I’m returning to Hard-hitting Songs for Hard-hit People, a song collection about the American Great Depression. Last time , I looked at agricultural workers. This time, working, or more likely, unemployment.

‘You’re dead broke’ 

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Unemployed, destitute man in San Francisco. (Photo credit: Dorothea Lange. Public domain)

In his publisher’s forward, Irwin Silber, sets the picture of the early 1930s American Great Depression brilliantly:

The central fact was mass unemployment. Everything else – the soup kitchens, the home relief lines, the unmitigated misery of the old, the sick, the feeble who had no resources and no place to turn – all these stemmed from the fact that in some basic, incomprehensible way, the system had fallen apart at the seams. Factories, mills, and mines closed down and people were thrown out of work. This began a cycle of business failures, wage-cutting, lockouts, land evictions which … produced … the most massive economic collapse this country has ever known.   

Silber, like the others associated with this publication, was a radical writer and activist with a long-term interest in the songs of working people.  He spent many years compiling Sing Out!.

Here’s the first couple of verses of a song collected by Alan Lomax, No Job Blues:

I been walkin’ all day, and all night too, ‘Cause my meal ticket woman have quit me, An’ I can’t find no work to do. I was pickin’ up the newspaper an’ I was lookin’ in it for ads, And the policeman come along, And he arrested me for a vag.

‘Meal ticket woman’ is presumably a reference to having a dependant before you could qualify for some kinds of help. ‘Vag’ is a vagrant – that is someone who is homeless and begging to survive. It wasn’t until 1932 that the newly-elected Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted the New Deal and with it, the concept of unemployment insurance.

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Waiting for relief checks in California (Photo credit: Dorothea Lange. Public domain)

Woody Guthrie’s introductions to each of the songs are fascinating, especially as a lot of them come from his personal experience. The next song, No Dough Blues, has an introduction that drips contempt for politicians:

That song is the No Dough Blues, That song is the No Groceries Blues, and the No House Blues, and the No Clothes Blues, and the No Whiskey Blues, and the No Car Blues, The No Radio or Washing Machine Blues, the No Sewing Machine Blues, No Seed Blues, No Crop Blues, No Fun Blues, No Mon’ Blues, Not A Damn Thing Blues 

The No Dough blues has had a litter of pups on the front porch of the White House and their names are listed above for the benefit of the politicians that look through this book trying to find something new to lie about.

Both it and the song before, rely on a simple C major structure with intermittent flattened sevenths and thirds for the blues feel. Here’s a couple of verses from No Dough Blues:

It’s a hard times, good man can’t get no dough, All I do for my baby don’t satisfy her no mo’. I ain’t got no job, that’s why you go’n put me down, You gonna quit me, baby, for hard work in town.

‘I cain’t eat a decent meal.’

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Volunteers of America soup kitchen ( Photo credit: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library. Public domain)

Take a look at these jaw-dropping statistics about the Great Depression in the USA:

By its height in 1933, unemployment had risen from 3 percent to 25 percent of the nation’s workforce. Wages for those who still had jobs fell 42 percent. U.S. gross domestic product was cut in half, from $103 billion to $55 billion. That was partly because of deflation. Prices fell 10 percent each year. Panicked government leaders passed the Smoot-Hawley tariff to protect domestic industries and jobs. As a result, world trade plummeted 65 percent as measured in U.S. dollars.  Source: The Balance.com

Looking back at the first photo, there’s a partially obscured ad for ‘Mush and Milk’ at 5 cents a serving. This is cornmeal (a sort of porridge), boiled in milk, often left to solidify, and then panfried. Hmm … Filling, I suppose, if nothing else.

Seven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat is a blues which says it all in the title. Here’s part of Woody Guthrie’s scathing intro:

You know the trouble as well as I do. You raise a crop and you don’t make enough money out of it to buy the things you need. The big rich men that buy your crops have Organized. They Organized and agreed that they wouldn’t give you a fair price for nothing you raise. Or nothing you work at. They got them a Union, and they are a Union of Gamblers, Crooks, Racketeers and Robbers.

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Unemployed men queuing in the hope of receiving free food. (Public domain)

As in the song above, even if you were employed, it was scarcely possible to survive during this period. John and Alan Lomax collected Cotton Mill Colic.

Here’s the first verse and chorus:

When you go to work, you work like the devil, End of the week, you’re not on the level; Payday comes, you pay your rent, End of the week, you aint got a cent To buy fat-back meat, pinto beans, Cook up a mess of turnip greens, No use to colic when every day at noon, Kids get to crying in a different tune. 

I’m gonna starve and everybody will, You can’t make a living in a cotton mill.

Something to think about at the next meal.