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#184: From Great Depression's Depths, Creativity Reached New Heights

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An art class organized by the federal government's Work Progress Administration
An art class organized by the federal government's Work Progress Administration

STEVE EMBER: Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION - American history in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. This week in our series, Bob Doughty and I tell about American arts and popular culture during the nineteen thirties.

Hard economic times and social conflict have always offered a rich source of material for artists and writers. A painter's colors can show the drying of dreams or the flight of the human spirit. A musician can express the tensions and uncertainty of a people in struggle. The pressures of hard times can be the force to lift a writer's imagination to new heights.

So it was during the nineteen thirties in the United States. The severe economic crisis -- the Great Depression -- created an atmosphere for artistic imagination and creative expression. The common feeling of struggle also led millions of Americans to look to films, radio and other new art forms for relief from their day-to-day cares.

BOB DOUGHTY: The most popular sound of the nineteen-thirties was a new kind of music -- "swing" music. And the "King of Swing" was a clarinet player named Benny Goodman.

(MUSIC: Benny Goodman Orchestra)

Benny Goodman and other musicians made swing music extremely popular during the nineteen-thirties. Swing music was a new form of jazz. Many of its first players were black musicians in small, unknown groups. It was only when more well-known white musicians started playing swing music in the middle nineteen-thirties that the new music became wildly popular.

A young girl listening to the radio
A young girl listening to the radio

STEVE EMBER: One reason for the popularity of swing music was the growing power of radio during the nineteen thirties.

Radio had already proven in earlier years that it could be an important force in both politics and popular culture. Millions of Americans bought radios during the nineteen twenties. But radio grew up in the nineteen-thirties. Producers became more skillful in creating programs. And actors and actresses began to understand the special needs and power of this new electronic art form.

Swing music was not the only kind of music that radio helped make popular. The nineteen thirties also saw increasing popularity for traditional, classical music by Beethoven, Bach and other great musicians.

In nineteen thirty, the Columbia Broadcasting System began a series of concerts by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on Sunday afternoons. The next year, the National Broadcasting Company, NBC, began weekly opera concerts.

BOB DOUGHTY: In nineteen thirty-seven, NBC asked Arturo Toscanini of Italy to lead an orchestra on American radio. Toscanini was the greatest orchestra leader of his day. Millions of Americans listened at Christmas time as Toscanini and the NBC Orchestra began playing the first of ten special radio concerts.

It was a great moment for both music and radio. For the first time, millions of average Americans were able to hear classical music by great musicians as it was being played.

STEVE EMBER: Music was an important reason why millions of Americans gathered to listen to the radio during the nineteen thirties. But even more popular were a series of weekly programs with exciting or funny new actors.

Families would come home from school or work and laugh at the foolish experiences of such actors as Jack Benny, Fred Allen, George Burns, Edgar Bergen, and WC Fields. Radio helped people forget the hard conditions of the Great Depression. And it helped to bring Americans together and share experiences.

BOB DOUGHTY: Swing music. Classical music. Great comedy programs. The nineteen thirties truly were a golden period for radio and mass communications. But it was also during this period that Hollywood and the American film industry became much more skilled and influential.

In previous years, films were silent. But the "talkies" arrived in the nineteen thirties.

(MUSIC)

Actress Vivien Leigh in
Actress Vivien Leigh in "Gone with the Wind"

STEVE EMBER: Directors could produce films in which actors could talk. Americans reacted by attending film theaters by the millions. It was a great time for Hollywood. The films had exciting new actors. Spencer Tracy. Bette Davis. Katharine Hepburn. The young Shirley Temple.

The most famous film of the period was "Gone with the Wind" with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, in the starring roles of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara.

CLARK GABLE: "No, I don't think I will kiss you, although you need kissing badly. That's what's wrong with you. You should be kissed, and often. And by someone who knows how'"

VIVIEN LEIGH: "And I suppose you think you're the proper person."

CLARK GABLE: "I might be, if the right moment ever came."

Directors in the nineteen thirties also produced such great films as "It Happened One Night," "Mutiny on the Bounty," and "The Life of Emile Zola."

BOB DOUGHTY: The success of radio and films, as well as the depression itself, caused problems for many Americans newspapers during the nineteen thirties. The trouble was not so much that readers stopped buying newspapers. It was that companies talked about their products through advertisements on radio instead of buying advertising space in newspapers.

