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The Story Behind the Song

Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

Introduction

FDR’s New Deal

In November 1932, the U.S. elected Franklin Roosevelt president. When he took office the following year, his administration immediately set up dozens of programs, what he called a “New Deal” for the American people. New government agencies like the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) provided relief and helped put many Americans back to work.

The Great Depression would not truly end until the U.S. entered World War II in the early 1940s. But Roosevelt’s optimistic leadership gave many Americans hope when they needed it most.

On October 29, 1929, the U.S. stock market crashed. As stock prices plummeted, investors panicked and sold their investments, driving prices even lower. Financial fears and failures snowballed in the years that followed. Many breadwinners lost their jobs and families could not pay their bills. Homeless, hungry people stood in bread lines to get a bite to eat. In western states, the “Dust Bowl”—drought, erosion, and dust storms—drove farmers from their lands.

The calamity stunned the United States. Most Americans could not understand how such an economic disaster could strike their smart, rich, mighty country.

By 1932, the U.S. found itself in tough shape. Shoppers had stopped shopping, businesses were losing money, companies were collapsing, banks were closing, and people were losing their jobs in record numbers. Nearly one out of four workers was unemployed. How could this happen? Throughout the 1920s—the fast-paced, get-rich-quick “Roaring Twenties”—the sky seemed the limit to most Americans. Now, that hopeful attitude was gone. People found it tough to put words to the disillusionment and fear they felt.

Until a couple guys wrote a song.

This is the story behind “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” This heartbreaking tune became the song about one of the roughest periods in U.S. history.

A Song in Search of a Title

E.Y. “Yip” Harburg (1896–1981)

E.Y. Harburg was born Isidore Hochburg in New York to Jewish immigrant parents. He was co-owner of an electrical appliance company that went bankrupt shortly after the Great Depression began.

His loss was a big gain for American music. Harburg contributed lyrics to many memorable numbers, including “April in Paris” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” He also wrote “Over the Rainbow,” and the other songs featured in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. He was elected to the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1972.

Harburg was a strong supporter of socialism. This political and economic system believes that big business and capitalism are unfair to workers, and that workers and the public deserve a bigger share of a company’s profits. These sympathies made Harburg many enemies who accused him and other socialists of being anti-American. He was placed on a Hollywood blacklist that banned him from working in the film industry from 1951-1962.

The Great Depression would not truly end until the U.S. entered World War II in the early 1940s. But Roosevelt’s optimistic leadership gave many Americans hope when they needed it most.

In 1932, songwriters E.Y. “Yip” Harburg and Jay Gorney were working together on a number for a Broadway show called New Americana. Popular songs of the day were urging Americans to remain cheerful through the hard times by walking “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” pretending “Life is a Bowl of Cherries,” and believing “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

Harburg and Gorney’s song was taking a different direction, though. Gorney was basing the music on a lullaby he remembered from his childhood in Russia. He set the tune mostly in a minor key, one that suggests a sense of sadness and loss.

Harburg had some lyrics in mind, but the team couldn’t think up a title. They decided to take a break and take a walk in New York’s Central Park. A young man approached Gorney, his collar turned up and his hat pulled low. “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” he asked. The two songwriters glanced at each other and knew they’d found the words they’d been searching for.

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” immediately hit a nerve in Americans’ hearts and minds. Popular crooners Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee both recorded versions of it and the song blew the top off the music charts. For the first time since the Great Depression began, it seemed, someone had put words and music to what many Americans were feeling—fear, grief, even anger.

The song itself, though, angered some rich and powerful Americans. Pro-business leaders believed the tune was a dangerous attack on the American economic system. They tried to ban it from Broadway and block it from being played on the radio. But it was too late: The song’s popularity drowned out all grumbling.

Music, movies, family, and government aid helped people get through this dark period. The Great Depression, though, dragged on for more than ten years. For many Americans, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” became an anthem for that decade of hardship.

Lyrics

Americans have always prided themselves on their willingness to work hard in pursuit of the American Dream. The Great Depression, though, shook their faith. Almost overnight, hard work was not always enough to prevent hunger and homelessness.

Bread lines where food was handed out to the unemployed and homeless were familiar sights during the Great Depression.

By the 1920s, an extensive system of railroads crisscrossed the U.S. The tracks and trains that ran on them were a powerful symbol of the country’s industrial strength.

In 1931, New York completed the Empire State Building, the tallest skyscraper of its time. People celebrated the achievement as a mark of America’s technical and engineering prowess.

In 1917, hundreds of thousands of American troops sailed to Europe to fight in the Great War, what is today called World War I.

In 1932, some 17,000 war veterans and their families traveled to Washington, D.C., to seek financial relief based on their military service. Several veterans were killed when U.S. soldiers were ordered to drive them from the city.

These lyrics criticize how veterans who had risked their lives for their country were now being treated with so little respect by the country they had served.

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
Lyrics: E.Y. “Yip” Harburg
Music: Jay Gorney

They used to tell me I was building a dream,
And so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear,
I was always there right on the job

They used to tell me I was building a dream,
With peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line,
Just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run,
Made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it’s done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower, up to the sun,
Brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower; now it’s done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee-Doodly-dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don't you remember, they called me Al;
It was Al all the time.
Why don’t you remember, I’m your pal?
Say buddy, can you spare a dime?

Credits

Writers

Sean McCollum
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Producer

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