There have been numerous theories proposed to remedy the current recession, but surprisingly none has focused on the historical lesson known as the Song and Laffer curve: The more upbeat the songs of an era, the fewer the economic woes. Songwriters, in other words, are critical to the nation's recovery although, to be sure, their job's not easy. In fact, it's downright ditty work.
One of the most prosperous decades was the 1950s, when the tunes were lively and positive in their titles. Remember "Sh-Boom" (not "Sh-Bust") and the 1958 album, "Sing Along with Mitch (Miller)," that eventually got Americans to warble in their homes--and in front of their TVs? Take another example, the 1920s, perhaps the most upward-stroking years of American capitalism and replete with melodies that sparked business people.
The decade didn't begin that way, however. Immediately after World War I, the songs were neither ample nor bullish, and the economy slid into a two-year recession. "I Never Knew" and "What'll I Do?" reflected the doldrums. So too did "Second Hand Rose" and "Look for the Silver Lining."
Some modulation could be discerned after the congressional elections. "Linger a While," advised one song. Another equivocated in "I Won't Say I Will But I Won't." But by 1923 songwriters got their notes and the economy took off. First, they got back to basics: "Mama Love Papa, Papa Love Mama." Then they moved to material matters in "Cut Yourself a Piece of Cake" and "Yes, We Have No Bananas."
By 1924, Coolidge's landslide election, the rising stock market, and general prosperity were inevitable results of the change of tunes. There were the speculative songs, with fluctuations ranging from "Doo Wacka Doo" to "Doodle Doo Doo" to "Dig Diga Doo." And there were rhythms pointing investors to new futures: "California, Here I Come" and "Follow the Swallow Back Home." Conservative bankers could find collateral meaning in "Tea for Two," brokers instructions in odd lots in "Don't Bring Lulu." For average Americans there was the prospectus of holding companies in "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby" and "I'll See You in My Dreams."
Glamour stanzas were on the horizon by mid-decade with "My Blue Heaven," "Blue Skies," and " . . . the Red Red Robin." The promise of windfall gains was evident in such songs as "I Found a Million Dollar Baby" and "Reaching for the Moon."
But economists should have paid attention to the few liltings that presaged trouble: "Brown Eyes, Why Are You Blue," "Just an Ivy Covered Shack," and "Roses of Yesterday." And in 1929 they overlooked one of the classic symptoms of a downward cycle in "I Faw Down an' Go Boom."
By 1929, the year of the Great Crash, the bearish songwriting was on the wall. Yet everyone appeared tone-deaf in spite of the startling changes--from "You're the Cream in My Coffee" in 1928 to "Mean to Me." Bold economic movement was replaced by "Tip Toe through the Tulips . . . " Scapegoating was apparent in "Blame it on the Moon." Harbingers of floating dollars, watered stock, and price umbrellas could be seen in "Singing in the Rain." And even the suicides in the wake of the Crash could be predicted in "Why I Was Born?" and "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone."
Just think what might have happened if Herbert Hoover had realized that what the country needed in 1929 was a good tune-up . . .