Various Artists: Poor Man’s Heaven: Blues & Tales of the Great Depression

Various Artists
Poor Man's Heaven: Blues & Tales of the Great Depression
Bluebird Jazz

The Great Depression happened a long, long time ago. It’s now the stuff of PBS documentaries, Coen Brothers script-cramming, Tom Brokaw apple-shining. It’s too old and painful for nostalgia, too “historical” for pop culture relevance. And so, you’d think the latest Bluebird Jazz reissue, Poor Man’s Heaven — a collection of 22 songs and two monologues from the Great Depression — would be just a curiosity, barely relevant to our soundscape as it stands today. I thought so, but I was wrong. The varieties of pain and humor that burst out of these tracks recall a time when American values included solidarity and self-reliant individualism, despair at the world and faith in government, virulent cynicism about the Market, and best of all a very open and vocal class warfare. As America slips rapidly into a deeper recession in 2003, and our bizarre President (sort of a Warrior Coolidge) continues the job of dismantling the New Deal and stroking the fatcats, these songs sound very contemporary indeed. It’s an album that lifts the spirits, really. A reminder that hard times will create a strange sort of embarrassed solitude (which cries out in some of the mournful blues & country songs here) while fertilizing values of community and solidarity which can disrupt whole social and political structures (cf. the title track).

The compilation is arranged so that you descend from misery to misery, beginning with shaky investors buying on margin, and concluding with a poor immigrant looking for work. As you climb down the class ladder with each track, the genres change accordingly — from borscht-belt comedy to music hall to jazz, folk, country & western, and finally calypso. In other words, the compilation gets better as it goes on. Funny thing about it too, the first few tracks have that period-nostalgia feel that feels like you’re watching a Ken Burns documentary, but then when the hillbilly and Wobbly tunes start kicking in you start feeling it. This was before the genres of “blues” and “country” were formalized and labeled, so you can hear loads of mountain and Delta tradition getting distilled through strange and unique voices. Rather than having a talented and well-trained musician bestow their obedient style upon a well-established genre (which is our contemporary sonic condition, and also the style of the music-hall tracks at the comp’s beginning), you hear some real oddballs and suffering street performers creating new musical styles out of their own disrupted & nutritionally starved brains. I’m speaking particularly about Lane Hardin, Joe Stone, Fiddlin’ John Carson, Blind Alfred Reed, and especially Daddy Stovepipe and Mississippi Sarah (more on all them later). These are not museum pieces, or music-collector finds: they are shades that stir us up today.

Herbert Hoover dispensed lots of remarkable advice about the depression, and his most hilarious bit is that the American public should just have a good belly-laugh every ten days to lift the spirits and boost the economy. This advice was obeyed: a peculiar form of gallows humor cropped up everywhere from W.C. Fields to Eddie Cantor in the wake of Black Thursday. Here we get “Eddie Cantor’s Tips on the Stock Market” (recorded 29 October 1929), a quick succession of one-liners which will make you alternately chuckle and groan while pondering the vast gulf in comedy stylin’ that separates Cantor from Cedric the Entertainer. Cantor’s monologue just whips through the jokes without pausing for effect, a sort of desperate confidence rolling through his loud enunciations. OK I’ll let one joke out of the bag, as a sort of spoiler: “If the market takes another slump, I know thousands and thousands of married men who will have to leave their sweethearts and go back to their wives.” (There are no drum rolls on the track either.) The comedy continues with Frank Crumit’s goofy “A Tale of the Ticker” (still occasionally dragged out to parody contemporary economic disasters) and Alex Bartha’s music-hall pennywhistle-death-trip “It Must Be Swell” (“. . . to be layin’ out dead”).

Once you’ve had your yuks, the remainder of the intro tracks are also forget-your-troubles cathartics, but with rather more serious lyrics. Leo Reisman and His Orchestra essay the timebound classic “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” with a stagy exuberance like you don’t hear anymore. Milton Douglas’s Irish tenor swells to a resonant bitterness that trembles and echoes off the walls without a trace of self-pity, and you know they called him Al. A couple tracks later some witty lyrics, shouted by the otherwise unknown Julia Gerity, make you wish that “Sittin’ on a Rubbish Can” could be covered by Stephen Merritt with full electro-irony effects: “Why don’t you just hop right in and help keep the city clean?” This the most strangely spirited, and certainly the funniest, track on the album so don’t miss it. Same goes for “Ten Cents A Dance” (where a “taxi dancer” skirts around the sordid nature of her occupation with wincing strength and hope) and “Poor Man’s Heaven” (a glorious and violent utopia where rich snobs have to shovel dirt and you can eat all you please “from ham’n’egg trees that grow by a lake full of beer”).

