With all the doom and gloom financial news this week, I got to thinking about a musical angle to the story. There are plenty of hard-times songs out there and those that touch on tough economic periods like the Depression. Here’s a quick list of some I like.
“No Depression In Heaven” Carter Family: Best known as one of the inspirations behind the Uncle Tupelo album and the alt-country magazine both named No Depression, this is a gospel tune about the better life depression-era folks could expect to find upstairs.
“The River” Bruce Springsteen: There are plenty of Bruce songs about the economy, and a whole album, Nebraska, that’s a reaction to Reaganomics, but this song tells the story in very personal, human terms that anyone can understand. “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” is one of Springsteen’s best lines ever.
“How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” Blind Alfred Reed: recorded by Springsteen for his Seeger Sessions album, Reed’s is the original version, and the first verse is as applicable today as it was in 1929:
There was once a time when everything was cheap.
But now prices nearly put a man to sleep.
When we pay our grocery bill,
we just feel like making our will.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?
“Government Cheese” Rainmakers: Another product of the Reaganomics era, this is a great song about the free cheese handouts in the 1980s, from a band that could rock out and still make a good point.
“Hard Times” Stephen Foster: This one’s been recorded by dozens of people, from Johnny Cash to Dylan, Laura Love, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, and Jennifer Warnes. It’s a little more hopeful than the rest of this list, but it’s a classic tune.
“She Works Hard For Her Money” Donna Summer: Say what you will, Donna Summer was a badass of the late disco era and this was one of her biggest hits. Perfect pop songs distill big issues into singable choruses, and this one certainly qualifies.
“The L & N Don’t Stop Here Any More” Jean Ritchie: Another one of those tunes with multiple versions, sometimes listed as traditional, but as a reader pointed out to me in the comments section after I mistakenly attributed it to Townes Van Zandt, it was written by folk singer Jean Ritchie.Had to have one coal mining, railroad town song on this list, and this is a good one that focuses on job losses.
“We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” James McMurtry: A modern protest song, this double meaning lyric bemoans outsourcing of jobs and manufacturing, saying in essence that we can’t make it here any more because we don’t make anything here any more.
“Lost In the Supermarket” The Clash: Just stroll through your neighborhood grocery store and check out the prices, you’ll totally identify with this one.
“Seven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat” Jim Lauderdale: From the excellent Song of America set from 2007, this is a version of a Depression era song that decried the rapid price inflation of everything–sound familiar?