|"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"|
Sheet music cover for Americana
|Song by Jay Gorney and E. Y. "Yip" Harburg|
|E. Y. "Yip" Harburg|
"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 revue Americana; the melody is based on a Russian-Jewish lullaby Gorney's mother had sung to him as a child. 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. The song became best known, however, through recordings by Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee. They were released right before Franklin Delano Roosevelt's election to the presidency. The Brunswick Crosby recording made on October 25, 1932 with Lennie Hayton and his Orchestra became the best-selling record of its period, and came to be viewed as an anthem to the shattered dreams of the era.
In the song a beggar talks back to the system that stole his job. 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". 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. Asking for an act of charity, the singer requests a dime (equivalent to $1.50 in 2018).
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 more assertive "Buddy, can you spare a dime?"
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?