The Radio and the Survival of Music
by Nikolas Parra
How would one cope with the great depression and hardship that entailed with it? If one saw the stocks on Sept. 3, 1929, they probably thought that only prosperous times would pursue the following years for the stocks hit an all time high. But in that same year on Oct. 24, the stocks would plummet leading this once great prosperous nation into a great depression (“Student…”).
During the Roaring Twenties, the music industry was thriving. Record companies were selling records at $0.75 with about 109 million records sold a year (Burns). But when the stock markets in 1929 crashed, so did the music industry from the roaring twenties. Many record companies went out of business. The number of records dropped to about six million records a year a price of $0.35 (Burns). Many companies to stay alive switched from selling records to selling radios. With radios being sold more, the once great music era would be able to barely survive.
During the Great Depression, the average income salary of a person was roughly $1,368.00 a year (Sutton). This wasn’t enough for an average family to survive. For an average family to survive, the basic salary income had to be around $2,000.00. With such a low income, many novelty items bought were kept to a minimum. There was an estimate that 5 million households before 1930’s had radios but by 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression, about 23 million households had radios (Parker). An average radio during the 1930’s could cost anywhere from $30 to $100 which was 2% to 8% of an average salary for a radio (Hollander). This shows a great deal to where the American spirit was.
As stated before, when radio companies shifted to selling radios and radio programs, artists and musicians were cut out from the radio companies. With the cost of records going down as well with sells of records, musicians had to find a way to survive. Most white musicians during the Roaring Twenties managed to keep their jobs playing music for radio commercials whereas most black musicians of that day were not so lucky. The self-proclaimed founder of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton, soon lost his band in New York when the Great Depression hit. Even Sidney Bechet, clarinetist, and Tommy Ladnier, trumpeter, had given up playing music to start a shoe tailoring shop together. Black musicians often had to play their jazz music in the speakeasies.(Burns)
Many Americans turned toward radio for their main source of entertainment since the broadcasts were free compared to going out. It was in the year 1930 that the radio and music had some notable events. The first opera to ever be broadcasted directly from the stage, the broadcast of a new opera(The Sun Bride), and also a weekly broadcast of new York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra over the radio (“Student…”). But since less and less people went out for entertainment, many places had to close. The Chicago and Philadelphia opera houses gave no performances during 1932. This type of trend would keep going until in 1935 when the government created the Federal Music Project. This program employed 18,000 musicians and gave free concerts.
It was during that time, when Americans were listening to the radio, that they heard jazz. Many Americans listened to the radio to try to escape from the world of economic downfall. With 23 million household families with radios along with a total audience of 91 million listeners, the radio was the predominate way of hearing new music. They tried to find music that showed what they felt. Jazz music that was played over the radio was mainly performed/conducted by white people, even though jazz first originated and evolved from the blacks. It was during this time that Benny Goodman, “The King of Swing”, released Let’s Dance, a weekly broadcast of “hot” jazz, which closely resembles the later swing movement, that Americans first started to hear swing. (Parker)
It was swing music which Americans seemed to have picked as their universal theme. It was upbeat and catchy, which made Americans forget about their trouble woes. Lyrics also soon started to appear in this new swing jazz. The lyrics themselves would often embody what the American spirit was during that time. Two songs that seem to define the Swing Era along with the Great Depression would be “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t got that Swing)” by Duke Ellington and “Brother (or Buddy), Can you Spare a Dime” by “Yip” Harburg. (Sutton)
With these songs becoming more and more popular, people started to create dances with these songs. People wanted to go out to ballrooms to see and to dance to these songs. What was shocking was that white people were coming out to see Goodman, Glenn Miller, and other white performers to perform music that had already been done by black people three years earlier. Since people craved more swing music, people started to turn to black musicians. Most of Benny Goodman songs that he played were already done by artists like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Once it was known that black people were the start of the swing movement, black musicians started to get jobs as musicians.
In an interview with my grandmother who lived as a child during the Great Depression in Southern Idaho, she told me more information then what I could have ever gathered through books. When asked about music during the Great Depression, she first went to simple melodies of like working on a railroad (I’ve been working on a railroad) and chain gang diddles. She did remember a couple of songs during the Great Depression like “We’re in the Money”, “Sunny Side Up”, and “It Don’t Mean a Thing”. Even though her family did have a radio, she remembers the simple working songs for she had to work in the fields to help her family and their neighbors survive.
In a world where the whole family had to work in order to survive, they were still able to sit down and listen to the radio. The radio brought hope and joy, the thought of a better life through music and other programs. Because of this love of swing music, a new era of music was able to thrive. Musicians of all color were able to get jobs as musicians and Americans would be able to have their music with symbolizes their beliefs during the Great Depression.
Burns, Ken. “The Great Depression.” PBS.org. 01 March 2009
Brown, Mary Johanna. Personal interview. 2 Mar. 2009.
Hollander, David S. “Howard Radio Company.” The N7RK Web Page. 22 Aug. 2008.
27 Feb. 2009. < http://members.cox.net/n7rk/howard.htm>
Kamin, Blair, et al. “Depression –era works remain relevant.” Chicago Tribune. 2 Nov.
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McLeod, Elizabeth “Radio’s Forgotten Years.” Midcoast.com. 1998. 27 Feb. 2009
Oliphant, Dave. The Early Swing Era, 1930 to 1941. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood
Publishing Group, 2002
Parker, Jeff. “The History of Jazz.” Swingmusic.net. 2003. 27 Feb. 2009
Ponce, Pedro. “Jazz an American Elixir.” Humanities. 21.4 (2000):16
Student Handbook:College and University Edition. New York:
Sutton, Bettye. “American Cultural History.” Geocities.com. 7 Jul. 2001. 27 Feb.
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