On Black Friday: Chain Store Blues

[Today we’re thankful to have the opportunity to offer this repost from Nathan Salsburg’s Root Hog or Die, an extraordinary radio show and music blog that we’ve written about previously. This piece concerns The Allen Brothers’ “Chain Store Blues,” which also appears on Nathan’s recently-released 3 CD/LP compilation Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard. The song is indicative of how these selections — whether joyous or solemn — feel utterly contemporary, and of how they reveal elements of our cultural history too often forgotten. AOTR’s Notes From The Field editor Jennifer Joy Jameson will be sharing a full feature on Work Hard soon.]

By Nathan Salsburg

An energetic, if short-lived, protest movement of the late 1920s and early ‘30s flexed against the encroachment of chain-stores — evidence that the “buy local” concept is of some vintage. Although several chain-store blues were recorded in the pre-war recording era, however, only the Allen Brothers’ 1930 plea for support of independent “home stores,” entitled “I Got the Chain Store Blues,” was released.
Perhaps the labels assumed that the chains, many of which sold their records, wouldn’t take kindly to such sentiments. By 1930, Chattanooga, Tennessee — then the base of operations for the Sewanee-born Lee and Austin Allen — was home to a Sears Roebuck, a Montgomery Ward, and a McLellan’s five-and-dime. Other stores like Woolworth’s, J.C. Penney, and the A&P (“Where Economy Rules”) had infiltrated many smaller towns, prompting “trade-at-home” campaigns and legislation to limit what the chains sold and where they sold it.
W.K. Henderson, the sensational personality behind Shreveport’s radio-powerhouse WKHK, threw his considerable weight behind the movement: “We have attempted to bring to light the ruinous and devastating effect of sending the profits of business out of our local communities to a common center, Wall Street…. appealed to the fathers and mothers — who entertain the fond hope of their children becoming prosperous business leaders—to awaken to a realization of the dangers of the chain stores‘ closing this door of opportunity…. insisted that the payment of starvation wages such as the chain-store system fosters, must be eradicated.”
[Two perfect post-Thanksgiving companions: Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “The Farmer Is the Man” (who feeds them all, he sings) and “Chain Store Blues” which begins at 3:07]