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One of the most successful theatrical productions of the 1890s was a touring spectacle called “The South Before The War.” Here is how it was originally advertised.

Those of use who knew the “Souf befo’ the Wah,” as the children of Ham put it, and who know what plantation life really was [like] before our great internecine struggle, and such of us as have not had our opinions colored by the Harriet Beecher Stowe class of literature, but can recall the happy days and pleasant nights spent by the darkies in the cotton fields and cane brakes, will have an opportunity of seeing and living over again those happy times at—theatre by witnessing the inimitable performance given by Whallen and Martell’s big South before the War company.

From our lofty vantage point it’s easy to be appalled by this description. With our 130 years’ worth of hindsight, the debate is no longer about whether this show was right or wrong, but about exactly what mix of self-delusion and cynical self-interest went into it. In truth, the main difference between then and now is that we have learned not to say the quiet part loud. Nostalgia has its claws in us more than ever, from strictly-playlisted hits radio stations, to the obsessive sequeling and rebooting of movies and TV series, to politicians telling us they will make our countries “great again” – a phrase which is itself recycled from recentish history

Nostalgia is, almost by definition, a warm, comfortable thing. Life can be very stressful, and if people want to escape that by diving into a nostalgic pool filled with their best memories, then who can really blame them? It would seem pretty churlish to insist on shocking them out of their reverie with a difficult truth, they are surely in no mood to be lectured. The problem comes when this occasional retreat becomes an addiction, when it spills out of our personal lives into the world in general, and taints the way we see not just the past, but the present.

So far these mixes have concerned years which are generally beyond all living memory, and in 1933 this seems to have shifted profoundly. From a modern vantage point we are now in the lead-up to the Second World War, a time which still looms very large in British culture, and it is becoming difficult to find any kind of popular history which covers the time from any other perspective. In the real USA of 1933, the nostalgia industry is creating itself. These may be the darkest days of the great depression, but they are also the heady heights of the golden age of Hollywood. According to the artefacts I’ve gathered here, this was a nation as addicted to escapism as any other. The style and glamour of films and music this year are so sparklingly positive that at a glance there is no depression, no looming war, but a world in the full bloom of peace and prosperity.

Under the surface, though, there is a certain sadness lurking. This hedonistic escapism leaves open the question of – from what exactly are they escaping? Fred & Ginger’s relationship to music is an all-in, devotional ritual. Tex Ritter sings a tribute to whisky, Bessie Smith prefers a pigfoot and a bottle of beer. Al Bowlly compares his love to a decadent, unhealthy indulgence. For Ethel Waters, her disappointing love-life presents itself as stormy weather to be endured. Everywhere people are jumping head-first into pleasures and obsessions, and it’s left to a handful of country and blues singers to deal with the troubles of the world as it is now. Jimmy Rodgers is in the depths of despair, and Lightnin’ Washington is, literally, a prisoner working on a chain gang in Texas, during the dust bowl.

So here’s a year-long chunk of the past, then, a place which seems dead-set on creating its own nostalgia of the present, with little in the way of soul-searching or truth. It’s basically harmless, but let’s not pretend this is a real picture of how people were feeling in 1933, “how they wanted to feel” will just have to do.

