Songs of the Great Depression come to Havre


People in the Havre area have a chance to hear, through songs, the bittersweet sense of humor that sprang up during the Great Depression.

"These are not quite that sad," said performer William Rossiter of Kalispell. "It's kind of the American version of laughing in the devil's face. They tend to be funny and defiant, though the topic is quite tragic."

The program, which the Havre-Hill County Library is hosting for the Montana Committee for the Humanities, starts at 7 p.m. Thursday in the library meeting room.

Rossiter, former instructor of literature and folklore and former dean of the humanities department at Flathead Community College, has sought out songs people wrote during the Depression, songs like "Wailing Wall Street" and "Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train."

"The songs tend to fall into certain themes. It's interesting to use songs as a window into the times," Rossiter said.

Most of the songs were never popular nationwide, and were written and performed by local and regional singers. The title song of Rossiter's program is an exception.

"Brother Can You Spare A Dime," written by Yip and Gorney Harburg, was performed by several famous artists, like Bing Crosby. It detailed the fall of a man pursuing the American dream into the bread lines.

Rossiter said the song played an important part in American politics. Gorney Harburg related in an interview in the 1960s that the Hoover administration pressured radio stations before the 1932 election not to play the song, Rossiter said.

Along with songs about the causes of the Depression, others, like "Old-Age Pension Check" and "Sales Tax on the Women" ridicule some programs intended to help the economy. "The Death of the Blue Eagle" is about the Supreme Court ending the National Recovery Act, and "Luckless CCC" sings of the hard work of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Rossiter accompanies his singing with guitar, banjo, autoharp and harmonica. He talks about the songs and what they were written about.

Most of the songs in his program took some effort to find since they weren't mainstream, he said. Fortunately, many songs were recorded at small studios, and were preserved by some as an important record of American life.

"People realized that these were pieces of Americana and had some significance," Rossiter said.

The Depression-theme presentation includes a variation on Rossiter's other performances. He generally has people play along during some songs, with washboards, kazoos and the like.

For this performance, he asks people to tell stories about their experiences during the Depression.

"Sometimes we end up with real heart-rending stories," Rossiter said.

And it can add quite a bit to the program. It's normally 45 minutes long, but has been known to run 1 to two hours, he added.

Rossiter has been singing and performing since he was in Cub Scouts, and started playing professionally in Milwaukee while he was in high school, performing Dixieland music.

In the 1960s, when folk music broke onto the scene in a big way, Rossiter realized he knew a lot of the songs and started performing at night clubs and bars.

He has been a member since 1982 of the Montana Committee for the Humanities' Speakers Bureau, which receives partial funding by a legislative grant from Montana's Cultural Trust.


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