Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

Words by Edgar Y. Harburg; music by Jay Gorney, 1932

Who is singing this song? A veteran out of work, now reduced to begging. What are the accomplishments he mentions? Building a railroad and tower and “slogging through hell.”

What was the "dream" he was supposedly building? Work and being rewarded with "peace and glory." Who were "they"? What happened to the dream?

Is this song about a specific person or a whole generation? Why? What are the clues? Every verse has a different job; building a tower or railroad can't be done by just one man. What Depression protest could this be the theme song of? Bonus Army.

What is unusual about this song musically? It's in a minor key, unusual for popular music. What mood does the minor key create? What else about it lends to the somber, mournful mood? Slow tempo, questioning lyrics.

What were the accusations made against "bums" and "beggars" during the Depression and now? What does this song suggest about the reality of being "on the bum" or "looking for a handout"? How accurate were assumptions about laziness or lack of skill?

Compare this song to "Hobo's Lullaby." What new insight does this song give you about "Hobo's Lullaby"? What does being out of work do to self-esteem? What do these two songs suggest is the emotional impact of being out of work?

This song has been called the "white anthem of the Depression." How does it compare to "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," the Black anthem of the Depression?

"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" performed by Bing Crosby on Brother Can You Spare a Dime? American Song During the Great Depression, New York: New World Records [NW270], © 2001. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

 

Bing Crosby (1903–77) recorded the definitive version of this song in 1932 as the recording industry struggled to survive the Great Depression. This recording certainly helped. Crosby's singing style, often referred to as "crooning," took advantage of the latest technological developments in the microphone, which picked up on his most subtle nuances. Before the microphone, singers needed booming voices to be heard from stage. This performance style, which sounds more like it is being sung right near the listener, adds to the sad, despairing words of the song.

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. Please consult this online source:

https://genius.com/Bing-crosby-brother-can-you-spare-a-dime-lyrics

1932 Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoon
Chicago Tribune, August 19, 1931. Reprinted in The Tribune (Coshocton, Ohio), February 19, 1933.

Edgar "Yip" Harburg (1898–1981) was born in New York to Russian immigrant parents, not unlike many other songwriters at the time. He went into the electrical supply business but his firm failed with the Wall Street crash of 1929, so he began writing lyrics full-time. His first collaborator was Jay Gorney, who contributed many songs to revues in the early 1930s. His songs reflect strong social and political commitments.

Harburg composed "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" amid the Depression, and it became known as its theme song. Although Broadway musicals were on the decline due to lack of funds, Harburg continued to succeed. 1932 was an especially successful year for him as he authored lyrics to three revues, including Americana, a show that portrayed some of the events of that year. In keeping with the theme of the show, which was "the forgotten man," Harburg poses the Marxist question: why, after all the work that he did for this country, is the common man left with nothing?

The inspiration for the text, explained Harburg, was "the prevailing greeting at that time, on every block you passed by some poor guy coming up, with 'can you spare a dime?' or 'can you spare something for a cup of coffee?'" (Meyerson and Harburg, p. 50). Jay Gorney, who wrote the tune originally as a torchsong for different lyrics, brought to the song memories of his boyhood in a Russian village. The music, which sounds like a Jewish chant, actually quotes a Russian-Jewish lullaby and conveys the mournful quality of the text.