A Blog of One’s Own

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” as a Secondary Source for The Great Depression in the American South

Radio Days

As the technology, business methods, and regulation of radio developed the more influence it had over Americans. By 1929, 80% of radios could be bought on credit. Between 1929-1936, an average of 600 stations were operational in the U.S. The reach of radio was enormous. Mass communication and entertainment could reach Americans within their own homes, and capitalized on by business advertisers, artists, and politicians. Between 1930-1937 ‘radio homes” increased from 45.8% to 82%. But the reach was not equal demographically or geographically. Between 1930-1936 Southern states saw an increase from 12% to 48% in radio homes. While telephone subscriptions and movie attendance dropped slightly during the hardest years of the Great Depression, radio sales increased. It was a cheaper form of entertainment and rarely worth selling used. Stations could rarely afford to pay performers in the 1920s, offering airtime merely as a promotion, but by the late 1930s advertisers sponsored most programming, pleasing the listeners who received more quality shows, and pleasing the artists who were actually compensated<1>. In the “O Brother” radio serves as a major plot driver. One politician character references its importance as a tool for “mass communicating.” The three escaped convict protagonist (Clooney, Nelson, and Torturro) earn some quick cash by recording a folk song “Man of Constant Sorrow” at a radio station. There popularity grows over the radio, which eventually helps them get pardoned in the end.

 

As American as Bank Robbery!

Bank robbery, as paradoxical as it may be, has been glorified and cherished in American culture. By the rise of organized crime and gangsters in the 1920s/30s, many Americans already knew the names and told stories of famous bank robbers and outlaws of the Wild West like Jesse James. The Depression fueled bank robbery and criminals like Bonnie and Clyde, whose stories provided real-life melodrama during the hard knock Depression, excited the public. Bonnie and Clyde covered the Midwest and the South in their escapades, but bank robber Lester Gillis, famously known as George “Baby Face” Nelson, along with his wife and gang kept mostly to Illinois, except for a short run across the country to California and back in the early 1930s. He was gunned down and found dead in Illinois on November 28, 1934. He was known to be hot tempered over the “Baby Face” nickname. Sensationalized in their lifetimes and glorified in films soon after, bank robbers continue to be beloved parts of American legends<2>. “Baby Face” Nelson is portrayed in the movie completely inaccurately, except perhaps in temperament, and of course, he was in fact a bank robber. The Coens’ inclusion of the character served more to color the heroes’ adventure than anything else. The invocation of a slightly more obscure criminal was probably also used to promote the general theme of American legendry during the era. The movie depicts Nelson as being a lone ranger robber who gets captured and marches off to be executed by electrocution near the movies end.

 

African Americans and Blues Legends

Most young black southerners of the blues generation worked as migrants, circling from farm to city getting various low paid jobs. Many of the first Mississippi blues musicians came from farming families, often returning to that work after a few years. But depending on the venues and their audiences, successful musicians like Robert Johnson sometimes earned more money on a Saturday night than a week of plantation work. Much like the spirituals and gospels created during slavery, blues music was directly reflected the situation of black men and women in the 1920s/1930s. Stories of a Faustian agreement sprung up around well-known, and short-lived Robert Johnson, but that legend supposedly originated with an earlier musician named Tommy Johnson (unrelated). It is said that Tommy Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a dark crossroads in exchange for masterful musical skill. He suffered greatly from his gambling and alcoholism, apparently believing that he signed away his right to ever record music again while drunk early in his career. Still, Johnson greatly influenced the genre and continues to be covered by artists. Both Johnsons worked on farms before their musical careers<3>. Although the film calls one integral character Tommy Johnson, the portrayal is probably more accurately a mixture of the two famous Johnson blue artists. He is not a drunk or a gambler, yet anyway, in the movie. There is no account of either Johnson having hung around with some white escaped convicts, nor having a run-in with the Klan and barely escaping with his life. But once again, the American legend is invoked and accurately described.

