No Depression in Heaven

I don’t usually use soundtracks for posts, but hey, it’s always worth doing something a little different sometimes, right?

My friend Jack was, when I first met him, a devoted inhabitant of that space where black and white and poor and crazy meet in early American music. He introduced me to musicians like Ralph Stanley and the Blue Sky Boys, and showed me how they connected to people like Howlin’ Wolf and Mississippi Fred McDowell. It was with Jack that I first heard McDowell, and Robert Johnson, and so much other music, and was initiated into the secret history of American music that I discussed in my review of Nick Tosches’s wonderful, weird book Where Dead Voices Gather.

Anyway, there was a song on an anthology — the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, to be precise — on Volume Four. It’s a song from the 30s by the Carter Family, the song you’re hearing now if you were able to load that Youtube video, and it really suited the mood at the time.

I remember still how he grinned and said, “Funny how it still totally makes sense today, huh?” Look at the lyrics:

For fear the hearts of men are failing,
For these are latter days we know
The Great Depression now is spreading,
God’s word declared it would be so

I’m going where there’s no depression,
To the lovely land that’s free from care
I’ll leave this world of toil and trouble,
My home’s in Heaven, I’m going there

Yeah, there’s something strange about how the elision between poverty and hunger and mass unemployment — the horror of the Great Depression — could elide, in the late 90s, with a different kind of Great Depression that was looking epidemic, looking pretty frightening when you think about all the energy burning away in sadness and gloom that could maybe do something useful if it were directed at things like ecological preservation, or finding ways to stop the earth warming up, or whatever.

But we were grad students, and I’ve long suspected that depression — lowercase, great though it can be, clinical though it may not be — is the burden of many bright people when they find themselves running inside wheels. We just didn’t call it that, or prescribe for it, until recently, and maybe calling it that creates another wheel sometimes, makes people run in the wheel even more. It makes one think of Erasmus spending his money on books first, and the remainder on food and clothing, and nod and say, “I know, Des, I know.” And you want to pour a glass of whiskey for old Alan Turing, and give him a seat next to Charles Babbage, and play for them the songs that tell the true story of the world.

So there we were, in his apartment in Montreal, only a few blocks from my own, drinking his Bushmills Irish whiskey, the insanity of whichever episode of MST3K we’d watched earlier still echoing in our heads, and humming along to this dire and aptly named song. We had no idea that in less than a decade, the older meaning of the word — the meaning full of hungry bellies and national panic and “Jobless Men Keep Going: We Can’t Take Care of Our Own,” might suddenly make just as much sense is the Prozac-laden one did. Or, well, maybe he did, but I didn’t guess that.

People these days are saying that, no, no, this looks nothing like the 1930s. Not that this should comfort us too much, because, to rip off Tolstoy, good times are all good in the same [kind of] way, whereas historical messes and crises are each unhappy in their own way.

(Actually, I don’t think the good times are all so similar; I think the historical good times have been getting better and better, if also more perilous and much more susceptible to the sudden appearance of bad times, simply because that’s how technologies and large complex systems work… But that’s for another discussion.)

I think, though, we should nonetheless prick up our ears — not panic, yet, but prick up our ears – when we hear a historian of business and labour, like Scott Reynolds Nelson, say that we’re looking at the wrong “Great Depression” when we compare the 1930s to what’s happening to America’s financial institutions today:

As a historian who works on the 19th century, I have been reading my newspaper with a considerable sense of dread. While many commentators on the recent mortgage and banking crisis have drawn parallels to the Great Depression of 1929, that comparison is not particularly apt. Two years ago, I began research on the Panic of 1873, an event of some interest to my colleagues in American business and labor history but probably unknown to everyone else. But as I turn the crank on the microfilm reader, I have been hearing weird echoes of recent events.

When commentators invoke 1929, I am dubious. According to most historians and economists, that depression had more to do with overlarge factory inventories, a stock-market crash, and Germany’s inability to pay back war debts, which then led to continuing strain on British gold reserves. None of those factors is really an issue now. Contemporary industries have very sensitive controls for trimming production as consumption declines; our current stock-market dip followed bank problems that emerged more than a year ago; and there are no serious international problems with gold reserves, simply because banks no longer peg their lending to them.

In fact, the current economic woes look a lot like what my 96-year-old grandmother still calls “the real Great Depression.” She pinched pennies in the 1930s, but she says that times were not nearly so bad as the depression her grandparents went through. That crash came in 1873 and lasted more than four years. It looks much more like our current crisis.

Go on and read the rest. And share your thoughts. Me, I’m already off in the clouds, thinking about what an economic collapse would look like when tech has moved so far along that economics is relatively unrecognizable to us. I think it could be a very interesting SF story, that…

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