Nearly half of the nation's independently published newspapers either stopped publishing or joined larger companies during the nineteen thirties. By World War Two, only one hundred twenty cities had competing newspapers.

STEVE EMBER: Weekly and monthly publications faced the same problem as daily newspapers -- increased competition from radio and films. Many magazines failed. The two big successes of the period were Life Magazine and the Reader's Digest.

Life Magazine had stories for everyone about film actors, news events, or just daily life in the home or on the farm. Its photographs were the greatest anywhere. Reader's Digest published shorter forms of stories from other magazines and sources.

BOB DOUGHTY: Most popular books of the period were like the films coming from Hollywood. Writers cared more about helping people forget their troubles than about facing serious social issues. They made more money that way, too.

But a number of writers in the nineteen thirties did produce books that were both profitable and of high quality. One was Sinclair Lewis. His book "It Can't Happen Here," warned of the coming dangers of fascism. John Steinbeck's great book "The Grapes of Wrath" helped millions understand and feel in their hearts the troubles faced by poor farmers.

Erskine Caldwell wrote about the cruelty of life among poor people in the southeastern United States, and James T. Farrell about life in Chicago.

Detail from a Ben Shahn mural from the Depression era
Detail from a Ben Shahn mural from the Depression era

STEVE EMBER: The same social concern and desire to present life as it really existed also were clear in the work of many American artists during the nineteen thirties. Thomas Benton painted workers and others with strong, tough bodies. Edward Hopper showed the sad streets of American cities. Reginald Marsh painted picture after picture of poor parts of New York City.

The federal government created a program that gave jobs to artists. They painted their pictures on the walls of airports, post offices and schools. The program brought their ideas and creativity to millions of people.

At the same time, photography became more important as cameras improved in quality and became more moveable. Some photographers like Margaret Bourke-White and Walker Evans used their cameras to report the hard conditions of the Depression.

BOB DOUGHTY: All this activity in the arts and popular culture played an important part in the lives of Americans during the nineteen thirties. It not only provided relief from their troubles, but expanded their minds and pushed their imaginations.

The tensions and troubles of the Great Depression provided a rich atmosphere for artists and others to produce works that were serious, foolish, or just plain fun. And those works, in turn, helped make life a little better as Americans waited, worked, and hoped for times to improve.

(MUSIC)

STEVE EMBER: Our program was written by David Jarmul. I'm Steve Ember with Bob Doughty. You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and pictures at www.unsv.com. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history series in VOA Special English.

___

This is program #184

经济困难和社会冲突时期,常常为艺术家和作家们提供丰富的创作源泉。画家用色彩表现梦想的破灭或人类的战斗精神。音乐表现出拼搏中人们的紧张和不安。艰苦时期所带来的压力也使作家们的想象力实现了飞越。

所以,在上世纪三十年代的美国,大萧条为艺术家们营造了一个刺激想像力和创造力的难得氛围。苦日子也让成百上千万美国人在电影、广播和其他新的艺术形式中寻找短暂的欢娱,摆脱日常生活的苦恼。

上个世纪三十年代最受欢迎的音乐是一种新的音乐,叫摇摆乐。摇摆乐之王是一位单簧演奏者,名叫班尼.古德曼。古德曼和其他一些音乐者们使摇摆乐成为20世纪三十年代最受欢迎的音乐形式。

摇摆乐是爵士乐的一种新形式,最先演奏摇摆乐的都是些不知名小乐队的黑人音乐人。直到1930年代中期,一些著名的白人音乐家开始演奏摇摆乐,才让摇摆乐开始风行一时。

摇摆乐流行开来的一个重要原因是这个时期广播的力量越来越大。在此之前,大家已经知道,广播在政治和流行文化上能够发挥重要作用。二十年代时,数百万美国人开始收听收音机,但广播发展的旺盛时期则是在三十年代。

广播节目制作人的节目制作技巧更加精湛,演员也开始了解这种新传媒方式的特性和力量。广播仅仅推动了摇摆乐的流行,同时也让贝多芬、巴赫等一些伟大音乐家的传统古典音乐加倍受到广大听众的喜爱。

