Tuesday, March 14, 2023

No Depression (in Heaven)

The photo you see, entitled "And Now Where," by American artist Rockwell Kent, is of a print that features a man and woman atop a mountain looking dejectedly into the distance alongside their knapsacks, and was published in 1936 during America’s Great Depression. It is the property of the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture in Knoxville, Tennessee.

1936 was also the same year the Carter Family recorded their hit song “No Depression (In Heaven).” Although A. P. Carter has frequently been credited as the author of the song, there is evidence it was written in 1932 by James David Vaughan of Pulaski, Tennessee, one of the founders of the genre we know as "Southern gospel" music. He started the James D. Vaughan Music Publishing Company in 1900 and was the first to establish a professional quartet and put them on the road for the purpose of selling his songbooks. "No Depression (in Heaven)" is in his circa 1932 songbook, "Sweet Heaven." While A.P. Carter registered it as his own work (which he did for every recording they made), the family's version is almost a straight copy of Vaughan's original song.

Alvin Pleasant Carter of Maces Springs, Virginia took up playing the violin at an early age. suffered from a physical tremor, as well as a constitutional restlessness, which his mother ascribed to a near miss by a bolt of lightning while she was pregnant. His job traveling around the Clinch Mountain area selling trees and shrubs for a nursery helped him deal with the restlessness. One day he came upon a house where he heard a beautiful alto voice, which belonged to 16-year-old Sara Dougherty. Like A.P., Sara was a musician at heart. The same could be said for Sara's cousin, Maybelle, who was learning to play the guitar, which was just becoming popular.

The rest is history. A 2005 PBS documentary credited the Carter Family's music for lifting the nation's spirits during the darkest days of the Depression. It said their lyrics captured the joys and tragedies of everyday life: loves won and lost, dreams attained and shattered, separations and reunions. The Great Depression was the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world, which led to half the country’s banks failing and 15 million unemployed Americans. The writer of "No Depression (in Heaven)" obviously saw it as evidence that the end was near. In his 2019 book, The Emotional Life of the Great Depression, author John Marsh said the Depression meant hunger and death. But for the Carter Family, and many of their listeners, the Great Depression also promised salvation.

For fear the hearts of men are failing
For these are the 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

In that bright land, there'll be no hunger
No orphan children cryin' for bread
No weeping widows, toil or struggle
No shrouds, no coffins, and no death

This dark hour of midnight nearing
And tribulation time will come
The storms will hurl in midnight fear
And sweep lost millions to their doom

The Carter Family

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