The Great Depression and WWII’s Impact on The Chitlin’ Circuit

kaylie st.pierre staff

On a Saturday night in South Louisiana, sounds of saxophones, laughter and dancing filled the air, regardless of the tough times and uncertain future. The local nightclubs offered the only entertainment around, promising memories and good music for just fifty cents.

The Chitlin’ Circuit thrived during the Great Depression, from 1929 to 1939, and World War II, from 1939 to 1945. These time periods marked growth for the circuit due to the limited entertainment opportunities in the South. “Chitlin Circuit and the Road To Rock ‘N Roll” author  Preston Lauterbach says the lack of entertainment and affordability of the Circuit helped it flourish. 

“There wasn’t a lot going on. People didn’t have TV. There was very limited access to radio and other media. A popular band coming through a town and playing for 50 cents was a pretty good deal, it was worth it for people.”

The Depression assisted in migration, making it easier for people to leave harsh discrimination in the South. A local musician, Thomas Lyons, says the Great Depression spurred musicians to migrate to Northern areas where they developed their own music cultures. 

“People had disposable income, and they wanted to have a good time,” Lyons says. “So the Circuit and booking agents sprung up because they could make money doing it.” 

WWII provided jobs for African Americans, resulting in better income. More venue owners established Black nightclubs, giving musicians job opportunities to perform. 

“For the first time in American history, African American people reached almost total employment,” says Lauterbach. “Everybody had jobs due to the war and the war effort.”

WWII brought positive and negative impacts to the Circuit, like providing jobs and creating challenges of rationing and the draft. Rationing became a concern due to supply and demand issues, as well as the focus on military needs.

“Americans could only use so much of certain products like gasoline and rubber because those items had to go towards the Army and towards the war effort,” says Lauterbach.

Throughout these hard times of World War II and The Great Depression, African Americans found comfort in blues music. 

Margie Scoby, president of the Finding Our Roots African American History Museum in Houma, says music was their way of expressing themselves. The post-war blues was their way of recovering from what they had experienced. 

“They always had a way of expressing feelings and thoughts and messages,” she says. “They always had a way for one to help the other.”