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They’re Writing Those Depression Songs, Again

As credentialed experts strive to gauge national economic condition, they should cast beyond standard criteria like GNP and Wall Street permutations to appreciate popular music’s public mood mirroring. They would do well to begin with Viper of Melody (Bloodshot), by Wayne ‘The Train’ Hancock.

Wayne is widely-regarded as perhaps today’s pre-eminent purveyor of the bold and bouncy, steel-guitared, upright bassed-Western Swing popularized in the ’40s and ’50s by Bob Wills and Speedy West, the sort animated and charged by country-jazz guitar legend Jimmy Bryant.

With dependably solid accompanists Anthony Locke, Huckleberry Johnson, and six-string wizard Izak Zaidman, the leathery-voiced Hancock imbues the at turns jumping and swaying proceedings with a magnetic, Everyman tenor.

But of the disc’s 13 winning tracks, it is the sorrowful “Working At Working” that most resonates and best articulates fast-emerging national hardships and despairs.

“Well, the rich folks call it ‘recession,’ but the poor folks call it ‘Depression’ / Everybody’s hittin’ the street, with the low-down blues” chronicles the song’s protagonist. “I wonder if the President knows how I feel / I’ve stood in every soup line around.”

That sentiment has been sung across America, before.

“They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead / Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?” asked lyricist Yip Harburg, in 1931’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

Harburg wrote “Brother” together with Russian-born American composer
Jay Gorman. And while it’s mournful, minor-key melody was reportedly based on a traditional Russian lullaby, the blue travail of which it told was very much of that ongoing catastrophic moment.

“When Bing [Crosby] recorded this song in October, 1932,” chronicles a San Francisco State University text, “one out of every four Americans who wanted work could not find work. The banking system was near collapse.”

In “Working At Working,” Hancock portrays our own, unsettlingly similar contemporary calamity:

“Well, it’s gettin’ awful hard, to keep livin’ this way, stayin’ on the edge from day to day / And, if I don’t find somethin’ soon, I’ll be highway bound.”

It is fitting, both musically and spiritually, that Wayne ends “Working At Working” with a blue yodel, ala the Great Depression’s ‘Singing Brakeman’ Jimmy Rodgers.

Yip Harburg, Jimmy Rodgers, Wayne Hancock — the appropriateness of their fraternity is both wonderful and terrible.

DC LARSON, of Iowa, is CD Review Editor for Rockabilly Magazine. He can be reached on his blog, http://www.dclarson.blogspot.com.


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