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Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?
May 10, 2008 11:56 PM   Subscribe

Songs that clearly and directly address or reference economic hardships and injustice in America, not to mention that do so in a bitter, regretful tone, don't often become enormous hits. Matter of fact, it's such a rare phenomenon that you could count such songs on... um, one finger? Yes, Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney's iconic Brother Can You Spare a Dime is that song. Covered by a surprisingly wide range of singers through the years, the song still resonates.

You can hear a partial clip of the Rudy Valee version at a link from this page from the "GCSE page" link. Once again this clip, like most of the YouTube clips linked in the FPP, is comprised of Depression-era images.

There's a partial clip of the Bing Crosby version at this PBS page, just scroll down below the feature on "Strange Fruit" (another song with unlikely subject matter, that is lynching) for the link.

Here's the chords, although they've left the entire intro out...
posted by flapjax at midnite (55 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Songs that clearly and directly address or reference economic hardships . . . don't often become enormous hits

There are a lot of songs that talk about injustice and inequality. And lots of them became plenty big hits.

Bruce Springsteen made a fair bit of his early career talking about New Jersey during the first oil crisis and subsequent economic hard times. Tom Joad is the obvious choice (as well as Youngstown off the same album), but even if you don't consider that then Born in the USA addresses both injustice and inequality pretty squarely
"Come back home to the refinery / Hiring man says, 'Son if it was up to me.' / Went down to see my V.A. man/ He said, 'Son, don't you understand now.'"
Same for Creedence Clearwater Revival.
"Some folks are born silver spoon in hand, / Lord, don't they help themselves, oh. / But when the taxman comes to the door, / Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale, yes,"
Same for just about anything in the genre of The Blues.

Rage Against the Machine writes most of its songs against a backdrop of inequality and injustice based on how it sees corporate America

Heck, even Bon Jovi would have something to say:
"the union went on strike / he's down on his luck / it's tough, so tough"
posted by Leon-arto at 12:19 AM on May 11, 2008


Damn! I wanted to be the first to mention Born in the USA!

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I'm ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go

Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.


The most subversive song of the last 50 years, I swear to god.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:43 AM on May 11, 2008


Not sure if they can count as "enormous hits," but a lot of the Woody Guthrie ouevrevuevourve [sp?] is about poverty, class, joblessness, etc. "Ain't gonna be treated this way..."
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:48 AM on May 11, 2008


Maybe the difference between "Brother" and those other songs is that the others don't address the listeners directly. "Brother" is full of uses of the word "you," in the title line and elsewhere ("say don't you remember / they called me al / . . . why don't you remember"). So not only is the song bitter, as flapjax points out, the bitterness arguably is directed at the listeners. This is completely different from (and more disturbing than) a rallying cry.
posted by grobstein at 1:15 AM on May 11, 2008


You end up like a dog that's been beat too much
'Til you spend half your life just covering up


--Springsteen
posted by mr_roboto at 1:28 AM on May 11, 2008


Ten Cents A Dance
posted by hortense at 1:36 AM on May 11, 2008


Hey, yeah folks, thanks for the links, but do keep in mind I was serious about the "enormous" part. Therefore, point taken on "Born In the USA", which was, of course, huge, and which just didn't enter my mind when putting this FPP together. Admittedly, you'd need maybe one or two more fingers to count the HUGE hits...

And grobstein, yes, I was thinking along the lines you delineated in your comment.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:38 AM on May 11, 2008


Yip Harburg was an amazing human being as well as a brilliant lyricist.

O'Brian: In the abstract, what is your religion?

Harburg: Well, that's a tough question, but I would say -- quickie -- that my religion is to make people laugh, and in return, to give me love and I want them to make me laugh and I want to give them love.


There's also the Harburg Foundation created to ensure the continued influence of Yip Harburg's work and social outlook.
posted by sleepy pete at 1:40 AM on May 11, 2008


I'd be more impressed by Born in the USA (and My Hometown, from the same album) if Dire Straits' "Telegraph Road" hadn't come out a year or two earlier.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:57 AM on May 11, 2008


Yip Harburg was an amazing human being as well as a brilliant lyricist.

