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?
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