Great Music for Hard Times

If you missed NPR’s Weekend Edition this morning, you missed 10 of the best radio minutes I’ve ever heard as the host and a musicologist/pianist dissected that Depression-era classic song, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

This is radio at its best, explaining how the song’s blunt, unsentimental honesty made it the perfect anthem for the times, and showing how the songwriters achieved their effects with the skillful blending of lyrics and music.

As I noted in writing the other day about the return of Rudyard Kipling,  it’s fascinating to see how the changed atmosphere brought about by the financial collapse has (re)opened our eyes (and ears) not only to new ideas about the economy and regulation, but also to older cultural artifacts all but forgotten in the heady optimism of recent years. And this is not a bad, gloomy thing at all, for at least three reasons:

1. Humility.  It’s not bad to have a measure of humility in our makeup, and that humility should come from remembering  that our amazing postwar prosperity, which has built the largest middle class the world has ever known, is not a sure thing forever, which invites us to further ponder this ancient truth:  There are no sure things forever.

2. Gratitude. As Thanksgiving nears in a time of belt-tightening, most of us should gratefully acknowledge that 20th-21st Century Americans have  enjoyed more comfort, more security, and more calories than 99% of humanity has ever known.   Cutting back on frivolous spending, making do a bit longer with what we’ve got,  is not the end of the world, and whining about it makes us seem like spoiled children pouting because they get only one dessert rather than two.

3. We’re not alone.  The Kipling poem mentioned the other day and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” are only two examples of the rich tradition of pessimism, which, again, should not be confused with being mopey, gloomy and depressing. Quite the contrary. Artists, musicians and writers who explore the “dark side” of human life can encourage and uplift, as I noted in discussing this A. E. Housman poem last year.

Anyway, give yourself a weekend treat and listen to the NPR piece here. (You can also read it, but then you’ll miss hearing why the song works so well.)


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