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The Panic Is On: The Great American Depression as Seen by the Common Man

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  • Posted October 1, 2010

    more from this reviewer

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    No Boring History Lesson Here

    You may have never heard of Shanachie Records before. But they were the record company responsible for producing one of the finest compilations ever made, "The Indestructable Beat Of Soweto", which featured many great South African musicians in the final, dark days of apartheid. That collection proved, among other things, that creativity can sprout up brightly in times of trouble.

    Shanachie has been releasing a series of combination CD/DVD/Booklets lately. Their most recent collection is called "The Panic Is On: The Great American Depression As Seen By The Common Man". For anyone who thinks that our current Great Recession is horrendous they should give this a watch and a listen. It brings viewers and listeners back to a time when over 50,000 banks went under and the unemployment rate was 28% and standing in breadlines was a humiliating, everyday chore.

    The DVD features newsreel and documentary footage of that time, some of which is obvious like aftermath of the Great Plains Dust Bowl and the wearisome, nerve-breaking dance marathons. However, there is some truly revealing footage here. Such as a Zuni Indian giving the American people advice on how to cope with the Depression. Or a debutante selling her chinchilla coat and promising not to play the stock market anymore. There is also footage of soup kitchens opening up and tragically, closing, as well as the advent of electricity coming to rural parts of America.

    The CD contains a treasure trove of songs from this time that range from mostly blues to country-folk and even swing music. A few of the songs are optimistic like Art Kassel's "(Everything's Gonna Be) OK America", complete with air-raid whistles (?). Most of them look at the Depression with realism and some fatalism such as Woody Guthrie's "The Great Dust Storm" and Barbecue Bob's "Bad Time Blues". More than a few of them are actually funny because they poke fun at the wealthy and powerful, particularly Dick Robertson's "I Can't Go To The Poor House"; he sings, "...because it's full of millionaires".

    Meanwhile, there is also a revealing booklet that contains recollections of those who lived through those times. There are a few letters written by children to President Herbert Hoover and President Franklin Roosevelt that are quite heartbreaking telling about their families' plight. Nearly all these recollections makes one realize how lucky we are today.

    Watching and listening to "The Panic Is On", it's hard not to think of how timely this is in light of recent events: the housing crisis, the downfall of Enron, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, etc. What I would like to know is how did the folks at Shanachie manage to find footage of King Vidor's 1932 film "Our Daily Bread"? It's a brilliant film about farmers trying to start a new life in the midst of a drought and I don't think it's available on DVD. Watching the few moments of THIS footage makes you want the film right now.

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