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Opinion On the the universal demand for healing song when things go bad

DAVID YEARSLEY casts a sceptical eye on musical attempts to sugarcoat the ‘panics’ of 1896, 1907 and the Depression of 1930s

A SURVEY of the historical soundtrack and stock market crashes reveals that musicians are not deaf to the beat of the financial markets, the euphoric crescendo and inevitable diminuendo of boom and bust, the ecstatic coloratura of good times and the gloomy introits to bad.

While bottom-line laments sung by executives in recent years have silenced many artistic enterprises from across the musical spectrum, financial indices reflect, even if in inverse proportion, the universal demand for healing song when things go bad.

How else to explain the fact that the resounding collapse of 1929 led seamlessly into one of the great years of US popular song: 1930 yielded Hoagy Carmichael’s Georgia on My Mind, Johnny Green’s Body and Soul, George Gershwin’s Embraceable You, and Cole Porter’s Love for Sale, to name just a few.

There’s also Harold Arlen’s Get Happy. Composed in 1929 and published the following year, the song might be heard to respond, if indirectly, to economic depression.

Coupled with Ted Koehler’s bouncy lyric, the music is almost ridiculously optimistic: “Forget your troubles c’mon get happy, / you better chase all your cares away. / Shout hallelujah c’mon get happy / get ready for the judgment day.”

Good humour mixes with apocalyptic fears for this much-needed palliative for those newly dark times: the music and lyrics are all about diverting the listener from the cruel realities of the present.

Indeed, music has buoyed markets for as long as markets have existed.

While the relationship between music and markets is a complicated one, the correspondences between them are far from random.

It is not only the fortuitous eruption of the zeitgeist that accounts, for example, for the appearance John Philip Sousa’s most famous march Stars and Stripes Forever in the same year as the panic of 1896, which brought with it an acute depression.

Composed in a year of financial disaster, Sousa’s greatest hit is the patriotic hymn of unbridled capitalism.

Whether urged on by macho trombones or absurdly cheery piccolos, this United States marches unwaveringly towards a brighter future, if not brighter for everyone, then certainly for the captains of industry and their faithful lieutenants.

In contrast to music historians and festival organisers, who habitually capitalise on anniversaries, market watchers steer a wide course around such commemorations, since they inevitably direct thoughts towards the cyclic nature of markets and the unavoidable crash around the corner.

But looking back musically, we can still see a bright orange cone marking this deep pothole in the US’s golden pavements.

Composed in the wake of the panic, Scott Joplin’s Wall Street Rag appeared in 1909 when confidence in the markets had been largely restored.

The unbridled, if blinkered, gung-ho of Sousa gives way to a good deal of doubt.

The epigrammatic opening of Joplin’s Wall Street is cast in Very Slow March Time rather than the Slow March Time of so many of the composer’s other two-steps and rags.

It’s as if the poised brightness of these other pieces has been transformed into a dirge; indeed the cover, pictured, of Wall Street presents the view towards Trinity Church, and the dark-suited mob assembled in front of the Stock Exchange looks as if it has gathered for a funeral.

The brisk tempo of the allegedly original Joplin piano roll, recorded on a modern instrument and released last year by Editions Milan Music, must be wrong; on many of his printed scores, Joplin enjoined the buyers of his music in the starkest terms not to rush: “Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast!”

The rag’s opening section, Panic in Wall Street depicts the “brokers feeling melancholy.”

Nowadays, no-one would think to ascribe such an introspective, contemplative state to momentarily impoverished Wall Streeters forlornly nursing their martinis and patting their suit pockets to check for the reserves of pharmaceutical cocaine.

But it is precisely Joplin’s elegant handling of this rarefied sentiment that sends a classy strain of tubercular European salon music wafting over the manic, money hungry stone and asphalt caverns of New York’s financial district. There is a subtlety here that Sousa had no time or talent for.

The next section of the rag moves from these shapely Chopinesque chromatic inflections and gracefully sliding parallel figures to the rollicking right-hand chords and thundering bass octaves of “Good times coming.”

I’ll bet Joplin had Sousa in his ears for this. And soon enough “Good times have come” and Joplin focuses his musical material in the middle range of the piano where the breathless repetitions gather a locomotive’s momentum.

The rag closes with financial worries chased away. Now even the greedy have time for entertainment. Re-enriched, Wall Street can let itself have fun again: “Listening to the strains of genuine negro ragtime, brokers forget their cares.”

The carefree and poor, as if unaffected by the cycles of the market, and never burdened by the heavy responsibilities of steering the economy, offer up their carefree song for the celebration of the financiers. Joplin feeds the myth: what’s good for Wall Street is good for the United States.

But this final section is ambiguous. The rag does not embrace the system without some qualms.

“Genuine negro ragtime” invokes a notion of authenticity that the high-collared brokers can never attain: the dividends of pleasure that only music can pay are never taxable.

Yes, Joplin wanted to make a buck too. In 1899, He negotiated a royalty of a cent per copy of Maple Leaf Rag, a deal that brought him some $360 a year for the rest of his life (equivalent in purchasing power to about $12,400 today).

His publisher made a lot more money, but Joplin did all right himself. The outburst of negro joy after a black period in the markets wants to make us believe that way down at the bottom of the economic heap someone will always be singing and dancing.

Yet Wall Street does what Wall Street wants: it consoles in bad times and rejoices in good.

In spite of the superficial attempt to convey social unity across class and race, however, the surreal concluding tableau of Joplin’s Wall Street, with its the wealthy whites dancing in front of the stock exchange to joyful black music, cannot fully divert our ears and eyes from the more fundamental, and still operative, truth conveyed by this final image: the negroes have the rags, the brokers the riches.

This is an abridged version of an article just published by David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at [email protected].


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