 

Southern Politicians

Another figure of iconic of the 1930s was the politician, a sort of stock character. Huey Long is the greatest example in American history, rising through radio and the desperation of people in the Great Depression. Though Long was considered a thug-intimidator and heavily into nepotism and the spoils system, he made huge reforms as Louisiana’s governor in the early 1930s. W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel also gained fame as a radio personality with his bluegrass band the Hillbilly Boys. Running for his only term as governor of Texas, O’Daniel promoted his Flour Mill Company, with the slogan “Pass the buiscuits, Pappy” and promoted reform using a broom to symbolize cleaning up after dirty politics, a common tactic of the time. Governor Davis of Louisiana also was known through the radio from his popular rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” and Texas Governor Neff famously pardoned a country singer after a good performance<4>. The Pappy O’Daniels in “O Brother” is definitely an amalgamation of the above figures. He promotes his “Flour Hour” over the radio, pardons the three flawed heroes in the end, is accused of nepotism and ineffectiveness, and calls on newly gained supporters to join in a glorious round of “You Are My Sunshine.” However, it is his opponent that uses old-timey music, bandwagon campaigning, and shakes a broom for theatrics.

 

Life on the Chain Gang

            Years of hard labor in unregulated penitentiaries or labor camps were common sentences for minor crimes committed by poor whites or blacks in the South for decades. Life on the chain gang was written about firsthand and by socially conscious writers. I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) was one of the first film depictions of the cruel labor system. Songs about the chain gang were created by the convicts themselves and by folk/blues artists in the jazz age. Escape was fairly frequent. Punishment usually included torture such as the sweatbox, a dramatically prolonged sentence, and in most extreme scenarios death during re-capture<5>. The three convicts escape without explanation, straight off the chain gang as if it were as easy as that at the very start of the movie to the song “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” describing a perfect world absent of manual labor. But the escapees are constantly eluding their pursuers within inches of their life. The scene where the vigilante-like law whips Pete and when they are all nearly hung is sinister but not far off from the hard and unjust life most criminals were subjected. The picture-show scene with the convicts is actually an allusion to a scene in Preston Sturges’ film “Sullivan’s Travels”, from where “O Brother” received its name.

 

The Klu Klux Klan

            The Klan, at its height during the revival, had 3 million members, who discriminated and sometimes physically harmed and murdered Jews, Catholics, Immigrants, and Blacks in the 1930s. The demographics was an equal cross-section of white men and up to 500, 000 white women at one point. This meant the law was often involved in the clan, along with politicians, and businessmen. Some politicians couldn’t get elected without the support of the Klan. Rallies were secret, as were identities, but in many cases public, daytime marches were held in the streets as intimidation<6>.(See link to early footage in Gallery page). The KKK rally in the film is meant to be both sinister and absurd, almost like the “O-wee-O” scene from “Wizard of Oz.” The films comic approach does not keep it from being truthful, though. The racist sentiments expressed by the red-robed wizard, who is actually the political gubernatorial candidate, are true to KKK doctrine. The sacredness of the Confederate flag and the lynching of an innocent black man (here Johnson) are also accurate to say of a KKK rally or meeting in 1937 Mississippi.

 

Overall, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is a flawed source to use for the past, however, the film goes far beyond what the filmmakers claim. The allusions are rich a copious, but furthermore the film dares tackle a period and a subject that is based more in cultural history than war, biography, political events, etc. And cultural history is a far more ambiguous field than the others. The Coens’ film does a commendable job at creating an accurate setting and image of the diverse Great Depression society in the American South.

 

Endnotes

<1> Douglas B. Craig, Fireside Politics: Radio and Political Culture in the United States,

1920-1940, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

<2>Hugh Ruppersburg, “Oh, So Many Startlements…History, Race, and Myth in O Brother,

Where Art Thou?” Southern Cultures 9, no. 4 (Winter, 2003).

<3>Ted Ownby, American Dreams in Mississippi: Consumers, Poverty, & Culture, 1830-

1998 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

<4>Ruppersburg.

<5> Jeanne  Perreault, Chain Gang Narratives and the Politics of “Speaking For” Biography

24, no. 1 (Winter, 2001): 152-171.

<6>Bill Brummell, “Klu Klux Klan: A Secret History (3/9)” The History Channel, 1998,

Youtube: Broadcast Yourself. 

 

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