Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

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"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?", also sung as "Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?", is one of the best-known American songs of the Great Depression. Written in 1930 by lyricist E. Y. "Yip" Harburg and composer Jay Gorney, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" was part of the 1932 musical Americana;[1] the melody is based on a Russian-Jewish lullaby Gorney's mother had sung to him as a child.[2][3] It was considered by Republicans to be anti-capitalist propaganda, and almost dropped from the show; attempts were made to ban it from the radio.[4] The song became best known, however, through recordings by Bing Crosby, Al Jolson and Rudy Vallee. They were released right before Franklin Delano Roosevelt's election to the presidency and both became number one hits on the charts. The Brunswick Crosby recording became the best-selling record of its period, and came to be viewed as an anthem of the shattered dreams of the era.[5]

Rudy Vallee's recording is considered one of the most famous versions.

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Summary[edit]

In the song a beggar talks back to the system that stole his job.[3] Gorney said in an interview in 1974 "I didn't want a song to depress people. I wanted to write a song to make people think. It isn't a hand-me-out song of 'give me a dime, I'm starving, I'm bitter', it wasn't that kind of sentimentality".[6] The song asks why the men who built the nation – built the railroads, built the skyscrapers – who fought in the war (World War I), who tilled the earth, who did what their nation asked of them should, now that the work is done and their labor no longer necessary, find themselves abandoned and in bread lines.

It refers to "Yankee Doodle Dum", a reference to patriotism, and the evocation of veterans also recalls protests about military bonuses payable only after 21 years, which were a topical issue.[7][8]

Musical structure[edit]

The song has unusual structure for a Broadway song. Firstly, rather than starting in a major key, as most Broadway songs do, it begins in a minor key, which is darker and more appropriate for the Depression. When discussing the prosperous past and building the railroads, the song jumps an octave and moves briefly into a major key, evoking energy and optimism. It then reverts to the augmented dominant of the minor key in the word "time" in the line "Once I built a railroad, made it run / Made it race against time," marking the end of prosperous times, and changing to a wistful mood. The song then ends, not on a note of resignation, but with anger – repeating the beginning (as is usual for Broadway songs), an octave higher, but with a significant change: the friendly "Brother, can you spare a dime?" is replaced with the aggressive "Buddy, can you spare a dime?"[9]

Update[edit]

During the malaise of the 1970s stagflation, the New York Times asked Harburg to update "Brother" for a new age, and he responded with:[10][11]

Once we had a Roosevelt
Praise the Lord!
Life had meaning and hope.
Now we're stuck with Nixon, Agnew, Ford,
Brother, can you spare a rope?

Other recordings[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Information from playbill on musical "Americana", Belknap Playbill and Program Collection
  2. ^ Forward: review of Yip Harburg: Legendary Lyricist and Human Rights Activist, Harriet Hyman Alonso, Wesleyan University Press, 2012
  3. ^ a b American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, Michael Kazin, pub. Random House, p176. Extracts
  4. ^ Songwriters Hall of Fame: EY Harburg biography
  5. ^ Giddins, G. (2001). Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years, 1903 - 1940. Little, Brown, p.305.
  6. ^ Said by Gorney in a 1974 interview, an excerpt of which was transmitted on BBC2 television programme "The Story of the Jews" part 4 by Simon Schama on 22 September 2013 at 21:00
  7. ^ Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition, Lucy G. Barber, 2004 p. 104
  8. ^ The Twentieth Century: A People's History, by Howard Zinn, p. 116
  9. ^ A Depression-Era Anthem For Our Times National Public Radio's Weekend Edition (November 15, 2008).
  10. ^ Song by song: the lives and work of 14 great lyric writers, Caryl Brahms, Ned Sherrin, p. 125–126
  11. ^ Cutting edge, or, "Back in the knife-box, Miss Sharp": Ned Sherrin's anthology of wit, Ned Sherrin, 1984, p. 140 (rope, dime)
  12. ^ Edwards, Bob (2011). A voice in the box my life in radio. [S.l.]: The University Press of Kentucky. p. 109. ISBN 0813140455. Retrieved 2 September 2014. 
  13. ^ Woods, Bobby (May 25, 2011). "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2011-11-17. 
  14. ^ "Songs from the Last Century". AllMusic. 
  15. ^ "The American Adventure". WDWMagic.com. 

External links[edit]