The vibrant culture of the Great Depression

The Wizard of Oz, a Warner Brothers film from 1939

For many Americans in the early 1930s, life had taken a rapid turn for the worst, whipping them from the roaring 20s into the Great Depression without warning or apology.

When I think of the Depression, I think of dry red dust from the Dust Bowl suffocating every once-beautiful thing. I think of the muted green of dollar bills many Americans wished they could hold between their fingers. I think of black and white photos of somber faces. I see the colors of hunger, sadness, and nostalgia for when life was good.

But my thoughts do not account for the entire reality of the Depression.

When life got difficult, the entertainment industry produced some of its most iconic works.

Warner Brothers, for example, promised to create a cultural New Deal, one designed to give new life to a culture brought down by the Depression. 1 One of their most notable films was The Wizard of Oz, notorious for being the first film to ever have color. 2

Additionally, music culture took an innovative leap. Duke Ellington, one of the greatest jazz artists in American history, stepped into the spotlight of the Depression’s artistic culture. My favorite piece by Duke Ellington is his “It don’t mean a thing,” which emerged in the early 1930s as an upbeat tune to cheer up a downtrodden culture. The music, as the Los Angeles Times states, was not meant to be listened to. It was meant to be danced to as it blared joyously through concert halls, radio waves, ballrooms, and even night clubs. 3 The music encouraged partying and dancing during difficult times, similar to the music of the 2008 financial collapse. 4

The production of iconic music, movies, and artwork truly shaped 1930s culture. And though the days may have been colored by red dust from the Dust Bowl and the muted green thoughts of currency, the music and movies of popular culture breathed life, energy, and color into the culture of the 1930s.

  1. Dickstein, M. (2009). How song, dance, and movies bailed us out of the Depression. Los Angeles Times.
  3. Dickstein, M. (2009). How song, dance, and movies bailed us out of the Depression. Los Angeles Times.
  4. DiPiero, D. (2019). Tik Tok: Post-crash party pop, compulsory presentism and the 2008 financial collapse. Sounding Out!.

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