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Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?

Brother Can You Spare a Dime sheet music cover

I know I keep going on about the folk band we are in, but here’s a confession: I don’t really like folk music. Well, that does depend on what is meant by folk music. I am certainly no big fan of those relentless jigs and reels played at breakneck speed on fiddles and flutes without any light or shade.

One thing I am a sucker for, though, is the music of what is often called The Great American Songbook: the melodies of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and others, written roughly between 1930 and 1950. They really knew how to get your heart. 

Next time I get chance at our Zoom folk meetings, I’m going to sneak in Brother Can You Spare a Dime on the pretext that the tune is based on a Russian-Jewish lullaby the composer’s mother had sung to him as a child. His family had fled when he was nine to escape the pogroms in what is now northern Poland.

Here is my MuseScore arrangement for guitar and bassoon. The bassoon sounds great. It sounds even better when Mrs. D. plays it for real. 

OK, I’ll shut up about MuseScore now for a couple of months.

Brother Can You Spare a Dime was composed in 1931 by Jay Gorney with lyrics by E. Y. ‘Yip’ Harburg (his middle name was Yipsel). It has been called the anthem of the Great Depression. It asks why honest Americans who served their country building railroads and skyscrapers, ploughing fields and fighting wars, “always there right on the job”, have been abandoned to the bread lines. Some saw it as anti-capitalist propaganda and tried to have it banned. Recordings by Rudy Vallée, Bing Crosby and Al Jolson were massive hits at the time and may have influenced the 1932 election of President F. D. Roosevelt and his ‘New Deal’. 

It is said that when Harburg and Gorney were writing the song they had struggled to find consistent meaning. They went for a walk in New York’s Central Park, where a destitute young man with collar up and hat down approached them and begged: “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” They looked at each other and knew they had their hook and their title. 

Bing Crosby’s version was the most successful. I prefer Rudy Vallée’s – he sticks to the tune whereas Crosby bends it slightly to his own interpretation. But then, I like lots of things by Rudy Vallée. Al Jolson, to my mind, goes too far in that it starts to become more about how dramatically he sings it. The song is supposed to be about fear, grief and anger rather than sadness and loss. We have gone from relentless jigs and reels towards weeping sentimentality, which I don’t like either. However, Jolson does not go as far as George Michael’s more recent makeover. The YouTube video of one of his live performances, in which the audience whistle and cheer every time he sings a long note, just looks and sounds wrong. It might be less unbearable in audio-only. There are well over fifty other recordings, too. 

For those who like lyrics as well as melodies, perhaps to sing as a lullaby to imbue their grandchildren with a sense of social justice, Harburg’s words are powerful and moving. I especially like the line about “Half a million boots...” This is the guy who went on to write the lyrics for The Wizard of Oz including Somewhere Over The Rainbow, who only became a lyricist after the Wall Street Crash put his electrical business into bankruptcy.  


They used to tell me I was building a dream
And so I followed the mob
When there was earth to plough 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 sloggin' through hell
And I was the kid with the drum

Oh, say, don't you remember, 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 the nineteen-seventies, the New York Times invited Harburg to write more contemporary lyrics. He came up with:

Once we had a Roosevelt
Praise the Lord!
Life had meaning and hope.
Now we're stuck with Nixon, Agnew, Ford,
Brother, can you spare a rope?

Perhaps we need an update for today.

35 comments:

  1. No update needed Tasker - this is music for my era and I love it.

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    1. I much prefer melodic music with clever chord progressions to today's stuff. That D7 with a flattened fifth in bar 11 is genius - a real sense of impending doom. An update today might be angry about taking on large amounts of debt for study without improving job prospects or living standards.

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  2. Hello Tasker,

    Well, we have been completely mesmerised by the animated music score. Perhaps you will tell us that we should get out more [not really possible at the moment!!] but we have never come across such a thing. Still, as we do not play any musical instruments, it is not so surprising, perhaps.

    Whatever, your history of the song and its context makes your post all the more interesting and the lyrics so much more powerful. The creativity of people never fails to amaze us and, in times such as these and those of the Depression, it is inspiring to witness. how people made sense of it all and tried to create a new future. As you say, the mood of the moment is just this.

    Art, as they say, in all its forms, is the highest form of hope. Play on!!

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    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. The songwriters and musicians of that era have rarely been bettered.
      The MuseScore software is rapidly becoming my best instrument (it's free to download, install and use), which is lazy. I need to play for real more. My last but one post also had a MuseScore video.

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  3. "For those who like lyrics as well as melodies, perhaps to sing as a lullaby to imbue their grandchildren with a sense of social justice..." Were you thinking about me by any chance? I only sing English songs to the little one...

    Once we had an empire
    That circled the globe
    Very proud of the things we did
    Now we've got Johnson, Rees-Mogg and Gove
    Brother, can you spare a quid?

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    1. You only have to sing to them until they're old enough to read your blog. You'll then need to keep moderation switched on until they get tired of it.

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  4. I suppose folk music covers so many different kinds of folk music that to say whether you like it or don't like it is too sweeping and silly. I was put off folk music by Robin Hall and Jimmy MacGregor I think. Later I discovered the folk clubs of the North East and my view changed as to what folk music and singing could actually be and I started to enjoy it.