1930年,哥伦比亚广播公司在每周日下午,举办由纽约爱乐乐团演出的系列音乐会。次年,全国广播公司也开始举办每周歌剧音乐会。1937年,全国广播公司邀请意大利著名指挥家阿尔图罗.托斯卡尼尼指挥交响乐队在广播中播出。

托斯卡尼尼是当时世界上最伟大的指挥家。他与美国国家广播公司交响乐团合作演出了10场特别广播音乐会,数百万美国人在圣诞期间聆听了这一系列音乐会的第一场。这是音乐和广播的一个伟大时刻。数百万普通美国人第一次通过广播聆听伟大音乐指挥家现场指挥的古典音乐会。

音乐是20世纪30年代让无数美国人聚集在收音机前的一个重要原因,但更受欢迎的是当时每周播出的新喜剧系列节目。孩子放学、大人下班后,回家一起听杰克.班尼、佛瑞德.艾伦、乔治.卑尔根和菲尔德斯等演员的喜剧节目。

广播让人们忘却了大萧条所带来的痛苦,让美国人团结在一起,分享他们的经历。摇摆音乐、古典音乐和喜剧节目使1930年代成为广播和大众传媒的一个黄金时期。而好莱坞和美国电影业也在这一时期更加娴熟并发展壮大。在此之前,美国只有无声电影。1930年代出现了有声电影。

有声电影的出现,把无数美国人吸引到电影院里看电影。对于好莱坞来说,这是一个伟大的时期。无数的新演员粉墨登场:斯宾塞.特蕾西、贝蒂.戴维斯、凯瑟琳.赫本和小演员秀兰.邓波儿,数不胜数。

这一时期最著名的电影是克拉克.盖博和费文丽演绎的《飘》,他们在电影中分别出演白瑞德和斯嘉丽。上世纪三十年代其他的著名电影包括《一夜风流》、《叛舰碟血记》和《左拉传》。

这一时期广播和电影的成功使美国报业面临困境。问题不是没人买报纸了,而是企业开始选择在广播里做广告,而不再通过向报纸买版面做广告了。20世纪30年代,将近半数独立发行的报纸要么停发,要么加入大型报业集团。到二战爆发时,美国只有120座城市拥有彼此竞争的报纸。

与日报一样,周刊和月刊也受到来自广播和电影的冲击,许多杂志社倒闭了。但也有两家杂志社取得了成功,一是《生活》,一是《读者文摘》。《生活》杂志主要向大家介绍电影演员、新闻事件和人们日常生活或在农场的生活,它的照片是最棒的。《读者文摘》则从别的杂志和其他刊物中摘录文章。

这一时期的畅销书籍与好莱坞的电影一样,作家们更关注如何让人们忘却痛苦,而不是叙述此刻严重的社会问题。也只有这样他们才能赚钱。但有一些作家也创作了高质量的畅销作品。

其中之一是辛克莱.刘易斯,他的小说《不能发生在这里》,警告人们即将来临的法西斯的威胁。约翰.斯坦贝克的著名小说《愤怒的葡萄》让无数的美国人理解和感受到贫穷农民所面临的困难。厄斯金.考德威尔的作品真切地反映了美国南方穷人的生活,还有詹姆士.法雷尔的小说向人们介绍了芝加哥人的生活。

上世纪三十年代,许多美国艺术家的作品也同样反映了他们对当时社会生活的关切。托马斯.本顿描绘了强悍、粗犷的工人。爱德华.霍珀的绘画则反映了美国城市中令人心碎的荒凉街道。

联邦政府推出一项计划,为这些艺术家提供工作,让他们在飞机场、办公楼和学校的墙壁上绘画。这个项目把这些艺术家们的思想和他们的创造力传达给无数的美国人。

与此同时,照相机质量不断提高,携带起来也更加方便,摄影也就越来越重要了。玛格丽特.伯克-怀特和沃克.埃文斯等摄影师,用他们手中的照相机向人们展示了大萧条时期人们处境的艰难。

20世纪30年代,艺术家们的创作活动在美国人生活中扮演了重要角色,它不仅让人们从苦难中获得新生,而且还启发了人们的心智,拓展了人们的想象空间。

大萧条所带来的紧张和苦难为艺术家们提供了良好的创作氛围,艺术家们创作了大量作品,有的严肃,有些仅仅为博人一笑。但这些作品,为那些在苦难中等待、努力和期待复苏的美国人或多或少带来了一丝欢乐。

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