Indeed! It's worth pointing out here, for those who maybe didn't check out the Harburg link, that the man also wrote "April in Paris" and "It's Only a Paper Moon". Not to mention "Over the REainbow", "Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead" (!) and, oh, a few others...

Back in 2005 they put him on a stamp.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:57 AM on May 11, 2008


Maybe the difference between "Brother" and those other songs is that the others don't address the listeners directly.

Maybe the real difference is that Harburg was actually a socialist, and those other people -- not so much so.

The most subversive song of the last 50 years, I swear to god.

Your having a laugh, right? It's a trite, reactionary piece of US-centric privilege pleading, IMO. American vets deserve to be in full employment, amirite?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:57 AM on May 11, 2008


It's a trite, reactionary piece of US-centric privilege pleading, IMO.

Hmm... I'd say you're being a bit harsh in your assessment there Peter. While the hook does scream over and over again "boooorn in the USA", I always read that as a certain kind of disillusionment on the part of the song's protagonist: the idea of US privilege is an illusion that he had, and he's learned the bitter truth, namely, that there is no privilege. Now, you could argue that even having the illusion in the first place is a kind of ugly-American mindset worthy only of scorn, but, well, people have illusions, don't they? And they're often to be pitied for it, rather than hated, in my opinion.

And insofar as the vets returning from Vietnam were, for the most part, from lower socioeconomic segments of American society, and generally got fairly screwed, I'm not sure how you read the song's message as "reactionary".
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:41 AM on May 11, 2008


Regarding my interpretation of "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" as a story being told with a share of bitterness, it's interesting to note that, according to the following attributed quote, Yip Harburg himself didn't see it that way:

Harburg has said of his narrator that he isn't bitter, "He's bewildered. Here is a man who had built his faith and hope in this country. . . . Then came the crash. Now he can't accept the fact that the bubble has burst. He still believes. He still has faith. He just doesn't understand what could have happened to make everything go so wrong"

That quote was gleaned from this webpage. And I can see what he means: bewilderment as opposed to bitterness. This is, of course, another example of artist intent vs. listener's interpretation, which is sometimes an interesting question to ponder...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:37 AM on May 11, 2008


There's that Dylan fellow . . .
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:45 AM on May 11, 2008


There's that Dylan fellow . . .

Oh really? Never heard of him... songwriter, you say?

I repeat, we're talking ENORMOUS HIT here, Kirth. Sure, Dylan himself is enormous, larger than life, a GOD of songwriting, fer chrissakes, but show me the single tune he wrote with an overtly "economic injustice" theme that was a huge hit. A number one hit record. That ever made it to number one, much less sat there for awhile getting used to the spot. That was the point of how the FPP was worded. So, no particular need to go on listing singer/songwriters who've written political songs. We're all aware that there have been lots of them.

Unless of course, you just really feel the need to go on listing them, in which case, knock yourself out!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:03 AM on May 11, 2008


i like this connie francis version

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9su2F7brsE&feature=related
posted by billybobtoo at 5:17 AM on May 11, 2008


i am thinking of pearl jam's "hungry"
posted by kitchenrat at 5:23 AM on May 11, 2008


pssst, billybobtoo... the Connie Francis version is there in the FPP, under surprisingly. But, cheers anyway!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:23 AM on May 11, 2008


ooooh, tks flapjax!
posted by billybobtoo at 5:39 AM on May 11, 2008


Rage Against the Machine writes most of its songs against a backdrop of inequality and injustice based on how it sees corporate America

...and meanwhile, cheap tchotchkes bearing their logo, probably manufactured in Chinese sweatshops, were/are sold at Wal-Mart.
posted by DecemberBoy at 6:08 AM on May 11, 2008


Barbara Mandrell's "In Times Like These" was a major success of the Reagan years: ". . . a dollar's worth of gas won't even start your car." The whole concept seems to require ignoring country and blues, whose diffusion is imperfectly measured by the industry metrics that define a "hit."
posted by texorama at 7:36 AM on May 11, 2008


Brother, can you spare another war
Another wasteland
and another
lost generation
posted by Eideteker at 7:47 AM on May 11, 2008


I'm not sure how you read the song's message as "reactionary".

