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American History: From Great Depression's Depths, Creativity Reached New Heights

An art class organized by the federal government's Work Progress Administration

An art class organized by the federal government's Work Progress Administration

STEVE EMBER: Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. This week in our series, Bob Doughty and I tell about American arts and popular culture during the nineteen thirties.

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 the human spirit. 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 nineteen thirties 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 to films, radio and other new art forms for relief from their day-to-day cares.

BOB DOUGHTY: The most popular sound of the nineteen-thirties was a new kind of music -- "swing" music. And the "King of Swing" was a clarinet player named Benny Goodman.

(MUSIC: Benny Goodman Orchestra)

Benny Goodman and other musicians made swing music extremely popular during the nineteen-thirties. 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 nineteen-thirties that the new music became wildly popular.

A young girl listening to the radio

A young girl listening to the radio

STEVE EMBER: One reason for the popularity of swing music was the growing power of radio during the nineteen thirties.

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 nineteen twenties. But radio grew up in the nineteen-thirties. 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 nineteen thirties also saw increasing popularity for traditional, classical music by Beethoven, Bach and other great musicians.

In nineteen thirty, 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.

BOB DOUGHTY: In nineteen thirty-seven, 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.

STEVE EMBER: Music was an important reason why millions of Americans gathered to listen to the radio during the nineteen thirties. 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 WC Fields. Radio helped people forget the hard conditions of the Great Depression. And it helped to bring Americans together and share experiences.

BOB DOUGHTY: Swing music. Classical music. Great comedy programs. The nineteen thirties 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 nineteen thirties.


Actress Vivien Leigh in "Gone with the Wind"

Actress Vivien Leigh in "Gone with the Wind"

STEVE EMBER: 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 Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, in the starring roles of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara.

CLARK GABLE: "No, I don't think I will kiss you, although you need kissing badly. That's what's wrong with you. You should be kissed, and often. And by someone who knows how'"

VIVIEN LEIGH: "And I suppose you think you're the proper person."

CLARK GABLE: "I might be, if the right moment ever came."

Directors in the nineteen thirties also produced such great films as "It Happened One Night," "Mutiny on the Bounty," and "The Life of Emile Zola."

BOB DOUGHTY: The success of radio and films, as well as the depression itself, caused problems for many Americans newspapers during the nineteen thirties. 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 nineteen thirties. By World War Two, only one hundred twenty cities had competing newspapers.

STEVE EMBER: 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.

BOB DOUGHTY: 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 nineteen thirties 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.

Detail from a Ben Shahn mural from the Depression era

Detail from a Ben Shahn mural from the Depression era

STEVE EMBER: 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 nineteen thirties. 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.

BOB DOUGHTY: All this activity in the arts and popular culture played an important part in the lives of Americans during the nineteen thirties. 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.


STEVE EMBER: Our program was written by David Jarmul. I'm Steve Ember with Bob Doughty. You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and pictures at You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history series in VOA Special English.


This is program #184