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"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime"

Scene from the stage production Americana

Due to our unique existence as a research center of The New York Public Library and a constituent member of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc., we can post our exhibitions and public programs on “the blades,” the electronic signboards that line 65th St. Our designer is skilled at selecting images—like this one—that grab pedestrians’ attention.

For this exhibition on political cabaret, we chose this White Studio photograph from the 1932 edition of the revue Americana. It shows the introduction of the song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” by Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney by the singer (Rex Weber) and Men (the male dance chorus from the Charles Weidman Company). The photograph is compelling with a bare stage, the singer staring down the audience on a backwards chair, and the men dressed in ageless work clothes, looking down. It is a stark contrast to the colorful scenes of opera, ballet and recitals that usually represent Lincoln Center presentations. The blades identify the name, place and date of the presentations, but not the content of the image, so pedestrians have to visit the corridor gallery exhibition to find out who and what are shown.

The show failed, but the song has come to represent the Depression. Among the great songwriter holdings in the Library for the Performing Arts are 3 archival collections of lyricist Yip Harburg, as well as one representing Jay Gorney [JBP 04-33].  “Laughter, agita and rage” includes examples of their works with other collaborators through the 1970s. Both men had long careers and frequently articulated their views on social conditions, politics and the responsibilities of songwriters.  As Harburg wrote, “Songs have always been man’s anodyne against tyranny and terror.”   Although the song’s impact is timeless, the lyrics are very specific. The verse begins “They used to tell me I was building a dream,” and lyrics refer to American accomplishments of the past such as, in the chorus, the railroad that “raced against time.” The lyrics also refer to the character’s past military service, although pacifist Harburg’s line cites the man “with the drum,” not the gun, and to the recent Bonus Army, veterans who camped out on the Washington Mall in the Summer of 1932 to protest lack of benefits and jobs.  

Harburg spoke about the political background of the song in a speech at the 80th birthday celebration “at this point in rhyme” (March 20, 1977).   A large print script is included in the Papers [*T-Mss 1989-014]:

“…the breadlines, along with the pathetic millions whose savings and hopes were swept away. The system fell apart.  The great American dream was derailed.  The people were not angry, but baffled.  They were not in revolt, but bewildered…”

The photograph is in the exhibition to evoke the Depression as the era first associated with political cabaret, but also because Harburg updated the lyrics, providing his own example of parody.  [*T-Mss 1990-002] “Brother, can you spare a buck” concerned inflation and disillusionment. 

song lyrics

A few research notes:

This edition of Americana is also important in dance history.  As well as providing chorus members, the 1932 show provided employment and visibility for the developing American modern dance field.  Charles Weidman and Doris Humphrey provided their companies to Americana as choruses, but also took the opportunity to premiere their own works, most memorably, Humphrey’s The Shakers.  The Jerome Robbins Dance Division is the center for research on Humphrey, Weidman, and their companies, including Jose Limon, who can be seen in the image above. 

A good source of information on the Bonus Army is Paul Dickson’s 2004 study.

“Americana” is a search term which really strains the capabilities of the catalogue.  As a general title, it turned up thousands of hits for books by everyone from John Updike to Ray Davies.  Even when I switched to the Browse function and used the left-hand navigation to limit to Research and Score, I found entries for Victor Herbert, Randall Thompson and Leon Russell, as well as LPA’s own 19th century anthology Democratic Songbook (Mu 780.9 D). 

If you are looking for a copy of “Brother, Can you spare a dime”, I would recommend a Song Index search.  Hits include 8 anthologies, such as Harburg 1 and Peter, Paul and Mary, as well as 2 Fake Books. 


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