Black Filmmaking in the 1930s: 5 Must-See Music Videos

Throughout the Covid19 pandemic, I’ve soothed my soul and re-energized my spirit with various forms of art—particularly music and dance. It has felt natural and right to do so, which is why I can safely assume that descendants of the same enslaved folks who turned misery into magnificence through musical expression also sought comfort in music and dance during the dark decade that was the 1930s.  

To be clear, times were rough. In addition to the stock market crash that would lead to thousands of bank failures, the US suffered its worst drought in 1931 bringing on the Dust Bowl which killed scores of livestock and resulted in tremendous crop failure. The Tuskegee Study took place in 1932—leading to the ongoing African American mistrust of the American medical industry and US public health organizations today. By 1933, nearly 1 in 3 Americans were unemployed and Blacks were hit the hardest. America’s economic decline caused poverty to take hold around the globe and stirred the rise of Fascism, Nazism and extreme Communism in 1934. Bank robbers, murderers and outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger were seen as heroes. That same year the practice of slum clearance began in New York and echoed throughout other major U.S. cities resulting in the displacement of Black populations. (This PBS article for kids (!) explains the implications and impact of slum clearance quite nicely.) 

In the early 1930s, there was also a clear shift in Black support from the Republican party to the Democratic party. The GOP hadn’t really done jack for Black voters all throughout the 1920s and that included NOT passing the 1918 Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, NOT curbing the rampant proliferation of Jim Crow laws and NOT protecting Black voting rights in any meaningful way. Once Republican President Hoover nominated the anti-Black Judge John J. Parker to the Supreme Court, Black voters supported Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1932 run for the White House. 

FUN FACT: The interracially-controlled NAACP launched in 1909 successfully campaigned to prevent John J. Parker from sitting his racist rump on the Supreme Court.   

To his credit, Roosevelt did look out for his Black voting base by establishing a cabinet of Black advisers including Mary McLeod Bethune. His New Deal programs also provided public housing to families, badly needed jobs, educational empowerment for youth, and support for Black artists including such writers as Arna Bontemps and Zora Neal Hurston

There were other bright spots throughout the era. In 1931, Walter White became executive secretary of the NAACP and his leadership helped to increase the power and influence of the organization. (It also assisted in winning justice for the Scottsboro Boys.) In 1932, Thomas Dorsey revolutionized gospel music with this song Take My Hand, Precious Lord. In 1935, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union was formed.  In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens won four gold medals. In 1938, Crystal Bird Fauset became the first Black woman ever to be elected to a state legislature and Jane M. Bolin became America’s first Black female judge in 1939.

Throughout these lows and highs, we kept singing, dancing and finding joy whenever, wherever, however. Tap dance (a Black creation) became a prominent feature of American films and jazz music (another Black creation) continued to shine. The following five films are shorts from the decade which can either be classified as mini musicals or recognized as the forerunners to the music videos we now know, love and enjoy today. *****Post continues below image.*****

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A Rhapsody in Black and Blue (1931) – Although this movie features a bit of spousal abuse perpetrated on the husband by the wife, it does also showcase the extraordinary trumpeting ability of the great Louis Armstrong. At just 30 years old when he made this short, Armstrong had already played with several brass bands, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith and had managed to make a huge impact on the Harlem Renaissance. Check out this video and you’ll understand exactly why. 

Barber Shop Blues (1933) – In this roughly 10-minute flick, the Claude Hopkins Orchestra celebrates the splendorous safe space and rest stop that is the Black barbershop. Led by jazz pianist Claude Hopkins, his orchestra performed in several movies, released many recordings, played hugely impactful live shows and toured extensively throughout the South. They were a mainstay at Harlem’s renowned Cotton Club between the years 1934 and 1936 and were often featured in radio broadcasts. 

Bubbling Over (1934) – Singer and actress Ethel Waters plays an overworked wife who can’t seem to get her “loafer” husband to fulfill his janitorial and handyman duties at the apartment building in which they reside. Despite the numerous negative racial tropes and a performance of a song entitled Darkies Never Dream, it is easy to see why Ethel Waters became the first African American star of a sponsored coast-to-coast radio show; her talents were undeniable.

Jitterbug Party (1935) – This Cab Calloway film is a clear explanation of how this dude was just awesome to watch and delightful to hear. Plus—though I am not at all interested in time traveling to this era—I would love to attend a function like this so I too can “get the jitters and go bug.” The Jitterbug (aka Swing Dancing or the Lindy Hop) was a certified dance craze during the 1930s and this movie served to solidify its popularity. 

Calling All Stars (1937) – My last music video recommendation is brought to you by Fayard and Harold Nicholas or the amazing tap-dancing duo known as The Nicholas Brothers. These smooth-moving guys performed with all the greats of the decade including the aforementioned Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Lucky Millinder, and Jimmy Lunceford.

If none of these music vids get your feet tappin, then I don’t know what to tell you.

Until next time.

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