Americans listened at Christmas time as Toscanini and the NBC Orchestra began playing the first of ten special radio concerts.
It was a great moment for both music and radio. For the first time, millions of average Americans were able to hear classical music by great musicians as it was being played.
Music was an important reason why millions of Americans gathered to listen to the radio during the 1930s. But even more popular were a series of weekly programs with exciting or funny new actors.
Families would come home from school or work and laugh at the foolish experiences of such actors as Jack Benny, Fred Allen, George Burns, Edgar Bergen, and W.C. Fields. Radio helped people forget the hard conditions of the Great Depression. And it helped to bring Americans together and share experiences.
Swing music. Classical music. Great comedy programs. The 1930s truly were a golden period for radio and mass communications. But it was also during this period that Hollywood and the American film industry became much more skilled and influential.
In previous years, films were silent. But the "talkies" arrived in the 1930s. Directors could produce films in which actors could talk. Americans reacted by attending film theaters by the millions. It was a great time for Hollywood.
The films had exciting new actors. Spencer Tracy. Bette Davis. Katharine Hepburn. The young Shirley Temple. The most famous film of the period was "Gone with the Wind" with actor Clark Gable and actress Vivien Leigh. Directors in the 1930s also produced such great films as "It Happened One Night," "Mutiny on the Bounty," and "The Life of Emile Zola."
The success of radio and films, as well as the depression itself, caused problems for many Americans newspapers during the 1930s. The trouble was not so much that readers stopped buying newspapers. It was that companies talked about their products through advertisements on radio instead of buying advertising space in newspapers.
Nearly half of the nation's independently-published newspapers either stopped publishing or joined larger companies during the 1930s. By World War Two, only one-hundred-twenty cities had competing newspapers.
Weekly and monthly publications faced the same problem as daily newspapers -- increased competition from radio and films. Many magazines failed. The two big successes of the period were Life Magazine and the Reader's Digest.
Life Magazine had stories for everyone about film actors, news events, or just daily life in the home or on the farm. Its photographs were the greatest anywhere. Reader's Digest published shorter forms of stories from other magazines and sources.
Most popular books of the period were like the films coming from Hollywood. Writers cared more about helping people forget their troubles than about facing serious social issues. They made more money that way, too.
But a number of writers in the 1930s did produce books that were both profitable and of high quality. One was Sinclair Lewis. His book, "It Can't Happen Here," warned of the coming dangers of fascism. John Steinbeck's great book, "The Grapes of Wrath," helped millions understand and feel in their hearts the troubles faced by poor farmers.
Erskine Caldwell wrote about the cruelty of life among poor people in the southeastern United States, and James T. Farrell about life in Chicago.
The same social concern and desire to present life as it really existed also were clear in the work of many American artists during the 1930s. Thomas Benton painted workers and others with strong tough bodies. Edward Hopper showed the sad streets of American cities. Reginald Marsh painted picture after picture of poor parts of New York City.
The federal government created a program that gave jobs to artists. They painted their pictures on the walls of airports, post offices, and schools. The program brought their ideas and creativity to millions of people.
At the same time, photography became more important as cameras improved in quality and became more moveable. Some photographers like Margaret Bourke-White and Walker Evans used their cameras to report the hard conditions of the Depression.
All this activity in the arts and popular culture played an important part in the lives of Americans during the 1930s. It not only provided relief from their troubles, but expanded their minds and pushed their imaginations.
The tensions and troubles of the Great Depression provided a rich atmosphere for artists and others to produce works that were serious, foolish, or just plain fun. And those works, in turn, helped make life a little better as Americans waited, worked, and hoped for times to improve.
You have been listening to THE MAKING OF A NATION, a program in Special English by the Voice of America. Your narrators have been Steve Ember and Bob Doughty. Our program was written by David Jarmul. The Voice of America invites you to listen again next week to THE MAKING OF A NATION.