Primary Source: “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (1932), music by Jay Gorney, words by Yip Harburg, recorded by Rudy Vallée

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” with music by Jay Gorney and words by Yip Harburg, became a big hit for Rudy Vallée, then a major idol and music star, in 1932. Having become popular at the depth of the Great Depression, it became a sort of anthem. Gorney described how he and Harburg found the title and refrain of the song while they were walking in Central Park in New York in 1930. “All of a sudden, a young man–a rather nice-looking young man, nicely dressed, with his coat collar up and his hat pulled down over his eye–turned to us with his face away from us, and said, ‘Buddy, can you spare a dime?’ Yip got it immediately, and we knew, ‘That’s it!’ and Yip went home and wrote it in no time.” Harburg went on to great success, especially as the lyricist for the film The Wizard of Oz (1939), but after World War II he was blacklisted and could not get work in the entertainment industry because of his politics. Harburg later said of the song: “What the complicated socio-economic treatises could not convey to us, this song crystallized this simple statement: ‘I produce. Why don’t I share?’”


Below, listen to a conversation from NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday between pianist and composer Rob Kapilow and special correspondent Susan Stamberg about the song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” For the full interview, recorded in 2008, several versions of the song, and more, visit the original NPR story.


Guided Discussion Questions

  • Yip Harburg wrote the lyrics to “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” but he’s more famous for writing the lyrics to all the songs from the film The Wizard of Oz. What might we extrapolate about his politics from the lyrics he wrote? Do you think it’s possible that a song with these politics could become a mainstream hit today? Why or why not?
  • In the bridge, the singer tells of “half a million boots slogging through hell,” a reference to World War I (1914-1918). What do you think the relevance of the war was to listeners of this song in 1932?
  • Rob Kapilow describes the apparent dissonance between the Broadway-style of the song, the lyrics, and–especially as the song reaches its climax–the music itself. What do you think Gorney and Harburg accomplished through this combination and the subversion of the Broadway form? How did it serve their message?
  • Is this a protest song? Why or why not? How does it differ from other types of protest songs with which you might be familiar?


Want more of “The Show Must Go On” series? Click below to view other lessons.

Christopher Smith & Michael Borshuk on Josephine Baker

Bill Deverell on Woody Guthrie’s “This Land” (1940-1945)

Kim Nalley on Nina Simone & “Mississippi Goddamn”

Jacob Remes on the Salem Fire of 1914

Barry Bradford on “South Pacific” and Racism

Jack Hamilton on Jimi Hendrix

Sarah Gold McBride on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition

Karen L. Cox on Protesting Black Stereotypes at the Movies: The Case of “Gone with the Wind”

Danielle Fosler-Lussier on Marian Anderson

Felicia Angeja Viator on “To Live and Defy in LA: How Gangsta Rap Changed America” and “The Batterram”

Katherine Rye Jewell on FDR’s “Banking Crisis” Fireside Chat

Davarian L. Baldwin on The Great Migration: The Meaning Behind the Movement

Daniel Immerwahr on “Star Wars” and the Vietnam War

Michael J. Kramer on R-E-S-P-E-C-T and the Social Movements of the Sixties

William D. Carrigan on The Signing of the GI Bill of Rights (1944)

Jacob Remes is a Clinical Associate Professor of History at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and associated faculty in the Department of History. He studies and teaches the working-class and labor history of North America, with a focus on urban disasters, working-class organizations, and migration. His book, Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era (University of Illinois Press, 2016) examines the overlapping responses of individuals, families, civil society, and the state to the Salem, Mass., Fire of 1914, and the Halifax, N.S., Explosion of 1917.