On the face of it, the song is just another archetypal populist 'we should support our fighting heroes' stuff that will only make him friends and will never make him any enemies, because, lets face it, whose going to disagree with that message?

But I think there's a subtext there as well, that the economic status of the white American blue-collar vet is considered to be more important than those of people from other races and nationalities. Although it's not explicit, I think that the whole 'Born in the USA' refrain, when married to the verse, is really sending out the message that 'Jobs shouldn't be going to off-shore countries to improve the living standards of the gook and the nigger. They should be staying here and providing for those of us who were Born in the USA.'

And I think that much of the reason for the song's popularity is that it plays to those deep-seated prejudices in the white, blue-collar American psyche.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:15 AM on May 11, 2008


The problem with "Born in the USA" as an example of a popular song that addresses social inequities is that it sure seems to me that a lot of people don't even realize that it addresses social inequities.

I personally know multiple people who were amazed that Springsteen didn't perform it at that televised concert after 9/11. They were under the impression, apparently from only paying attention to none of its lyrics except the title, that it was some sort of "Wooooooooooo - We're! Number! One!" kind of song.

So, although it's a popular song, and it addresses social inequities, I don't think it's really relevant to the idea of "popular songs that address social inequities".
Although it's not explicit, I think that the whole 'Born in the USA' refrain, when married to the verse, is really sending out the message that 'Jobs shouldn't be going to off-shore countries to improve the living standards of the gook and the nigger. They should be staying here and providing for those of us who were Born in the USA.
That's just totally off the wall.
posted by Flunkie at 8:34 AM on May 11, 2008


But where are those bitter, protest songs now that we need them? Why don't we have any in this election year that can cut though all the bull shit from all the camps. i haven't a clue how to write lyrics but i am waiting for something about Lookin' for a savior, lookin' for a hero, one more time" or something like that. And if anyone wants to use the above work of genius, feel free.
posted by donfactor at 9:04 AM on May 11, 2008


John Mellencamp's "Rain on the Scarecrow" is pretty direct and explicit along these lines, and it was a hit. I don't know about "enormous hit", but it was definitely a hit:
Scarecrow on a wooden cross, blackbird in the barn
Four hundred empty acres that used to be my farm
I grew up like my daddy did, my grandpa cleared this land
When I was five I walked the fence while grandpa held my hand

Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow
This land fed a nation, this land made me proud
And Son I'm just sorry there's no legacy for you now
And Billy Joel's "Downeaster Alexa" - also a hit, though I don't think "enormous":
I was a bayman like my father was before
Can't make a living as a bayman anymore
There ain't much future for a man who works the sea
There ain't no island left for islanders like me
posted by Flunkie at 9:07 AM on May 11, 2008


Tracy Chapman had a pretty big hit album too, with her first release. Lots of songs about inequality there, with the biggest hit being "Fast Car".
posted by PigAlien at 9:11 AM on May 11, 2008



I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
alive as you and me.
Says I "But Joe, you're ten years dead"
"I never died" said he,
"I never died" said he.


That one always gets me.
posted by kozad at 9:21 AM on May 11, 2008


That's just totally off the wall.

George Will's response to seeing Springfield perform:
He wrote: "I have not got a clue about Springsteen's politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: 'Born in the U.S.A.!'"
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:33 AM on May 11, 2008


I remember singing (in the '70s, not the '30s):

Everything is higher
It's sure outrageous
Everything is higher
Except my daddy's wages


I don't remember the verses. Something about being given a penny to buy gum, and it costing a nickel. Maybe I should buy this book and be ready for the recession...
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:37 AM on May 11, 2008


George Will's response to seeing Springfield perform:
He wrote: "I have not got a clue about Springsteen's politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: 'Born in the U.S.A.!'"
Your point is what? That George Will blatantly misinterpreted a populist message, whether willfully or inadvertantly? I am not surprised by that.

