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  • Writer's pictureMusic History Hall

Country & Folk: Depression Era Music

Updated: Feb 3

They say country music "comes from the heart" - it's about "truth-telling."

That may be true, but country music also comes from a mix of rural African-American blues, ragtime, Irish fiddle music from the "old country," German polka, and vaquero music from the Mexican border.

Country music takes on the sounds of the country -- railroad steam engine whistles and riverboats. It is traditional folk music, slave songs, spirituals, and honky-tonk dance music. It's music for beer halls on Saturday nights and church service on Sunday mornings.

This simple yet complicated music sprang up in the rural south in the years leading into the Great Depression and gave comfort to farming communities and working-class migrants who felt that the singers of hillbilly music understood their plight.

Jimmie Rodgers was their first hero - the singing brakeman.

The first family of country music is the Carter Family. The Carter Family hailed from the hills of Virginia and were among the first to be recorded along with Jimmie Rodgers in the late 1920s. The group was formed by A.P. and Sara Carter and Sara's cousin, Maybelle. The second generation of the Carter family was Maybelle and her three daughters.

They sang songs collected from the hills and hollers of rural Virginia -- folk songs that had been passed down for generations and recorded in Bristol, Tennessee. Their songs are considered standards.

Radio was a new technology in the 1930s and many households had a radio for the first time. Families and neighbors would gather around the radio to listen to the news, live variety shows, and the new barn dances that played hillbilly music. The most popular of the barn dances was the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. Its weekly Saturday night barn dances became extremely popular and the home of country music on the radio during the Great Depression. The Grand Ole Opry is known as the "Mother Church of Country Music."

Opry performers included Bill Monroe, The Carter Family, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, and DeFord Bailey. The show mixed country, bluegrass, fiddles, banjos, square dancing, and comedy. It was the most famous honky tonk in the world.

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