Wasn't That A Time: Chronicles Of The Depression

Songs and artwork help explain the mood of the Great Depression in performance at the Huntington Public Library.

It was "a mighty hard row" indeed that Americans traveled during the Great Depression, and actress and singer Shirley Romaine chronicled some of its stories and songs Sunday at the Huntington Public Library.

Romaine, of Great Neck, used slides of artwork done for the Works Progress Administration during the Depression to illustrate the mood of the nation, along with popular songs from the period, including Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty." She assembled the program 11 years ago under commission from the Hecksher Museum of Art to give context to a museum show of 100 black and white prints. Since then, she's presented her program, "Wasn't That A Time," about 20 times around Long Island and the New York City area.

The depressions of 1837 and 1893 were too far away to be remembered when the economic collapse of 1929 hit, giving it the moniker of the Great Depression, she said. One good thing that came out of it was the idea of paying people to produce work in areas in which they were trained. "A generation of painters and writers served their apprenticeships with the WPA," Romaine said. "Their art was available for everyone." The slides of artwork she uses are from a collection by Fern and Hersh Cohen of Port Washington.

If it hadn't been for some of the angry, satiric lithographs produced by WPA artists, the pain so many experienced wouldn't have been as widely chronicled, Romaine said. "Songs and popular culture were pretty much escapist fare," she said, mentioning Shirley Temple "shaking her curls," Busby Berkley musicals and Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger movies. "Except for these [WPA works], you wouldn't have known the country was in the dumps."

Artists such as Mark Rothko produced works under the WPA, along with theater greats Orson Welles and John Houseman. In a similar New Deal program for public works, the Public Works Administration funded construction of the Lincon Tunnel and the Triborough Bridge.

Between 1935 and 1943, the WPA put about 8.5 million people to work, or about a fifth of the nation's population. Murals still grace many post offices and public buildings, but in many cases the work wasn't maintained or was destroyed when a building was remodeled. WPA artists were asked to produce an original and 12 copies, she said, and were allowed to keep four copies. Some of the leftover artwork was used as insulation, some was used at Riker's Island as scratch paper, and other works were thrown away. It wasn't until the 1970s that the work began to be valued, she said.

"Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?,"by lyricist E. Y. "Yip" Harburg and composer Jay Gorney, came to be regarded as the anthem of the Depression. As Romaine sang, its haunting melody drifted over the library meeting room. "Why should I be standing in line just waiting for bread?" the song asks, when "Once I built a railroad, I made it run, Made it race against time. Once I built a railroad, now it's done -- Brother, can you spare a dime?"

Harburg worked the song out so it wasn't just about a man asking for a handout, Romaine said, but a chronicle of a man who had invested in the country and was a little outraged that things had gone so wrong. "He wasn't a beggar but a real, live human being. 'I made an investment in this country - where's my dividend?'," Romaine said.

Romaine also performed excerpts from Arthur Miller's play, "The American Clock," which is billed as "a dramatic vaudeville about the Great Depression" and is a medley of dramatic scenes and period song and dance, and sang "Pennies From Heaven" and "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries."

Among those attending, Sandy Kornfeld of Huntington thought the presentation valuable because it offers some parallels to the current economic situation.

"We're struggling through a depression like in the '30s, but not as bad," she said. "It brings back such upsetting times in our life." And Diane Duffy of Huntington noted she sees the impact of the government programs on a retaining wall she walks past that has either WPA or 1938 on it. And, she said, her father was employed as a plasterer by the WPA during the Depression.

In addition to the Depression multimedia presentation, Romaine is offering a "Best of the Berkshires" tour Aug. 17-20 that includes three theater performances and stops at Tanglewood, the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. For a brochure, contact the Adult Program office at Great Neck Public Schools, 516-441-4949.
Romaine also hosts Artscene on Long Island, which airs on Cablevision Wednesdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 5:30 p.m. on Channel 73 in the town of North Hempstead and Tuesdays at 11 a.m. on Channel 18 in the rest of Nassau and western Suffolk counties.

Pastures Of Plenty

It's a mighty hard row that my poor hands have hoed
My poor feet have traveled a hot dusty road
Out of your Dust Bowl and Westward we rolled
And your deserts were hot and your mountains were cold

I worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes
I slept on the ground in the light of the moon
On the edge of the city you'll see us and then
We come with the dust and we go with the wind

California, Arizona, I harvest your crops
Well its North up to Oregon to gather your hops
Dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine
To set on your table your light sparkling wine

Green pastures of plenty from dry desert ground
From the Grand Coulee Dam where the waters run down
Every state in the Union us migrants have been
We'll work in this fight and we'll fight till we win

It's always we rambled, that river and I
All along your green valley, I will work till I die
My land I'll defend with my life if it be
Cause my pastures of plenty must always be free

                                                                   -- Woody Guthrie


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