Or, perhaps, is your point that a lot of people in the crowd didn't pay attention to anything but the title, and thought it's a "We're! Number! One!" song? I'm not surprised by that either. In fact I described multiple people who I personally know who thought exactly that.

The refrain of "Born in the U.S.A" is neither grand nor cheerful, and if either you or Will or people in the crowd or anyone else believe it is, you're absurdly wrong.
posted by Flunkie at 10:04 AM on May 11, 2008


Democracy Now did a great tribute to Yip Harburg, featuring a long interview with his son and biographer Ernie Harburg.

Yip was blacklisted in the McCarthy era, of course.
posted by jamjam at 10:08 AM on May 11, 2008


Your point is what? That George Will blatantly misinterpreted a populist message, whether willfully or inadvertantly? I am not surprised by that.

No, my point is that something that purports to be 'the most subversive song of the last 50 years' is not a song that will have its intent quite so easily subverted to say precisely the opposite of what it supposedly means.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:27 AM on May 11, 2008


Huh. And here I thought your point was that Springsteen hates the "gooks and niggers".
posted by Flunkie at 10:29 AM on May 11, 2008


You load Sixteen Tons
What do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt

posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:30 AM on May 11, 2008


i liked bob dylan's workingman's blues :P
the buying power of the proletariat's gone down
money's getting shallow and weak
but like bob marley? public enemy!?
posted by kliuless at 10:32 AM on May 11, 2008


And here I thought your point was that Springsteen hates the "gooks and niggers".

I don't think that's Springfield's intention at all. I simply think the song bemoans the threat to the not-so-invisible knapsack of USAsian privilege, and I find it hard to tally that with the idea that the song is in any way subversive or radical.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:34 AM on May 11, 2008


You're not helping your argument any by continually calling him "Springfield."
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:36 AM on May 11, 2008


THANK YOU.

God bless Yip Harburg, the great genius American songwriter. Between him and Hoagy Carmicheal lie every chord and every experience that defines the American soul.
posted by koeselitz at 11:49 AM on May 11, 2008


You're not helping your argument any by continually calling him "Springfield."

Heh. He irritates me so much, it's erased his real name from my memory. Now if only I could do the same to his music.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:47 PM on May 11, 2008


I think the "knapsack of USAsain privilege" could be summed up as the intersection of a legal system that mostly works, and an economic system where the average worker can afford to buy the same sorts of things he makes. There were always flaws in both of those things, sometimes big flaws, but because they existed above a certain key threshold, the leverage existed to fix some of these flaws. (See Telegraph Road, right up the bridge in the middle.)

Since then a legal system that puts more USASians behind bars that Chinese (that's in total numbers, you don't want to think about it as a percentage) has been rebranded as "soft on crime". And stockholders who question a CEO's multi-million dollar salary when the company is loosing money hand over fist are described as communists. (And, "now you act a little colder like you don't seem to care" may or may not have anything to do with the protagonist's love interest.)

Your logic, that anger or despair at the loss of this "privilege" is somehow a bad thing because it means an upturn for the rest of the world is flawed at best. There is not a finite amount of social or economic justice out there.

Finally, you owe George Will a big apology. While he might make it look easy, subverting ideas like freedom, democracy and justice is hard work.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:08 PM on May 11, 2008


Off topic but I thought you might dig this flapjax. And this;)
posted by vronsky at 2:20 PM on May 11, 2008


Not an enormous hit - it was on the charts but I don't think it ever hit #1 - but what about Billy Joel's Allentown?

