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Gotham Center in the News - New York Times, November 27, 2007

 

A Song That Helped Define the Depression, and Can Still Be Sung Today
By Clyde Haberman

He crouched by a corner newsstand on the Upper West Side, a pathetic figure with his hand out. You’ve seen him a thousand times, him or countless other street people like him. You’ve also heard his cry: “Can you spare any change?”

Nobody is likely to write a song about that man, certainly not those rappers who say they are social commentators yet seem obsessed with the baubles they wear and the women they bed.

Seventy-five years ago, though, a couple of tunesmiths heard a similar plea and produced a song that endures as an anthem for the downtrodden and the forgotten.

There was a tribute to it last night at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Evenings dedicated to a song are not ordinary. But then, in its staying power, neither is “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Its soulful music by Jay Gorney and sorrowful lyrics by E. Y. (Yip) Harburg have been recorded over the decades by singers as diverse as Bing Crosby and Tom Waits, Al Jolson and Judy Collins.

“Brother” is about a fellow who thought he was “building a dream,” only to find himself out of luck and out of work through no fault of his own, like millions of Americans at the depth of the Depression. “When there was earth to plow/Or guns to bear/I was always there/Right on the job,” he says.

Now he can’t comprehend what happened to him: “Why should I be standing in line/Just waiting for bread?”

In 1932, the two songwriters teamed up for a Broadway revue called “Americana.” Mr. Harburg wanted to write about the bread lines that were part of the New York cityscape. Mr. Gorney had the right tune, a melody inspired by a Russian lullaby. But it already had lyrics by another writer, about a jilted lover. They agreed to drop the torch song. But in favor of what words?

They talked it over during a stroll in Central Park. That was what Mr. Gorney, who died in 1990, recalled in a 1958 interview for Columbia University’s Oral History Research Office. They were approached in the park, he said, by a “rather nice-looking young man, nicely dressed but his coat collar up and his hat pulled down over his eye.” Not looking the songwriters in the face, the man asked, “Buddy, can you spare a dime?”

You can figure out the rest.

The song was a departure from other numbers of the era, which leaned more on feel-good themes — “We’re in the Money,” “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” and the like. There was nothing upbeat about “Brother.”

“Once I built a railroad/Made it run/Made it race against time,” its chorus begins. “Once I built a railroad/Now it’s done/Brother, can you spare a dime?”

The man in the song tells of having fought, “full of that Yankee Doodle-de-dum,” in World War I. “Half a million boots went sloggin’ through hell/I was the kid with the drum.”

“Say, don’t you remember?” he asks. “They called me Al/It was Al all the time/Say, don’t you remember/I’m your pal/Buddy, can you spare a dime?”

In 1932, Sheldon Harnick was 8. Mr. Harnick is no slouch himself as a lyricist, having collaborated on “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Fiorello!” and other shows. He spoke at the Graduate Center about the universality of “Brother,” how Al represents “any working stiff, anywhere.”

Mr. Harburg, who is probably best known for creating “Over the Rainbow” with Harold Arlen, spoke often before his death in 1981 about the dignity of the fellow asking for a dime.

This “was not a self-pitying breast-beater begging for a handout, but a man proud of what his hands had contributed to the wealth of this country,” he said at the 92nd Street Y in 1970. The man’s statement, he said, boiled down to, “I produce; why don’t I share?”

A lot of laid-off workers today might well identify with Al, whose misfortune left him “not angry as much as bewildered and baffled,” said Deena Harburg, a musicologist who arranged last night’s tribute with her husband, Ernie Harburg, Yip’s son. David Brunetti, the tribute’s musical director, noted that “Brother” remains “a powerhouse audition song” for stage tryouts.

Back in 1932, it was an instant hit. But the national unhappiness that it reflected made some politicians nervous. There were even attempts, ultimately unsuccessful, to ban it, Ernie Harburg said. “It’s not much different today,” he said. “Look what happened to the Dixie Chicks.”

By the way, that young fellow who had his hand out in Central Park? He may have unknowingly helped create a lasting song. But truth be known, Mr. Gorney said in 1958, “I don’t remember whether the man got his dime or not.”

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