Track list

0:00:30 Maurice Jaubert – If The Kids Are United (Zéro De Conduite)
(Clip from Employees Entrance)
0:01:18 Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra – Toby
0:04:36 Mae West & Cary Grant – Clip from “She Done Him Wrong”
0:05:01 Estrellas Hababeras – Buey Viejo
(Clip from Dinner at Eight)
0:08:20 Art Tatum – Tiger Rag
0:10:33 Lightnin’ Washington – Long John
(Clip from Design For Living)
0:13:21 Ethel Waters – Stormy Weather
0:16:14 Comedian Harmonists – Ohne Dich (Stormy Weather)
(Clip from The Little Rascals – Mush & Milk)
0:17:46 Ginger Rogers & Fred Astaire – Music Makes Me
(Clip from 42nd Street)
0:20:02 Casa Loma Orchestra – White Jazz
(Clip from newsreel announcing the end of prohibition)
0:23:27 Tex Ritter – Rye Whiskey, Rye Whiskey
(Clip from Footlight Parade)
0:24:56 Bessie Smith – Gimme A Pigfoot And A Bottle Of Beer
(Clip from Baby Face)
0:28:05 Clarence Ashley & Gwen Foster – Bay Rum Blues Roots
(Clip from Duck Soup)
0:32:18 Groucho Marx & Margaret Dumont – The Laws Of My Administration
(Clip from Burns & Allen Routine)
0:34:04 Billy Cotton – Skirts
(Clip from 42nd Street)
0:36:10 Sol Hoopii’s Novelty Quartette – Hula Girl
0:39:11 Kanui & Lula – Tomi Tomi
0:41:19 Noi Lane – Hawaiian Ripple
0:42:57 Carmen Miranda – Alvorada (Samba)
(Clip from Murders In The Zoo)
0:45:19 Enrique Bryon Y Su Orquesta – Las Maracas De Cuba
0:48:20 Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra – High Society / Dusky Stevedore
(clip from Bombshell)
0:52:02 Ray Noble – It’s Bad For Me (Vocal – Al Bowlly)
(Clip from Dinner at Eight)
0:53:47 Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra – Sophisticated Lady
0:57:21 Art Tatum – Sophisticated Lady
(Clip from Universal Newsreel about Cecil H. Dill doing hand-farts)
0:58:48 Rudi Schneider – Trance-Breathing
0:58:53 Maboudana & Badolo – Chant Dâ´invitation A La Danse
0:59:23 Kurt Engel – Xylophonismus
1:00:38 Miss Columbia – 19 No Haru
1:01:14 Ichimaru – Tenryuu Kudareba
1:03:40 Kouta Katsutaro – Tokyo Ondo
(Clip from Gabriel Over the White House)
1:05:03 Marianne Oswald – Complainte De Kesoubah
(Clip from Gabriel Over the White House)
1:07:10 Hoagy Carmichael – Cosmics
1:07:33 Robert Frost – Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
1:08:28 Georg Kulenkampff – Tambourin Chinois (Kreisler)
(Clip from The Invisible Man)
1:09:59 Fletcher Henderson – King Porter Stomp
(Clip from I’m No Angel)
1:11:53 Benny Goodman & His Orchestra with Billie Holiday – Your Mother’s Son-In-Law
1:13:32 Joe Robechaux – Jig Music
(Clip from Duck Soup)
1:17:15 Henry Hall B.B.C. Dance Orchestra – The Wedding Of Mr. Mickey Mouse
(Clip from Walt Disney’s Three Little Pigs)
1:20:25 Mae Questal & Cab Calloway – You Gotta Hi De Ho
(Clip from Burns & Allen Routine)
1:22:15 Boswell Sisters – Shuffle Off To Buffalo
1:24:19 Bing Crosby – Someone Stole Gabriel’s Horn
(Clip of Fiorello H. La Guardia Attacks Tammany Hall)
1:25:54 James ‘Iron Head’ Baker – Black Betty
1:26:29 Ashley & Foster – The Rising Sun Blues
(Clip of Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugural address)
1:27:44 Big Bill Broonzy – How You Want It Done?
(Clip from Franklin Roosevelt – Fireside Chat #1, On the Banking Crisis)
1:29:50 Salty Dog Sam – Lonesome Road Blues
1:30:47 Josh White – Blood Red River
1:32:40 Fernando Vilches – Flor De Petenera
(Clip of nazis burning books)
1:35:47 Paul Robeson – Swing Low Sweet Chariot
(Clip from Einstein Speech at the Royal Albert Hall London)
1:37:42 Arthur Schnabel – Sonata No 22 In F Major, Op 54 Ii Allegretto
(Clip from Morning Glory)
1:39:25 Ethel Waters – Don’t Blame Me
(Clip from Dinner at Eight)
1:42:41 Al Bowlly Acc. By Orchestra Directed By Carroll Gibbons – Night And Day
1:44:18 Ambrose & His Orchestra – Night And Day
(Clip from Calvacade)
1:45:32 Harry Roy – Bugle Call Rag (Piano Duet – Ivor Moreton & Dave Kaye)
1:48:09 Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra – Moten Swing
(Clip from Employees’ Entrance)
1:50:14 The Lone Star Cowboys – Just Because
1:51:28 Prairie Ramblers – Shady Grove
(Clip from The Private Life of Henry VIII)
1:53:02 Ashley & Foster – East Virginia Blues
(Clip from Calvacade)
1:54:53 Jack Kelly & His South Memphis Jug Band – Cold Iron Bed Dark
1:57:57 Rudyard Kipling – France
1:58:16 Guerino Et Son Orchestre Musette & Django Reinhardt – Brise Napolitaine
(Clip from Zéro De Conduite)
2:00:53 Eddie South – Nagasaki
2:02:43 Midge Williams – Lazy Bones
(Clip from The Bitter Tea of General Yen)
2:05:59 The Mills Brothers with Bing Crosby – My Honey’s Lovin’ Arms
(Clip from International House)
2:07:45 Dorsey Brothers – By Heck
(Clip from Duck Soup)
2:11:07 Cab Calloway And His Orchestra – Zah Zuh Zah
2:13:03 Spike Hughes And His Orchestra – How Come You Do Me Like You Do?
2:16:05 Wilmouth Houdini and his Humming Bird – Trinidad Hurricane
2:18:26 Lionel Belasco – The Treasury Fire
(Clip from The Mayor of Hell)
2:20:05 Blind Willie Mctell – Savannah Mama
(Clip from King Kong)
2:21:29 Jimmie Rodgers – Gambling Bar Room Blues
2:23:27 Cliff Carlisle – Mouse’s Ear Blues
(Clip from Burns & Allen Routine)
2:25:06 Carter Family – Gold Watch And Chain
2:26:32 Bradley Kincaid – Dog And Gun (An Old English Ballad)
(Clip from Calvacade)
2:28:52 Joseph Schmidt – Jetzt Spielen Hull Dich In Tand Nur (Pagliacci)
(Clip from The Testament of Dr Mabuse)
2:31:01 Wanda Landowska, Harpsichord – Variation 17
2:32:51 The Three Ginx – On A Steamer Coming Over
(Clip from Employees’ Entrance)
2:34:44 Eddie Condon – Madame Dynamite
2:36:35 Joe Robechaux – Ring Dem Bells
2:38:20 Joe Venuti & His Blue Six – The Jazz Me Blues
2:39:33 Benny Carter Orchestra – Swing It
(Clip from Laurel & Hardy – Sons of the Desert)
2:41:18 Cliff Edwards – It’s Only A Paper Moon
(Clip from Queen Christina)
2:43:22 Marta Eggerth – Ave Maria (Schubert)
(Clip from Employees’ Entrance)

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