Vast numbers of Americans were forced to relocate in search of employment or better living conditions following the collapse of the national economy. They moved from rural areas to urban factory towns, from city to city and state to state in search of work. Many of these people felt as if they had been torn from their social and cultural roots, and thus welcomed recorded music as an affirmation of their cultural experiences and regional identities. Historian William Kenney thus concluded, "…whether consciously or not, almost all citizens found in recorded music a vehicle for carrying musical memories through time and into the present."
The booming market for Broadway musicals, which developed and prospered during the extravagant 1920's, fell to the wayside with 1929 crash of the stock market. Many of the great American songwriters and performers felt the brunt of this economic downturn, as they struggled to find work. Thanks to the technological innovation of synchronized sound, their desperate pursuit for new opportunities would not last long, as many tapped into the burgeoning world of "talking" motion pictures. Film producers relied on Tin Pan Alley hit makers to provide scores for the early movie musicals, but as theaters on the east coast darkened with the decline in box office profits accompanying the Depression, much of this talent departed for Hollywood.
The contributions of such experienced Tin Pan Alley composers as George and Ira Gershwin, ( "I Got Rhythm"), Irving Berlin ( "Cheek To Cheek") and Cole Porter ( "Night And Day"), and the immense talent of radio and Broadway professionals such as Busby Berkely, Fred Astaire, Ruth Etting, Bing Crosby, Anita Page and Rudy Vallee, rapidly developed the American film industry and helped popularize the movie musical, a uniquely American form of entertainment. Ken Maynard began recording and acting in films around this time, institutionalizing the musical western and the singing cowboy.
American audiences expected music in movie houses. Silent films had long required a performing piano or instrumental section as a backdrop. Naturally the first talking picture, Al Johnson's The Jazz Singer (1927), featured a few musical numbers. Even so the major studios did not realize the potential of the movie musical genre until the spectacular release and reception of MGM's "all talking all singing all dancing", The Broadway Melody in 1929, as noted by entertainment historian Arnold Shaw. With Warner Brothers' 1933 release of 42nd Street filmmakers began to recognize the escapist potential in the medium. 42nd Street stood apart, as it was the first musical movie to feature a lavish spectacle of coordinated dancing girls, dressed in a an array of elaborate costumes, filmed from multiple angles overhead. The extravagance enchanted the public. Its visionary producer, Busby Berkeley, went on to create the Gold Diggers series, catering to the American obsession with money during the Depression.
Hollywood responded to the economic anxiety that dominated the lives of Americans during the Depression by producing films that maintained a self-conscious optimism. Like the recording industry, which recognized the value of the reassuring stability represented by the light, uncomplicated music of artists such as Bing Crosby and Guy Lombardo, movie producers also sensed that Americans wanted to forget their troubles, not be reminded of them. Only rarely in mainstream music and film did the grim daily realities of life and the destitution of the laboring class find expression (an example being the politically charged socialist messages penned by Harold Arlen). Nevertheless, child stars like Shirley Temple and Judy Garland enjoyed immense popularity, as did Hollywood's darling couple Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who filmed nine movies together between 1933 and 1939. These films relied on beautiful scores, expressive dancing and portrayals of the well to do. The gay and carefree lives of Astaire and Rogers on screen helped audiences escape the desolate reality off screen, if only for a few short hours, and more importantly provided a set of musical memories that inspired hope amid their formidable crises.
Whether it be the toil of life on earth and heaven's saving grace depicted by the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, the Reverend F.W. McGee and the Carter Family, or the common hardships of love and work in the soulful tunes of Ethel Waters, Ruth Etting and Lead Belly, the uprooted American working class, black and white, used these musical forms to hold on to a sense of identity amidst the uncertainty of a changing world. Technology and mobility brought these musical traditions into contact with one another, birthing new forms of expression and cherished musical memories.