The wealth of hard times
Economic slump spurs riches in the arts
By Sid Smith Tribune critic
July 27, 2008
Job insecurity, high gas prices, intimations of scarcity in the American land of plenty.
So it went in 1976 when then young chanteuse Bette Midler released her third album, cheekily titled “Songs for the New Depression.” In place of her trademark Andrews Sisters and 1950s revivals, there was the gloomy “Mr. Rockefeller,” about a down-and-outer desperately trying to reach the emblematic rich man to ask for a handout, using her last dime for the call.
It’s no surprise pop singers, artists and storytellers chronicle economic downturns. Happy feet only carry you so far even in boom yearsâ€”trouble is interesting, goes an old fiction-writing saw.
But there’s more to it than lucre. Artists and entertainers are sensitive souls who absorb, intuit and reflect what goes on around them. Deprivation, loss, social dislocation and poverty all inform great art and have so since time immemorial. Even those animal drawings on caves tell of a timeless need: food.
Like Midler’s collection, which also includes a bluesy ode to the alcoholic palliative, “Drinking Again,” various artists through the years, right up to recent days, have left a record of hard times, through various decades, plaintive cries for empathy and paeans to strength and forbearance.
Our problems are nothing new; they just seem new right now. We read in Job, one of the oldest and still most resonant treatments of human suffering, “For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me.” And the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Yeah, right.
Here’s a subjective sample of works worth checking out or revisiting.
Charles Dickens is the abiding poet laureate of economic pain and injustice, and just about any workâ€””Bleak House,” natchâ€”is welcome comfort now. This 1854 tale is atypically lean (it’s Dickens’ shortest novel), while attacking what he considered abominable working conditions in Britain’s factories at the time. It tells of the Gradgrind family, raised to honor facts over fancy and imagination and to worship the mighty manufacturing engine. Big mistake, nowadays.
“My Man Godfrey”
King Vidor’s “Our Daily Bread” and Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” might grace many a list, but Gregory La Cava’s smooth, efficient 1936 film parable deliciously skewers the rich (including the best example of Carole Lombard’s comic genius) and offers sobering instruction via William Powell’s earnest, heartfelt portrait of a man in shanty town maintaining his wisdom, hope and dignity.
Bruce Springsteen’s double album, released in recession-weary 1980, may well be his finest masterpiece, with lyrics that are harsh poetry and moods signaling his deep understanding of the blue-collar soul. “I got a job working construction for the Johnstown company,” goes the title track. “But lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy. Now all them things that seemed so important, well, mister, they vanished right into the air. Now I just act like I don’t remember, and Mary acts like she don’t care.”
“Places in the Heart”
The times were relatively good in 1984, when director Robert Benton provided this film, its story inspired by memories of his relatives and their actual Depression-era struggles. Its downtrodden trio was one of “Mod Squad” -ish diversityâ€”one widow, one blind man, one African-Americanâ€”while its depiction of the visceral pain and terror of subsistence survival is tempered by postmodern spiritualism for a finale. Banjo melodies from a band homeward bound after a barn dance are a stroke of pastoral perfection.
“Paper Moon” and “Save the Tiger”
These two 1973 Oscar-winning films beautifully, but differently, invoke the worries of the nation that year, beset with inflation, an oil crisis and a president under siege. The former is Peter Bogdanovich’s fable of Depression-era life, a scamming Bible salesman, a waif who believes she’s his daughter and the rascals, bootleggers and decent souls they encounter on their picaresque journey. The latter tells of a Los Angeles businessman whose small apparel factory and life in general are losing the battle to keep with the times.
“The Constant Shift of Pulse”
Doug Varone’s recent work, now in Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s repertory, is an exhilarating reaffirmation of life, despite trouble spots, conflict and anguish.
Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s 2007 memoir is a plainly worded ode to Depression Iowa farm life and a gentle admonition that when times are tough, the tough buck up and make it work. Its many benefits include a guide on how to make socks last, despite holes, from one child to the next and even wind up as extra padding on winter coats.
Songwriter Stephen Foster, creator of such happy offerings as “Camptown Races” and “Oh! Susanna,” proved his grit with this muscular classic. Published in 1855, only a year after Dickens’ novel of the same name, it goes in part, “Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears/While we all sup sorrow with the poor./There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears/Oh! Hard times, come again no more. “