Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? Laughin’ to Keep from Cryin’
During the Dirty ’30s, network radio and Hollywood followed Washington’s lead in sturdily ignoring the Depression, assuring us that “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” and that “prosperity is just around the corner.” But the rural and small-town musicians, the ones who never made the charts, played a different tune. They saw the Depression for what it was and poked wicked fun at Wall Street, greed, the American dream and, especially, at Herbert Hoover (“Look here, Hoover, see what you done. You went off fishin’, let the country go to ruin”). Montana was “ahead of the curve” when it came to dust bowls, grasshopper plagues and economic hard times. Montana newspapers from the ’20s tell of bank failures, crop losses, and deserted homesteads—issues not widely reported in the rest of the nation until a decade later. “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” views the Depression, with a glance at Montana’s early start, not through history and literature, but through songs and “illiterature,” looking at what happened to the common folks most affected by it. This bareknuckle report on the state of the union during the Dirty ’30s is accompanied by banjo, guitar and autoharp.
Bill Rossiter spent ten years as an actor, club, and coffeehouse entertainer during the 1960s and early 1970s before going on to teach literature and folklore for 25 years. He chaired the Humanities Division at Kalispell’s Flathead Valley Community College before retiring in 1999. In 2015 he received the Governor’s Award for Service to the Humanities in Montana.
Since about 1980 he has traveled throughout the Northwest, presenting songs and stories from various eras of American history, as well as teaching Elderhostels and short courses for teachers on the use of folklore in the classroom. Rossiter has a large repertoire of “roots music,” and has performed for western and heritage museums, arts and cultural centers, town festivals, and library series. He has performed and written music for theater and public television. He recently traveled throughout Idaho and Montana with the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibits, “Barn Again!,” Key Ingredients” and “New Harmonies.”
Rossiter makes use of his background in folklore and literature to adapt and create presentations for specific groups and themes, and often writes a song for the sponsoring group or occasion.