During the Depression, folk music took on new significance. Renowned folklorist Cecil Sharp believed that traditional songs developed through an evolutionary process similar to natural selection: competing variants would gradually improve with each repetition.
Folklorists like John and Alan Lomax continued their work documenting regional folk styles, eventually compiling an Archive of American Folk Song.
The Almanac Singers
Pete Seeger founded the Almanac Singers in 1941 with Lee Hays and Millard Lampell. At times he was joined by other singers and musicians such as Woody Guthrie and Bess Lomax Hawes (daughter of folk-musicologist Alan Lomax). This topical ensemble performed songs in support of progressive political groups such as the Communist Party, Congress of Industrial Organizations unions, and the New Deal. Their repertoire featured both traditional tunes as well as original compositions to advance these causes. Their message found an audience among pacifist idealists, disillusioned World War I veterans and hardline right-wingers opposed to American involvement in Europe. They performed at labor gatherings and farm meetings where their populist messages found an enthusiastic reception from audiences composed of labor unionists, farm meetings attendees, disgruntled veterans of World War I as well as hardline right-wingers opposed to American interventionism in European wars.
The Singers’ songs focusing on anti-racism, religious inclusion, social justice and worker treatment were deeply impactful and their performances at gatherings energized crowds. Their music inspired young people to take up activism across the country while drawing hundreds of people to concerts held at union halls or other locations supporting labor causes.
Almanac Singers were an essential component of the anti-racist and anti-fascist movements; however, their activities generated much controversy. Their political views were seen by some as radical while many Americans perceived their songs as communist propaganda; A September 1941 Time article even called them “six beardy radicals.”
In 1940, The Singers embarked upon their travels and recordings for General Records. Their initial session produced two albums titled Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads and Sod Buster Ballads that quickly established them as powerful musicians and singers. Later released as 78-rpm discs and later LPs, these releases helped solidify their reputation.
After their recordings became a success, The Singers embarked on a nationwide tour. They traveled to cities with large concentrations of laborers and appeared at union-backed events; playing for construction workers and factory workers as well. Accompanied by a touring band that included guitarist Sis Cunningham, bassist Josh White and Bess Lomax Hawes.
The Carter Family
The Carter Family were one of the most influential folk music groups of the 1930s, renowned for their simple tunes that often revealed details about their lives. Consisting of Sara Dougherty Carter (married to Ezra “Eck”), Maybelle Addington Carter and A. P. Carter himself – they became legendary for their tight harmonies and expertise playing guitar, banjo, and autoharp respectively.
Ralph Peer of Victor Recording Company held auditions in Bristol, Tennessee in 1927 to find local talent, which is where Ralph Peer first noticed The Carter Family. Peer then convinced them to sign with Victor Recording. Their early recordings featured songs like “Poor Orphan Child”, “Wandering Boy”, and “Single Girl Married Girl”.
A. P. Carter wrote “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” which became an instantaneous hit, giving his family steady work during this era, but as soon as the Great Depression set in their popularity waned significantly. To increase earnings at $75 a side they switched labels – this time to American Recording Company which allowed them to rerecord many earlier hits as well as new songs on different labels!
At this point in their lives, Jeanette and Helen Carter had become internationally-known due to appearances on various radio stations – particularly XERA from Del Rio in Texas which had an extremely powerful signal that reached more listeners than any other U.S. station of that era.
At this time, A. P. and Sara experienced marital difficulties that often manifested themselves through their music; for example, their version of “A Little Bit Longer” featured lyrics about Sara longing for her absent husband. Yet despite these strains on their marriage, the Carters persisted with performing and recording well into 1943; after making one final album they decided to call it quits; spending their final years living primarily in Rich Valley Virginia.
Woody Guthrie was one of the most revered folk singers of the 1930s, revered for both his rambling songs and semiautobiographical Dust Bowl memoir, Bound for Glory. His legacy as a composer who championed commoners has left an indelible mark on contemporary music.
John developed his guitar playing while traveling around, playing at saloons and work camps across the country. While doing this he absorbed old folk ballads while creating new songs about those around him. An immensely prolific writer he produced hundreds of songs, ballads and improvisations over time.
His songs expressed his political and social beliefs; supporting the labor movement among migrant camp workers while emphasizing their plight as central themes in his works. Ragging against industrialization, one of his best known songs – This Land Is Your Land – has since become an alternative national anthem.
Guthrie was a gifted artist who also created sketches and drawings inspired by his travels. He shared humanist ideals and activist politics with his wife Marjorie Mazia, a dancer with Martha Graham’s groundbreaking modernist company; together they had four children: daughters Cathy and Nora as well as Arlo and Joady.
After being discovered by Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax and joining Pete Seeger’s Almanac Singers, his politics began to take shape more clearly. He supported the so-called “old left” movement whose members ranged from FDR supporters to communists; was an outspoken critic of House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC); blacklisted by many recording companies – but continued writing songs nonetheless.
By the time of his death in 1967, Woody was an iconic figure in folk music and an invaluable mentor to younger performers such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson and more. Woody is often credited with pioneering protest folk music – his legacy lives on today in peace rallies and protests where his iconic songs like Reuben James, Roll on Columbia Union Maid Pastures of Plenty still resonate today with listeners worldwide.
Huddie Ledbetter, better known by his stage name of Lead Belly, was an iconic folk-blues artist whose music and persona transformed American culture. Singing what he knew (poverty, imprisonment and violence), such as in songs such as “Gallow’s Pole” and “Black Betty,” while also writing standards like “Goodnight Irene.” An accomplished 6- and 12-string guitarist himself with fingerpicking and sliding techniques to add texture and depth to his sound, Lead Belly left an imprint upon American culture that resonated far into today’s society.
Lead Belly was profoundly influenced by his early exposure to black gospel music as a child; its influence can be heard in his deep, growling vocal tone and chord use (particularly minor seventh chords). Furthermore, Lead Belly was an expert instrumentalist able to play various instruments including mandolin, harmonica, violin concertina and accordion – an impressive repertoire indeed!
In 1935, he joined forces with the Lomaxes to spearhead the folk music revival of that period. Additionally, this tour inspired him to compose his first protest song: “The Bourgeois Blues”, which addressed issues like lynching and Washington D.C’s stringent segregation laws.
After his release from prison, he relocated to New York City and quickly gained popularity among left-leaning folk music enthusiasts, such as poet Richard Wright. At this time he recorded for Moses Asch’s small record label that later evolved into Folkways Records.
Lead Belly claimed to be politically neutral; however, his music tells a different tale. His life experiences turned him into an avid advocate for racial equality and rights through song. Lead Belly sang an interpretation of “Jack Johnson”, one such folk standard, in which an African-American boxer was denied passage on Titanic due to race discrimination.
Lomax quickly found himself struggling to control Lead Belly in 1930s New York; as their partnership quickly disintegrated. Lead Belly sued his former manager on the basis of stopping him from spending all of his money, while Lomax finished writing and publishing Negro Folk Songs As Performed by Lead Belly by 1936.