Bear Family Records presents an 88-track anthology of what are now termed Depression Era phonograph recordings cut between May 31, 1929, and April 10, 1940. This stretch of time takes in the last few months of the U.S.A.'s already flawed and disintegrating prosperity, the devastating Wall Street crash of October 29, 1929, and the nation's agonizingly gradual economic recovery throughout the 1930s. Musically, this massive compilation maps the mainstream mingling of real jazz with the predominant dance band and pop vocal aesthetic of the decade. Even months before the day when, as visiting Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca
put it, the New York Stock Exchange ."..lost various billions of dollars, a rabble of dead money that slid off into the sea," Tin Pan Alley composers were already fixating upon what was to become the ever more elusive pursuit of happiness by penning an almost alarming number of "happy" songs, such as "Get Happy" and "Happy Days Are Here Again." As the social fabric of a nation came apart at the seams and swiftly began to unravel, a subgenre of melodies with conspicuously comforting and persistently optimistic lyrics filled the air with phrases like "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams," "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries," and "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee." Sobering responses to the disparity between harsh realities and sugary reassurances included "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," "Remember My Forgotten Man," "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," "Cheer Up! Smile! Nertz!" (almost angrily delivered by an exasperated Eddie Cantor
), and a remarkably cynical opus entitled "It Must Be Swell to Be Laying Out Dead." With the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt
in 1933 and the implementation of his New Deal programs (see Louis Armstrong
's "W.P.A."), a series of frustratingly slow-paced improvements inspired monetarily motivated ditties with giddy titles like "We're in the Money," "We're Out of the Red," "What Have We Got to Lose?," "Buy America!," and the quaintly romantic "With Plenty of Money and You," sung to perfection near the end of this collection by the Ink Spots
. The Great Depression has inspired a number of fascinating musicological retrospectives; this one belongs among the best of the lot.