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    1. Silly like all sweeping statements. As in all interests, there are those who take it too seriously to the exclusion of everything else. It's there to be enjoyed.

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  5. The best blogs give you a glimpse of a life that you don't know. It's interesting to read these. I learn new things every day. It's the way with folk songs. The very best folk songs give you a glimpse of another life, one that does not run concurrent with our own.

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    1. Folk songs do often give a different view of things, and many have wonderful tunes, but I have never developed much of a taste for the fast jigs and reels that seem to me to be more technical than musical or memorable.

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    2. I love the folk songs that tell a story. I've always had a love of words.

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  6. Must say I agree with you about Rudy Vallee's interpretation of the song over the others. He found just the right tone without lapsing into melodrama.

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    1. Rudy Vallee seems to have been very difficult to work with and has been all but forgotten now compared to his contemporaries, possibly because he sang songs straight rather than trying to stamp his own personality on them.

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  7. I love old songs of social protest (new ones, too). Good post!

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    1. It's no surprise that Gorney and Harburg were both subsequently banned from working in Hollywood as a result of the McCarthy trials in the nineteen-fifties. It didn't stop their theatre musical work, though.

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  8. Buddy can you spare a....lump? Bump? Chump?

    Our past president's name doesn't really offer any enticing rhymes.

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    1. It doesn't need to mean anything else in the north of England.

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  9. You really take me back with the music from the first half of the 20th Century. You hear a lot of it on the soundtracks of the movies from the 40's and 50's. It was the music that helped make those movies such classics.

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    1. As always with a lot of cimema. One of the first films I watched after leaving home was The Graduate, which is made by S&G's songs. Only the musical styles had changed, not their power.

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  10. One of my favourite songs of all time. Not in the same genre, but "One for my Baby (and One more for the Road)" is another. On a similar vein, "Remember My Forgotten Man" was a powerful torch song in Gold Diggers of 1933, sung by Joan Blondell. Ok, the Busby Berkley number was typically OTT but it's a powerful song.

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    1. Just watched the Forgotten Man sequence from the film and it is a striking piece of cinema. I have always been attracted first by melodies and arrangements and second by words, although I do enjoy lyrics too. I think yours are word-first songs. It's probably why I don't particularly like Sinatra.

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  11. Sorry I misspelled "Busby Berkeley". Apologies to the great man.

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  12. I love this old music so much as it is what my parents would play and sing constantly when I was a small child. I really enjoyed listening to it.

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    1. I still know the songs my mother used to listen to on the radio when I was small - 1950s UK popular music on the Light Programme. At that age they go in and stay there.

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  13. Your mention of Irving Berlin made me think of a song he wrote when his wife died, called When I Lost You. Jim Reeves did a wonderful version of it on his Moonlight & Roses album. Might be on YouTube for those who are interested.

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    1. Thanks. I'll take a look as I don't know that one. Irving Berlin wrote some brilliant songs.

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  14. Irving's daughter wrote a memoir of her father, I have it somewhere.
    She begins the book by going back to the apartment in which she grew up, a building where the 'butter and egg men' had their market.
    Jerome Kern was asked what place Berlin had in American song.
    *Irving Berlin has no place in American song,* said Kern, *he IS American song.*
    John O'Hara once corrected Berlin for misquoting one of his own lyrics.
    Berlin laughed and said, *I heard about you before, you know the words of more songs than anyone else.*

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    1. Irving Berlin was a self-taught pianist who played mainly on the black keys. He had problems playing in other keys so had a special transposing piano whicch slid the keyboard along the strings. You can just imagine him in 'Top Hat White Tie and Tails' playing the descending sequence "I'm steppin' out, my dear, To breathe an atmosphere, That simply reeks with class;" by playing the same notes while moving the keyboard along. I don't know if that was the case, but how else would you come up with a tune like that?

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    2. Benny Green said Berlin had a device built on to his piano which helped him play in his own self-taught way, a kind of lever which he pulled upwards. For changing key?
      It is daunting that Nadia Boulanger turned down George Gershwin when he asked if he could study under her.
      Berlin does not appear to have needed a mentor - he was without father and mother (artistically speaking) like Melchizedek in Genesis.

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    3. Don't you remember the famous men, who had to fall to rise again...

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    4. Lorenz Hart had a tragic life. O'Hara used to pick him off the floor at parties and carry him home, where he slept off the booze.
      There is a biography of Vincent Youmans who wrote Tea For Two,
      *Days to be Happy, Years to be Sad*.
      Alan Jay Lerner was dying in a New York hospital. The day nurse said to the night nurse, *The old guy in the corner thinks he wrote My Fair Lady*.
      Lerner owed a fortune in alimony to seven ex-wives. He got lucky with Number Eight, Liz Robertson the singer.
      A kind man, Lerner was addicted to cigarettes and amphetamines.

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    5. Mark Janas and Liz Robertson.
      Lerner without Loewe.
      4 April 2017. YouTube.

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  15. The lyrics really pack a punch. I liked listening to Bing's version. We certainly could do with an updated version of this tune today.

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    1. I like Bing Crosby's version too. Rudy Vallee's songs are very much in the style of their time, probably an acquired taste.

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