Skip to Main content Skip to Navigation
Preprints, Working Papers, ...

How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?: Transformations of a Depression-era Protest Song

Abstract : Protest songs dealing with specific historical events tend to have "a built-in expiration date", to use an apt expression coined recently by Suzy Rotolo in regard to Phil Och's topical songs of the 1960s, which of course " doesn't lessen the validity of a well-written song ; it serves its purpose within its designated shelf life. " (Rotolo 2008 : 246). This paper explores the transformations of a Depression-era protest song, originally recorded for RCA Victor on December 4,1929 by the morally conservative Virginian composer-singer-fiddler Blind Alfred Reed, and subsequently covered since then, notably by the New Lost City Ramblers during the folk revival on Songs of the Depression (Folkways, 1959), by Ry Cooder on his self-titled album (Reprise, 1970), and more recently by Bruce Springsteen on his tribute album to Pete Seeger, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia, 2006). Among the questions I explore are the following: How has this song remained relevant to new generations despite its historical link to the Depression era (e.g., a verse about the Prohibition)? What textual and musical features have contributed to its success? How do these performances, and especially the musical textures, reflect their times and deflect the original message of the song? How have successive artists manipulated the original to their own esthetic or political ends (e.g., by changing the order of verses, by adding or omitting lyrics, etc.), and to what effect? Twentieth-century protest songs have often been associated with the political Left, with some notable exceptions (e.g., Merle Haggard's Okie from Muskogee). How has the historical context combined with artistic intentions altered the political flavor of this particular song? The broader aim of this research is to cast light on the multi-faceted functions of protest songs and how their meanings vary over time. Reference Rotolo, Suzy. 2008. A Free-wheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties. New York: Broadway Books.
Complete list of metadatas
Contributor : Andy Arleo <>
Submitted on : Friday, September 30, 2011 - 9:21:36 PM
Last modification on : Tuesday, October 23, 2018 - 4:44:01 PM
Long-term archiving on: : Saturday, December 31, 2011 - 2:41:40 AM


Files produced by the author(s)


  • HAL Id : halshs-00628260, version 1



Andy Arleo. How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?: Transformations of a Depression-era Protest Song. 2010. ⟨halshs-00628260⟩



Record views


Files downloads