Depression era music echoes forcefully into the present

The first time Wall Street laid an egg, songwriters went on one of the richest sprees in American history.

The 1930s treasure-trove of American music — culled from the country’s every corner: Appalachia, Broadway, the Mississippi Delta, Tin Pan Alley — is seeing a considerable revival, oddly enough, just as the Street and certain financial institutions again are scraping egg off their faces.

“We’re not going through the same hard times as those people (from the Depression era),” proffers Jorma Kaukonen, a member of the Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna and whose new disc updates country music of the 1930s. “But the songs are talking about dire need and how the spirit rises above it.”

Kaukonen’s latest project, and his first major-label album in 22 years, is “Blue Country Heart,” a collection of country songs penned in the years between the two world wars.

On many counts, the success of the soundtrack to “O Brother, Where Art Thou” has made opening the vaults of the 1930s a worthy endeavor; the decade was a heyday for songwriters throughout the country. Contempo musicians who work material from early country and Broadway are turning to the era for several reasons: For some it’s revealing their own roots, but for many they’re discovering how much the decade stands out from the booming-voiced, overwrought performers of the 1920s, and how varied music was as it bled into the jazz age.

Kaukonen is hardly alone in reaching back to that era.

Audra McDonald, who won three Tony Awards before she hit 30, covers the period on her next Nonesuch release, “Happy Songs”; the second round of acts associated with the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou” has covered the U.S. on tour while the ensemble’s patriarch, Ralph Stanley, is enjoying a commercial revival as well with his new album of Depression-era spirituals; cabler USA’s hit series “Monk” dabbles into some guitar-violin swing for its theme, a nod to the latter part of the decade.

And in the film “Road to Perdition,” in which Thomas Newman’s score wallpapers the 1931-set pic, there’s room for a few well-selected needle drops, among them the Fletcher Henderson recording of “Queer Notions” (from 1933!) and 1928’s “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” from Eddie Condon’s Chicago Rhythm Kings.

“It’s Mark Twain territory,” T Bone Burnett says of the appeal of country and blues from the period. He has driven a bandwagon built on roots music in the last two years, having created, with the Coen brothers, the Grammy-winning “O Brother” soundtrack, the ensuing tours and then a label, DMZ, that has recorded the 75-year-old Stanley and issued the soundtrack to “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” which opens with several Cajun numbers from the 1920s.

“It’s about storytelling in song form,” he explains. Next up on the film front for Burnett is a Civil War-era soundtrack.

Historically, turning to the ’20s and ’30s hasn’t been the keenest of moves.

Bryan Ferry’s collection of 1930s pop, “As Time Goes By” (Virgin), stiffed upon its release in 1999, though it did earn him a Grammy nom.

Ringo Starr shot himself in the proverbial foot after the breakup of the Beatles by recording “Sentimental Journey” rather than showing his contempo chops, reaching just No. 22 on the album chart.

Cher dipped into the era in 1974 with “Bittersweet White Light” as a follow-up to “Half Breed” and reached only No. 140.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, though, has recorded its third edition of “Will the Circle be Unbroken” with guest stars such as Del McCoury, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs and Alison Krauss, among others. Capitol, clearly believing “O Brother” has created a thirst for this music, will release the two-CD set Oct. 1. The first disc, a three-CD set issued in ’72, took a year to go gold; the second edition (1989) was the Country Music Assn.’s album-of-the-year.

Clearly the period has a pull for musicians.

“There’s a novelty about” music from that era, notes McDonald. “There was so much going on in the world at that time, and yet you see MGM was at its height because people were looking for escape. People were clinging to an idea of what happiness could be.”

Jazz historian Mike Peters, whose essays have been included in box sets from Mosaic Records on the guitarist Django Reinhardt and the guitar-violin duo of Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti, says technology not only ushered in changes in 1930s music, it served to close certain chapters.

“Radio and film allowed music to travel, and music from big cities reached new audiences,” Peters says. “More and more people were exposed to a variety of music, and they started to influence each other. As technology kicked in, more people — more songwriters and musicians — were affected.

“Venuti created the chamber group in jazz. Lang (who began recording in ’24 and died in 1933) was the No. 1 guy in the world — no one was improvising in jazz on the guitar. He wrote the book. But once the electric guitar came in in the late ’30s, everybody plugged in, and what (Lang) did was lost. His influence ended in the ’30s.”

Mosaic Records’ career-spanning overview of the recordings of Venuti and Lang enforces the point that “O Brother” has made since its inception: It wasn’t until the 1930s that an intersection was paved for Tin Pan Alley, Mississippi blues, Appalachian country and gospel music from throughout the South.

Venuti and Lang, besides recording as a duo, seemingly recorded with anyone and everyone between 1926 and 1933, as this eight-CD collection includes their work with cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, New Orleans legends Clarence Williams and King Oliver, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and blues musicians Lonnie Johnson and Bessie Smith.

“There’s a huge commonality in the content of the music with the artists of the time — the well from which they were drawing,” Kaukonen says of the decade.

In November, Mosaic will release another set from the same period: the six-CD “Complete Brunswick & Vocalion Recordings of Louis Prima & Wingy Manone (1924-1937).” (Mosaic albums are not available in stores and are sold only through their Web site — mosaicrecords.com — and mail order via their Stamford, Conn., office).

But it has been bluegrass reissues, regardless of the time period, that have been filling a newfound post-“O Brother” pipeline.

The venerable roots label Yazoo has issued Vols. 5 and 6 of “Times Ain’t Like They Used to Be,” two collections of rural music from the ’20s and ’30s that set the stanchions on the bridge between blues and country, especially fiddle tunes.

The library of Rounder Records, more than others, has gained considerable value in the past year and generated albums such as “Bluegrass Mountain Style” and “True Bluegrass.”

BMG Heritage dug deep into the RCA vaults for “Bona Fide Bluegrass and Mountain Music,” and the tiny indie Fuel 2000, with some help from Universal Music, has gone vintage with “Appalachian Breakdown.”

“There’s a ghetto within the ghetto of country music called bluegrass,” says Burnett. “There’s no trend here; I just think that some people will get out of that ghetto.”

Mandolinist-singer Ricky Skaggs, a bluegrass veteran who dove headfirst into old-time territory for the second Down From the Mountain tour, gave it a simpler definition. “It’s fun to sing songs in which you believe every word.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more