Has there ever been a song so widely covered, and so often ruined, as the astonishing ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ Even though it is one of my very favourite songs, I have struggled to find a version that truly does it justice.
Why is it so good? And why so badly interpreted, even by great musicians? I think that there is a link between those two questions.
Written in 1930, it was commissioned for the 1932 Broadway review Americana. The man who largely put the show together EY ‘Yip’ Harburg, and wrote the lyrics for the song, is one of the greats of 20th century song. In the same year as Americana was running, he wrote ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’ with Harold Arlen with whom, a few years later, he wrote the score for The Wizard of Oz which include , of course, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’.
Yip Harburg was mainstream, a Tin Pan Alley man, and he was also, unusually, a man of the left – not just a warm-hearted liberal but, in the words of his son Eddie,
‘…a full, deep-dyed socialist who did not believe that capitalism was the answer to the human community and indeed was the destruction of the human spirit.’
The man who wrote the music, Jay Gorney, was, like Harburg, from poor immigrant family. The melody was from a lullaby he remembered from his childhood in Russia.
The song, in other words, is a glorious mess of influences. It is a protest song that was written for Broadway, a folk tune that emerged from Tin Pan Alley, a song about the American dream sung to a Russian tune.
And that may be why so many of the versions over the subsequent eighty or so years have been somehow missed their target. In the 1930s, Bing Crosby was too smooth, Al Jolson absurdly histrionic. Jazz versions have tended to be over-produced and twiddly. More recently, singers as wildly different as George Michael (too slick), Tom Waits (too mannered) and Martin Simpson (too showy) have had a go, causing me different degrees of disappointment.
Very few versions allow the song to do its own devastating work, from the yearning first verse, through the brilliant inversion of the tune after the bridge, well explained here by David Brunetti ( 26’28 in), to the solemn military tread of:
‘Once in khaki suits, ah, 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.’
It is a heroic song. Its sadness emanates from the writers’ own experience of hardship (Harburg liked to quote Bernard Shaw’s line about how the chill of poverty never leaves your bones) but is cut with the sense of hope and idealism betrayed. It is not a whinge. Harburg once said that it was simply a proud man asking the question: ‘I gave all that, I did my part of the deal – how did this happen?’ And the lyrics spell out that American dream in specifics – the railroad, the great building, the sacrifices of war.
It was also heroic in its history. In the early 1930s, it was unthinkable that a song should actually reflect what the Depression was actually doing to the lives of ordinary people. The political and entertainment establishments agreed that it was far better to pretend that none of that was happening, to provide the fantasy of escape in songs, like’We’re in the Money’, ‘The Sunny Side of the Street’, ‘Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries’.
If ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ hadn’t been in a Broadway show (and it nearly wasn’t, being deemed by one producer as too morbid), it would have been censored. As it happened, by the time Bing Crosby got his hands on the song, the sheet music was a hit and it was too late to protect the public from what later became known as ‘the anthem of the Depression’.
Yip Harburg is big-hearted and clever as a lyricist, uncompromising in his politics and yet forever hopeful. In a tribute event on the 75th anniversary of ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ in 2007 (40’48 in) , there is a moving clip in which he described himself as ‘a fellow-hitch-hiker on the great American dream-machine’ and explained his approach to life and writing:
‘I, as a lyrical son of an immigrant, saw this country with the eyes of a worshipper and the head of a Shavian poet, a troubadour. I capsulated its follies, twitted its foibles, chronicled its fears and sang its hopes. Always I saw this land under a rainbow umbrella, a banner which waved with humour and humanity.’
The humour was important. Interviewed by Max Wilk for his book They’re Playing Our Song (1991), he said:
‘I’ve always thought that the way to educate, to teach, the way to live without being miserable, even though you’re surrounded by misery, was to laugh at the things that made you miserable. I’m stirred and my juices start flowing more when I can tackle a problem that has profundity, depth and real danger by destroying it with laughter.‘
We need more of that now.
My favourite version of this song is by Harburg himself (13’58 in this excellent Democracy Now tribute) but I can only find this partial version of it. Dr John and Odetta do it well, and I like The Weavers 1961 treatment. In the end, this plain. moving (and little known) treatment by Teddy Thompson won it for me.