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A Depression-Era Anthem For Our Times

A bread line forms outside of the Rescue Society in New York City in 1929. "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" directly confronted the hardship of the Great Depression.
Wikimedia Commons
A bread line forms outside of the Rescue Society in New York City in 1929. "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" directly confronted the hardship of the Great Depression.

On Oct. 29, 1929, the U.S. stock market crashed. America's economy collapsed, pulling many international markets down with it. It was the beginning of the Great Depression: an era of long bread lines, bankruptcies and hungry Dust Bowl sharecroppers that would last through most of the 1930s.

In 1932, a young New York City lyricist named E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, together with composer Jay Gorney, penned what is considered the anthem of the Great Depression, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Pianist and composer Rob Kapilow joins NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg to look inside the song and find out why it was so successful in its time, and why it still speaks to listeners today.

Deconstructing a Classic

Kapilow says that the mood of the song is guided by its key and its rhythm.

"The first thing that's surprising is that it doesn't start in a major key like most Broadway songs," he says. "Appropriate to the Depression, it's in a minor key."

With lines like "Once I built a railroad, made it run / Made it race against time," the music jumps an octave, with all the energy and syncopation that made America's railroads. It even comes to rest, momentarily, in a major key. The music, like the words, reminisces about prosperous times.

"But then, heartbreakingly," Kapilow says, "under the word 'time' we change to minor, to set up the second half of the verse. Now it has lost all its energy; it's wistful. Now it's done — the good days in America, pre-Depression."

All of that, Kapilow says, provides a wonderful set-up for the perfect punch line: the song's title.

"Lyrically, it's the entire history of the Depression in a single phrase: 'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?' Utterly economical," Kapilow says. "It's not, 'I've lost my family. I don't have my home.' But in one phrase, 'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?' I'm talking to you."

An Angry Ending

There were other songs written about the Depression during the Depression, but most were of the "Keep your chin up, things will get better" variety. Harburg and Gorney's song was different. It was a courageous song that spoke honestly, even angrily, Kapilow says, about the plight of the average man on the street.

"In all Broadway songs, we would repeat the beginning," Kapilow says. "But instead of finishing with weary resignation from the Depression, it's an octave higher, with a fortissimo. We've gone from depression to hope in the first verse, and we finish with anger. And although the first two times were 'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?' — a kind of harmless brotherhood of man — it finishes with 'Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?' We don't finish with any 'Life is a bowl of cherries.' We're finishing with the anger of the two socialist creators, Gorney and Harburg, always feeling the time-immemorial complaint that the working man doesn't get the rewards. In the middle of the Depression, in 1932, when no one was saying this out loud, they had the courage to say it on Broadway."

That was then — more than 75 years ago. But today, Kapilow says he isn't surprised that the song resonates loud and clear.

"The more things change, the more they stay the same," he says. "Any time you tell such a powerful, universal story, it's always going to be relevant. And any time you have the courage to tell the truth to power, it will always sound contemporary."

Rob Kapilow is the author of the new book "All You Have To Do is Listen: Music From the Inside Out."

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