0:31 seconds into the recording and the story begins to take shape.

It’s July 1935 and Miss Holiday is belting out one of her first recordings, Miss Brown To You. Benny Goodman opens the song with the unmistakable sound of his clarinet. Then follows a ragtime piano riff by Teddy Wilson.

But this doesn’t begin to tell the real story behind this song. The place, the period in which it is happening. No, that story is told by a completely coincidental sound that comes floating in through the thin walls of the recording studio.

A passing train whistle tells it all. The general populace of America is slowly crawling out from beneath the weight of a crippling economic depression. My grandmother tells the story of my grandfathers’ family which had been relatively wealthy before the Depression hit. And like thousands of Americans, their wealth disappeared in the night with the crashing of the stock market in 1929.

The train outside these walls is used to transport people and goods (legally and illegally) across the desolate landscape of the continent from one shantytown to the next in search of work. Labor unions are formed and the nations banking system is reformed. Franklin Roosevelt is president and his New Deal program sets up the Social Security System amongst many other programs meant to economically stabilize the country. For a time, some of these programs work.

But this story isn’t about F.D.R. and his now crumbling institutions. It’s about a lone train whistle filling up the silence between clarinet and piano. You can almost hear the hum of wheels on steel tracks as the engine rolls by pulling boxcar after boxcar filled with everything and nothing all at once.

0:31 seconds into the song and our story has just begun.


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