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Swing Music and the Great Depression

written by: Noreen Gunnell • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/5/2012

Swing is a truly American form of music that became incredibly popular in the U.S. in the 1930's. Learn more about what swing music meant to people during the Great Depression.

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    Swing vs Jazz

    Although some disagree, swing music is basically a type of jazz. It grew and took its shape in Harlem dance halls but could be heard, and seen through swing dancing, just about everywhere by 1936.

    Originally played by musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and other black jazz icons, swing music reached new, white audiences when musicians like Benny Goodman began playing swing in ballrooms and theaters in major cities in the 1930s. (i.e., The Paramount in New York or the Palomar in Los Angeles)

    Jazz is an American music form with a long history. It’s believed to have its roots in the improvisation of music played by slaves on handmade instruments like the banjo or washboard. The rhythm and lyrics of spirituals are also part of jazz's foundation. Slave music had elements of African musical traditions, American folk music, and European music.

    Jazz came into existence during the Jim Crow era when segregation caused black and mixed or Creole populations to come together, both geographically and culturally. Music styles blended and jazz was born. Black migration, common during Jim Crow days, meant the migration of jazz too.

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    Impact of Radio

    Radio Radios became a staple in most households during the Great Depression because after the cost of the radio itself, entertainment was free. Radio programs of all types became increasingly popular. FDR began his Fireside Chats to comfort a depressed population. Theatrical radio programs such as The Shadow or Little Orphan Annie became weekly distractions from hard times. Music and dance became well-liked and free (or cheap) diversions as well.

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    The Great Depression

    swing poster The Great Depression hit the music industry particularly hard. Record sales plummeted and some record companies turned to selling radios instead. People began to hear different types of music played by all sorts of musicians at a price everyone could afford-free. More and more, the music that was played live and on the radio was swing and jazz, probably the only truly original American art form.

    Swing hit its heyday in the mid-1930s and the recording industry benefited with a growing number of recordings and sales. By 1939, record sales reached 50 million after having been only 10 million in 1932. Dance contests for cash prizes were popular in dance halls and attracted teenagers and young adults.

    Hollywood also did better than other industries during the Great Depression, and it was not immune to the swing bug. Light hearted movies drew depression weary audiences and swing music of the Depression often provided the soundtrack.

    Swing dances such as the Lindy Hop (or Jitterbugging) and Suzy Q were all the rage, and swing musicians became minor celebrities among the younger generation. Louis Armstrong was known as the “ambassador of swing" and its popularity traveled overseas to Europe. In 1939 Duke Ellington traveled to France where he was greeted be throngs of frenzied fans excited to have the famous swing musician in their midst and in the flesh. This was not the case in Germany where swing, since it was a form of jazz, had been banned by the Nazis.

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    Homework Tips

    If you are assigned a project on Swing Music during the Great Depression, there are some excellent resources on the Library of Congress-American Memory Page. (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html). These include images and interviews, many of which were conducted through the Federal Writer’s Project, a depression era work program.

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    References

    http://www.museum.siu.edu/museum_classroom_grant/Museum_Explorers/school_pages/bourbonnais/page5.htm

    http://www.smithsonianjazz.org/start.asp

    http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org

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    Image Credits

    1. From the Library of Congress American Memory Collection http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage
    2. http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/life_15.html

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