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Unit 7: Great Depression and World War II

"Songs of the Great Depression"

by Lisa Roule, Lois Medevic, and Lisa Waligora





The Great Depression affected every American but in many different ways.  Regardless of social class, what job a man held or what part of the country he and his family lived in, Americans found themselves radically changing their daily lives and in many cases their attitudes in order to provide food and shelter for their families.  Factory workers lost their jobs and some were forced to accept donations of food to keep their families fed.  Young and older men alike often found themselves wandering the country as Hobos in search of work, often working a day job just to get a lunch and dinner.  Banks foreclosed on property and lost control of savings altogether forcing 1000s of banks to permanently close during the depression.  Farmers struggled with Mother Nature in the form of a ten year drought and unstable market prices for their crops.  Many of these farmers abandoned their property and moved to the West coast.

The following questions and lesson ideas can be used together linking elementary classes with high school US History and American Literature classes or the activities can easily be adapted to stand alone.

“Big Rock Candy Mountain” recording

“Oh Brother Where Art Thou” Soundtrack featuring a 1928 recording of Harry McClintock performing the song.

Song Background:

The song “Big Rock Candy Mountain” was  written from the perspective of a "hobo" during the Great Depression who did not hold a steady job, and instead traveled the roads looking for handouts and possibly getting into trouble with the law.

The composer of both words and music was Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock. Mr. McClintock was an actor, poet, painter, newspaper reporter, and set designer as well as a composer. McClintock successfully established himself as the copyrighted composer of many songs, despite the fact that folk music experts and copyright lawyers continue to argue amongst themselves about his originality. He made more than 50 records of original songs and folk classics. He was the first artist to record what have become classic American folk songs, such as "Red River Valley," Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie," and Jesse James."

Discussion Questions:

  • Write a conclusion about why people became hoboes?

  • Using the lyrics what do you think a hobo’s life was really like? Do you see the sarcasm in the lyrics?

  • How did you feel when you sang this song? Did it make you happy? Sad?

  • Why were cigarettes and alcohol abused so much in that time period.

  • What do you think these lyrics mean?

  • Who were these lyrics meant for?

  • Do any of the lyrics have hidden meanings?

Enrichment Activities:

  1. Make Rock Candy – 2 web sources

    State of Michigan

  2. Vocabulary discussion about different concepts/activities/situations they may not understand, .i.e. hoboes, brakeman, railroad bulls, alcohol/cigarette abuse.
  3. Read – Rose’s Journal: The Story of a Girl in the Great Depression, by Marissa Moss. This will give the students an example of a journal/diary entry. Have the children write an entry about their day. On a subsequent day discuss what things they would not have included in their entry and have them rewrite it as if their families were suffering as Rose’s family had been.
  4.  Have the students find the location of the real Big Rock Candy Mountain .  The sight is at the base of a colorful mountain in Utah named “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” There is also a sign next to a nearby spring proclaiming it “Lemon Springs.” This mountain became one of the most recognized geologic sites in west-central Utah.
  5. Three Little Pigs- Animated "Silly Symphony" Cartoon, Technicolor, Mono sound, 10 minutes, released May 1933. The cartoon would emphasize how the pig characters acted rather than how they looked, with a focus on character and behavior. Disney later said in an interview that the cartoon was popular in the Depression due to its simple moral message that "wisdom and courage is enough to defeat big, bad wolves of every description, and send them slinking away" (Watts 1995, p. 100).
  6. Have the students write a stanza about what an idyllic Big Rock Candy Mountain to them would be like



"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"

Song Background:

The song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" became an anthem of the great Depression and is supposed to represent a World War I veteran reflecting on what has become of his life.  It is easy to imagine this veteran choosing to become part of the Bonus Army March as a way to regain some of his dignity and rightfully collect earnings rather than take charitable handouts.

Discussion Questions:

  • What did the speaker do before he was “standing in line, just waiting for bread?”

  • Complete a quick internet search on the “Bonus Army March.”  How does this information inform your understanding of the song lyrics?

  • Can you make connections between the speaker in this song and people in today’s world?

Enrichment Activity:

Great Depression Creative Writing Activity

Study the following financial documents that show the purchases and earnings of a person living during the great depression.   Put yourself in the shoes of this person, and write the story of your experiences, based on the evidence before you.


“(If You Ain’t Got the) Do Re Mi”


Song Background:

...Woody Guthrie shows the paradoxical nature of opportunity for the working person in his "Do Re Mi." In that song he talks of California being "a garden of Eden," a virtual "paradise," a harshly ironic concept considering that no one will be able to reap the harvest of Eden unless he/she has the "do re mi" (i.e., dough)

--Timothy E. Scheurer, Born in the U.S.A., Jackson, Mississippi, 1991, p. 154.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why was California such a popular final destination for people fleeing the Dust Bowl?
  2. Did California have the right to stop people at the border and demand to see proof of income?
  3. What would happen today if a state or region decided to restrict migration?
  4. How are the sentiments in this song accurate/inaccurate today?
  5. What do you think happened to the estimated 200,000 people who migrated to California?  Did they stay? Did they prosper?
  6. In light of Hurricane Katrina and the newest immigrant and illegal immigrant controversy, how do you think California and any other state could respond? Should respond?

Enrichment Activities

  1. After reading the lyrics and listening to the song, students create a 6-8 frame comic strip to illustrate some of the ideas presented in the song.  The strips should use the irony and indignation of Guthrie’s song.  These strips can be given to the other classes (5th and high school classes) so that students can be exposed to more music, events, and ideas from the time period.
  2. Students can use the lyrics of the song as inspiration to write a letter home to friends and family about their journey to California as if they were a student migrating from the Dust Bowl during the 1930s or write and illustrate a diary page as in Rosie’s Diary.  Again these letters and diaries can be shared with the other classes involved in the exchange.


Cartoon Storyboard format:

Name _____________________________________

Cartoon Strip Title _________________________________________________