If you listen to the album in sequence, you’ll notice that the class warfare starts up immediately after “Poor Man’s Heaven”, and the songs become more and more urgent, simple, and (this is the weird part) contemporary-sounding. These songs meant something then, and they still hold on fast to their resonance. It’s one thing to laugh at Eddie Cantor’s old jokes or march to yet another essential version of “Brother Can You Spare A Dime?”, but the achy neighbor voices, scratchy fiddles, and ragged harmonicas that scatter the remaining tracks sound gut-wrenching and eternal.

Bob Miller’s “The Rich Man and the Poor Man” lays out the contrast. The Depression was caused in large part because the nation’s economic gains were accruing to the rich throughout the 1920’s (remember the four successfully plotted several tax cuts under the sleepy watch of Calvin Coolidge), and here’s one of two songs on the compilation that speaks directly to the have-nots while smoking out the Haves: “If you’re rich don’t worry, but the poor must give up hope. / The rich man gets acquitted, while the poor man gets the rope.” It’s a charming, straightforward folk tune, and its (mostly litigious) theme draws out a conflict that still lives with us today: corrupt businessmen can buy justice while the poor get prison for stealing a loaf of bread . Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?” takes this to the next level, where the poor grip their stomachs and fear for their lives. A hillbilly tune where Reed sings along to the melody of his fiddle, this damn near turns into a call to revolution (“Now it’s time for every man to be awake”) and historians of country music will despair to establish the trajectory that starts from this simple mountain uplift to the wrongheaded patriotic bellowing of Toby Keith. Hell, Reed even goes so far as to dis the temple (“Most of preachers preach for dough and not the soul / That’s what keeps a poor man always in a hole.”), but when you skip ahead a few tracks to Rev. J. M. Gates’ sermon “President Roosevelt is Everybody’s Friend” you’ll figure that the spirit did alight on the brows of some principled preachers. Though you have to listen close through the murky sound, this 1934 track captures with eerie joy and desperation the exact moment when blacks defected in large numbers from the Republican party, as Rev. Gates shouts out that FDR is “Our President” (“. . . I used to say THE President . . . A President . . . but when I say OUR President, I’m talking ’bout a man that is touching EVERYone”). When he bellows enthusiastically about the CWA, his harsh distorted voice comes down to us as an eerie reminder of a distant time when the Federal Government would try almost anything to give food, clothing, hope, and (especially) jobs to the desperate.

“The Negro was born in depression. It only became official when it hit the white man.” That’s what Clifford Burke told Studs Terkel in the classic Depression documentary Hard Times, and bear this in mind when you hear the weight of three centuries of pain coming out of Mississippi Sarah’s voice in “35 Depression”, by far the most agonized song on the album. Backed by Daddy Stovepipe’s harmonica and guitar, Sarah moans, wails, toots her jug, and correctly predicts her own death. It’s a horrible vision of suffering that calls up ghosts even today. This epic is followed by the compilation’s most singular and beautiful track, Lane Hardin’s “California Desert Blues”. A lone, odd arabic-sounding guitar and Hardin’s high-pitched vocals turn a desperate trip to California into living hell: “Crossing that ol’ desert, just like breaking the Hindenburg Line.” If only the man didn’t sound like such a long-suffering angel, I wouldn’t use such gauche adjectives as “majestic” and “sublime” to describe this astounding tune.

There are loads of other great tracks in here too. You’ll love the obvious classics like Woody Guthrie’s deathless “Dusty Old Dust” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Welfare Store Blues” (with its hilarious zinger couplet towards the end: “She say I’ll take care o’ you Sonny Boy / Just as long as these times stay hard.”). But you’ll also keep coming back to more obscure stuff, like the cluttered-note Delta blues of Joe Stone (“It’s Hard Time”) and the calypsonian heritage of Wilmoth Houdini (“Poor But Ambitious” — a record probably owned by calypso collector Robert Mitchum). This is a great compilation, and my only gripe is the subtitle (The Secret History of Rock & Roll), which just seems like a tedious marketing ploy. This is a secret history of poverty, desperation and class warfare, and the descendants of this music (Phil Ochs, Billy Bragg, Ghostface Killah, Dropkick Murphys) were more like antagonists of “rock & roll” than anything else.