It’s amazing how much you can learn about history from simply listening to a song.
Brother, Can you Spare a Dime was the Great Depression’s anthem. I’ve heard the title lines of that song sung in the past, but today is the first time that I’ve ever actually listened to the entire song. I’m not just impressed. I’m amazed.
Wikipedia describes Brother as follows:
“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, also sung as “Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?”, is one of the best-known American songs of the Great Depression. Written in 1931 by lyricist E. Y. “Yip” Harburg and composer Jay Gorney, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” was part of the 1932 musical New Americana; the melody is based on a Russian lullaby Gorney heard as a child. It became best known, however, through recordings by Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee. Both versions were released right before Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s election to the presidency and both became number one hits on the charts. The Brunswick Crosby recording became the best-selling record of its period, and came to be viewed as an anthem of the shattered dreams of the era.”
I’m amazed by the song’s startling honesty. “Brother” is a powerful indictment of an economic and political system under which ordinary men were enticed into working for a dream–other people’s dreams, government’s dreams, rich people’s dreams–and then left penniless.
• I listened to Brother and understood for the first time why Americans came to love Franklin D. Roosevelt. Right or wrong, FDR offered the people a new dream, a New Deal, to replace the previous dream that hadn’t merely failed abysmally but had also been exposed as nothing but a con. People didn’t elect FDR because they were angry about being impoverished. They elected FDR and the Democrats because they were angry about being betrayed and exploited by Republicans and the rich.
I don’t mind living in poverty so long as my neighbors also live in poverty and we came to that poverty in a way that is “fair”. Maybe we’ve suffered three years of drought and the crops failed. We can work together and survive until it rains. Maybe we’ve embraced an idea or even a dream that proved to be impossible. We played the fool, so, we pay fool’s price. But, hopefully, we learn from our mistake and forge ahead.
However, if I find out that I’m living in poverty because some smart sonofabitch figured out a way to get rich by betraying my trust, I will become a very unhappy (some might say enraged) camper.
After listening to Brother, I begin to see that the political revolution of A.D. 1932 (that ushered FDR and the Democrats into power) wasn’t merely a reaction to an economic depression. It was a reaction to realizing that the Republicans, acting out of greed, ambition and self-interest, had exploited and betrayed the public trust. The Democrats’ triumph in A.D. 1932 wasn’t really about the Depression; it was about the betrayal of trust.
Today, I think we’re experiencing much the same thing. We’re being impoverished, but not by the weather or our own bad choices. We are being impoverished by people in positions of power who we’ve trusted and who have knowingly exploited and betrayed our trust.
It’s not the poverty that makes us mad. It’s not (as Bill Clinton said) “the economy, stupid.” It’s the betrayal of trust and the treason that motivate us to despise the current government. The cops aren’t here to “serve and protect” the people; they’re here to “serve and protect” the government. The government isn’t “here to help us”–they’re here to exploit us for their own gain and for the gain of the special interests they truly represent. It’s the betrayal of trust that infuriates the people, motivates the dissidents, and precipitates political revolutions.
• Brother dominated American music during much of the Great Depression because it’s not just a song. Back then, Brother was powerful statement of political sentiment. But it’s not hard to imagine that in the next several years, Brother might again become a politically powerful anthem.
If you really listen to the lyrics, you may be surprised to hear how well they describe today’s false dreams, endless wars, growing poverty, collapsing economy and betrayal by people in positions of power.
Nothing new under the sun. There’ll always be people selling dreams that they know can’t come true. And there will also be people who’ll believe in impossible dreams.
Today’s “impossible dream”? Fiat currency; the idea that we can actually pay our debts with worthless pieces of paper or electronic digits; the idea that we can become “magically” prosperous without ever actually paying our debts.
Here are three videos featuring Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.
I like the Al Jolson version best simply because his singing seems more articulate and a little angrier than the other two. He doesn’t merely lament the Great Depression. He is pissed.
I’ve never really liked Bing Crosby, but I do like the video featuring Bing’s version of Brother simply because it impresses me as having the best graphics.
I’ve never thought much of Rudy Vallee. To me, he always seemed weak and frivolous. The video featuring Vallee singing Brother actually inspires a bit of my contempt–but it’s still illuminating.
Vallee’s spoken introduction to Brother illustrates 1) how controversial this song was in A.D. 1931 (the year before FDR was first elected); and 2) Vallee’s cowardice. I presume the song was already a significant “hit” and there was money to be made singing it. But Vallee’s introduction implies that there might also be political liabilities for those who initially dared to popularize the song.
I suspect that, during the “Roaring Twenties,” Vallee had been singing to entertain the sons and daughters of the rich. But Brother was a political anthem for the poor and newly impoverished. I’ll bet that Vallee didn’t want to lose his audience of rich folks. Therefore, in order to make buck off the poor and still remain popular with the rich, Vallee equivocated. He explained to his audience that, Yes, he was singing this “radical” song, but it wasn’t really his style. In other words, he’d sing Brother and take the money, but didn’t want any of the associated political liability.
Vallee’s attempt to distance himself from the very song he was signing, tells me that A.D. 1931 was characterized by enormous political controversy, division and polarization. A.D. 1931 was a dangerous time.
• In listening to Brother Can You Spare A Dime, I begin to understand just how dangerous and revolutionary America had become as a result of the Great Depression. I also begin to see how appropriate Brother could be for what may be the coming “Greater Depression”.
And, mostly, I see that there’s nothing new under the sun. The world runs in predictable cycles. The rich exploit the poor, the poor riot and tear down the “system”; a second “system” emerges, smart guys figure out new ways to get rich by exploiting the poor, the poor riot and tear down the second “system”; a third “system” emerges and once again, the rich devise ways to exploit the poor, etc.. (“The root of all evil” comes to mind.)
Al Jolson: (00:03:18): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4F4yT0KAMyo
Bing Crosby (00:03:11): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eih67rlGNhU
Rudy Vallee (00:03:40): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=llhRGUYMcfU
Brother is old news today. But I think it might be surprisingly “current” within the next three years.