A Blues Fable of the Great Depression

A Blues Fable of the Great Depression
AP Photo, File

The Great Gatsby can be read as a fable of the Crash—a writer’s instinct, his feeling out the boundaries of history as it was being made, or ignored, that not only was the great dance around the Golden Calf sure to lead to ruin, it should. Jay-Z heard it that way on Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby soundtrack on his “100$ Bill,” playing through the dance of Gatsby, Nick, Tom, and Meyer Wolfsheim in the New York speak: “Go numb until I can’t feel, or might pop this pill / Stock markets just crash, now I’m just a bill.”

Even the dollar loses its voice. In historiographical time—the kind of time art and history make when you realize that artists sometimes write more complete history than scholars—you can hear the replacement of Gatsby’s parties by Skip James’s “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.” “Isolated during the European War, we had begun combing the unknown South and West for folkways and pastimes, and there were more ready to hand,” Fitzgerald wrote in 1931; that same year, the acerbic minor-key Mississippi blues guitarist traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin, to record for the Paramount label.

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