NASHVILLE: SKYLINE: The New Depression: “Who Do We Shoot?”

How Can Pop Culture Deal With Hard Times?

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

I know it’s such a cliché by now, but I suspect that there are many national policy makers and business and industry leaders who are simply unaware of the old (and oft-misquoted) George Santayana quote: “Those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” How else to explain these cycles and recycles of the same old mistakes? You don’t think so? Well, just invest $1 million with me. I can guarantee you a 10 percent profit. For the first year or so, at least. …

It seems we’ve got a New Depression settling down here around us, whether it’s officially proclaimed or not.

A big swath of country music history runs through the era of the real Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 to the early 1940s throughout the world. The Depression era also marked country music’s early commercial rise. Radio station WSM and the Grand Ole Opry both started in Nashville in 1925, and similar stations and barn dances were popular throughout the country. The birth of recorded commercial country music came in 1927, and sales of phonograph records matched radio’s popularity with country music listeners throughout those years. Country’s enduring legacy from that time continues to be led by the music of the pioneering Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, both of whom recorded many songs of social realism depicting the Depression years. (Rodgers died early, in 1933.) Woody Guthrie virtually wrote the soundtrack for those years with such songs as “Pastures of Plenty,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Dust Bowl Blues,” and “This Land Is Your Land.”

That spirit of toughness and endurance, no matter what, is carried through what is generally recognized as the best movie about the Depression, The Grapes of Wrath, made in 1940 by the great film director John Ford. Henry Fonda was the star of this movie taken from John Steinbeck’s epic novel of the same title. It centers on the Joads, an Okie family driven west by the Depression and the Dust Bowl, and it’s about what happens to them on the road to and once they get to their hoped-for promised land in California. The Joads have become the very story of America today, the saga of a family spiraling straight downward into the depths of a depression that they can’t fathom and have no idea of how to deal with.

I am indebted to A.O. Scott of the New York Times for his vivid description (which I will quote here, if I may) of a pivotal moment in the movie when “a flashback shows Muley Graves, an Oklahoma dirt farmer, being dispossessed by a well-fed gentleman with a fine car and a big cigar who disavows any personal responsibility. He’s just doing the bidding of the land company, which is doing the bidding of the bank, and on the chain goes — all the way up to the fat cats back East. That no one is to blame puzzles poor Muley. ’Well, who do we shoot?’ he asks.”

Damn straight! Exactly! Who do we shoot?

Or, more correctly these days, who do we briefly complain about, because, face it, that’s about all that civilized people can do these days without getting fired as troublemakers or being tasered and locked up as security threats. Sometimes it seems as if we are all only one paycheck away from homelessness and only one casual remark away from detention in Guantanamo.

How can music and pop culture in general deal with this New Depression? I don’t see or hear anything on the near horizon in music or film or TV that’s engaging it head-on, or even trying to, but it’s still early. I suspect most gatekeepers and decision-makers in pop culture still lean toward escapist music and films and programming as the only non-controversial and fail-safe — although that certainly remains to be seen — way of turning a buck off the latest social calamity. Unfortunately, it looks to be a social calamity that may soon become a social norm for a long time. Then what do content providers look for? More dumb and dumber movies, more get-drunk-and-raise-hell music and more hot babes? Or not? Too bad the late Chris Farley is not around to revive his lively skit about living in a van down by the river.

It’s interesting that it was the Indian influences of Bollywood, not Hollywood, that have yielded the most telling and empathetic movie thus far about the economic malaise, the film Slumdog Millionaire. As far as I can tell, Hollywood’s planned movies about the current troubles will be based on the greedheads who profited from Enron-like economic practices, rather than depicting the victims of such cupidity.

In music, Kris Kristofferson’s great song “Here Comes That Rainbow Again” was inspired by a scene in Grapes. Bruce Springsteen’s album (and title song and tour) The Ghost of Tom Joad was inspired by Woody Guthrie’s song, “Tom Joad.” There are many songwriters and singers who are capable of writing and singing equally great songs that also engage social issues and real life. In film, there are moviemakers such as Robert Duvall and Billy Bob Thornton and many others who have demonstrated a feel for populist movies and can handle such challenges.

Pop culture’s outlets in music and film and television and online are the conduit for social and societal messages and, I think, therefore have a certain obligation to present those in a responsible manner.

Steinbeck wrote Grapes after doing a series of magazine articles about the Depression. In conducting his research, he became quite angry and depressed about conditions in this country. At one point, he wrote, “Must the hunger become anger and the anger fury before anything will be done?” Interestingly, The Grapes of Wrath was both banned in some areas and burned in public at the time of its publication in 1939 because of its alleged socialist leanings. The book is still banned in some schools because of its searing social commentary.

Another Depression-era movie that I think you would appreciate seeing if you haven’t is They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, which evokes both American Idol and Dancing With the Stars, but goes far beyond those competitions in capturing the sad plight of its contestants, who were desperate for money. In the 1930s, dance marathons reigned as a craze. These were early live reality shows that paired dancers who tried to stay up on a dance floor for weeks on end to see to would win as the last standing couple. The phenomenon truly encapsulates the total desperation of the era. Jane Fonda gave a riveting performance, and this film established the great director Sydney Pollack. Dance marathons were finally banned because of their cruelty to the participants. A contestant’s death during a dance sequence in They Shoot Horses is truly harrowing.

It’s sometimes amazing to realize the great extent to which song memories and flickering images and printed words from the past can truly illuminate the present and suggest and point toward the future. And perhaps improve upon it.

Happy New Year.