But they've taken all the coal from the ground
And the union people crawled away
Every child had a pretty good shot
To get at least as far as their old man got
But something happened on the way to that place
They threw an American flag in our face
Well I'm living here in Allentown
And it's hard to keep a good man down
But I won't be getting up today

posted by joannemerriam at 2:25 PM on May 11, 2008


Although it wasn't a big hit by any means, I always think of Randy Newman's "Mr. President, Please Have Pity On the Working Man" as a hit because it was sandwiched between classic hits like "Sweet Home Alabama" and Aretha Franklin's "Respect" on the Forrest Gump Soundtrack...
posted by Kiablokirk at 2:29 PM on May 11, 2008


When I read the first couple sentences of the FPP, I was thinking of another song. Busted has been recorded by Johnny Cash, George Jones, Faron Young and Charley Pride, but it belongs to Ray Charles. Not really bitter or attempting to place blame, the song simply describes the plight of a man with no money and nowhere to turn to in a time when most of his contemporaries share his fate, plus his determination ("I am no thief but a man can go wrong") to care for his family.

I understand the power and allure of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" but the fact that it was written for a musical just seems to undermine its credibility as a protest song in my mind.
posted by forrest at 4:24 PM on May 11, 2008


Yeah, "Busted" is a great song for sure, I've always liked that one.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:09 PM on May 11, 2008


i wonder how many copies of sheet music stephen foster's "hard times come again no more" sold. i guess the carter family's "no depression in heaven" didn't sell as well as "brother" but it was remarkably influential. i think one might find a lot of examples topping the country charts over the years. johnny paycheck's version of david allan coe's "take this job and shove it" springs to mind, as does "9 to 5." which is not to take away anything from this post, which is great. it's just fun to list songs about economic hardship/inequality.
posted by snofoam at 7:53 PM on May 11, 2008


Indeed, snofoam, and thanks for those additions!

I love Dylan's rendition of Foster's "Hard Times" from Good As I Been To You. Ever hear that one?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:58 PM on May 11, 2008


actually, no, but now i guess i will. there's a great version about 2/3 the way down this very long page as well.
posted by snofoam at 8:01 PM on May 11, 2008


Yeah, that's some nice picking... those Bingo Dreamers, friends of yours?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:05 PM on May 11, 2008


yes, indeed.

and, in order to make this comment somewhat relevant to the thread, i am going to hypothesize that in terms of actually selling lots of records that are explicitly about economic hardship, country music is probably ahead of any other genre of music. i think in other genres it's more often a subtext. and actual folk music doesn't really sell.
posted by snofoam at 8:14 PM on May 11, 2008


And "Hard Times" from MeFiMu's The White Hat is here.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:15 PM on May 11, 2008


And I think your hypothesis is almost certainly correct, snofoam.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:16 PM on May 11, 2008


amazing grace :P

cheers!
posted by kliuless at 8:16 PM on May 11, 2008


Interesting thread, this. It looks like the comments have broken down into two camps: the "BROTHER CAN YOU SPARE....is the most popular 'hard times' song," and "no, it's not".

I think there's an element of truth to both. There have indeed been numerous other "hard times" songs (I'm not so sure of the popularity of "Allentown", actually, but "Born in the USA", yeah, that was kinda big). But I think "Brother Can You Spare A Dime" has a greater PERCEIVED significance, because the economic crisis it was associated WITH was bigger. All the other measures -- number of times it's been covered, number of copies of sheet music sold -- kind of are moot, because it's had a 50-year head start on many of the competitors people have mentioned (in other words, "Born In the USA" is probably going to outsell "Brother Can You Spare A Dime" after it's also been around 50 years, I'd guess). But the economic crisis that "Born...." is about pales in comparison to the Great Depression.

Also, radio was big for the first time at the time of the Depression (commercial radio was only invented in the 1920's), so it has more of an iconic significance, I'd guess, in terms of being a Representational Song Of Hard Times; not only was it a song that put a huge national economic crisis into words, it was also a song that was enjoying the spread of radio, and was one of the first such songs to do so.

....Personally, I prefer Hard Time Killing Floor Blues when it comes to Depression-era "hard times" songs anyway, but that's just me.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:42 AM on May 12, 2008


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