This is the second post in a series on Social Justice Showtunes. The series starts here with a post about the 1937 Broadway musical Pins and Needles.
When I drew up my initial list of songs to include in this series, there was no question that “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” would be included. Since its debut in the third edition of Americana in 1932, the song has captured the imagination of Americans with its poignant and painful depiction of the Depression-era life of a WWI veteran. The song has been continually recorded throughout the intervening decades by everyone from The Weavers to George Michael. (In 2001, The Harburg Foundation issued a CD with 18 different renditions across seven decades that really drove this point home.)
But the most famous recording remains Bing Crosby’s 1932 recording with the Lennie Hayton Orchestra:
Variety dubbed the song “a ballad of the Depression,” and the song remained on the Hit Parade through Crosby’s recording as well as Rudy Vallee’s.
The song was Harbug’s first masterpiece, but he went on to write the lyrics for The Wizard of Oz and Finian’s Rainbow. In a 1970s Lyrics & Lyricists concert at the 92nd Street Y, Harburg spoke about the song:
I grew up when America had a dream, and its people, a hope. Whether we were struggling against the shackles of slavery or the shackles of scarcity, the hope was there. In 1930, the dream collapsed. The system fell apart. The people were not angry. They were not in revolt. This was a good country on its way to greatness. It had given our immigrant parents more freedom, more education, more opportunity than they had ever know. What happened? We were baffled, bewildered… and the bewildered, baffled man sang [these lyrics]…
Gorney is less well-known, although he is also credited with discovering Shirley Temple. His other big hit song was “You’re My Thrill.” (Here’s a Weekend Edition story on Gorney from 2006 with more information.)
Both men were active in progressive politics, which eventually landed both on the wrong side of the House Un-American Activities Committee and on the blacklist. Gorney seems to have been devastated by the blacklist. Harburg continued to work on Broadway (where the blacklist was pretty consistently defied) and branched out into poetry with Rhymes for the Irreverent, republished in this decade to support the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and organization fighting to protect the separation of church and state in America.
The Harburg Foundation continues to support progressive causes in the spirit of Yip’s own politics, including
projects that (a) work toward world peace, (b) work to end economic and social discrimination and exploitation, racial/ethnic conflicts, and civil injustices; (b) provide educational opportunities to low-income and minority students through scholarship organizations; (c) advance and promote new works of American political art, especially efforts involving cultural and societal issues; (d) preserve and enhance the legacy of E.Y. Harburg through new projects or revivals of his standard works in all media.
And what of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” itself? Unfortunately, it has never been as timely as it is today. Once again we have veterans returning home to the worst unemployment statistics of our generation, laborers whose industries have nearly shut down, a national debate about how to provide for our needy, and many Americans questioning whether there ever was an agreement as to what the American Dream is.
Listening to the song today, it’s the very last line that really kills me, when the singer switches from addressing the listener as “brother” to “buddy.”
Whether you think it’s up to the government or the populace (or some combination thereof) to solve the various messes we’re in — the economy, health care, etc. — this song speaks to us all. The real question is whether any of us are really listening.
If you’re interested in learning more about a Jewish organization working on issues of economic justice, check out Jews For Racial & Economic Justice. Right now, their mission is centered on New York City, but if you live outside of NY, JFREJ provides an interesting model to consider bringing to your own city.