SONG: Brother, Can You Spare a Dime
ARTIST: Bing Crosby
Listen to it here:
Brother, Can Your Spare A Dime was written in 1932 by Yip Harburg after his appliance business went bust. He became a lyricist and teamed up with composer Jay Gorney, who borrowed the melody from a Russian Jewish Lullaby. The two decided on the titular refrain of the song after walking through Central Park in New York City and hearing all the unemployed men asking ‘can you spare a dime?’. Harburg was working on his musical Americana and decided to fit the song in – after several rewrites, including a verse attacking John D. Rockefeller – and settled on the final version.
The song was quite a departure from standard Broadway numbers from the day – it started in a minor key. Americana was about a man chasing the American Dream, only to have it dashed by the Great Depression. He ends up penniless and bitter that he served his country and had done well, but now he has no reward to reap. Harburg and Gorney were apparently socialists, and their frustration with the capitalist system is put on display here. Three weeks after Americana premiered, the song was covered by young newcomer Bing Crosby and became a huge hit, noted as one of the most popular songs from the era.
Harry “Bing” Crosby was born in Tacoma, Washington in 1903, one of seven children. As a teenager he took a job at a local auditorium, which allowed him to see several music acts, including Al Jolson, which left a huge positive impression on him. By age 20 in 1923 he was asked to join several choirs and vocal groups and in 1925 he and fellow musician friend Al Ranker decided to head to California to try and gain fame. Crosby and Ranker worked several circuits, gaining more and more popularity and traction along the way. They headed to Chicago and then New York, where Crosby gained experience, exposure and maturity working with the likes of Tommy Dorsey and Hoagy Carmichael. He became more and more in demand as a solo singer and by September 1931, Crosby made his nationwide solo radio debut. By the end of the year, 10 of the top 50 songs of 1931 were performed by Bing.
Crosby also started acting as well. His personal life became ‘chaotic’ with 3 sons born in under 2 years and a new job for NBC radio. During World War II Crosby entertained the troops stationed in Europe and was seen as helping morale more than President Roosevelt or fellow entertainer Bob Hope. In following years Bing starred and sang in hit movies such as White Christmas, the “Road To…” series with Bob Hope, and Going My Way for which he won an Academy Award. Bing stayed relevant for most of the rest of his life, and died in 1977, having a massive heart attack on the golf course.
A caveat about Bing – although he was a pioneer of crooning and microphone singing technique, he was also noted as being ornery, cold and difficult to work with. One of his sons wrote a scathing memoir about him, recounting stories of physical and psychological abuse. Two of Bing’s four sons commited suicide (although we can’t deduce if this is related to Bing being a questionable father).
In light of the Watergate Scandal in 1970, Harburg wrote a parody verse for the times:
Once we had a Roosevelt
Praise the Lord Life had meaning and hope.
Now we’re stuck with Nixon, Agnew, Ford,
Brother, can you spare a rope?
Bing Crosby’s granddaughter Denise Crosby starred as Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Hate the man, love the voice. Bing Crosby is one of those figures that was despicable in life but gave the world such a great gift of art and music, that one has to decide if they can overlook the person and isolate the art and enjoy it for what it’s worth. Anyway. I love Bing’s voice. I think he was such a master of emotional range, from deep warmth to incredible sadness, and we hear that sadness and desperation here. In 1932 the Great Depression was in full swing and things were tight. Bing so wonderfully exudes the sadness, despair and hopeless frustration of people once gainfully employed and now destitute and forgotten. Even by the last refrain, Bing has gone from “Brother” to “Buddy”, showing more distance between the narrator of the song and the people he’s beggin from.I think using an orchestra with strings also helps us hear the blatant emotional tone of the song. All in all, this is really well done.
We’re on a roll of great songs right now! This might not be my favourite example of Bing Crosby, but man, he’s a great example of what a crooner can sound like! This song is another pleasant sounding song with angry, disenchanted lyrics. That formula seems to have stuck around pretty well! Brother, Can You Spare a Dime is apparently from a musical (Americana), and blew away the audience. The orchestra in the background is just that, background; Bing steals the show in this one. He does a great job at slowly increasing the simmering anger as the song moves along. Too bad he’s a gross human.
Average mark out of 10:
*A mark of 8/10 or higher means this is definitely worth buying!
Other notable versions of this song:
Tom Jones and his powerhouse voice in 1970:
Acclaimed actor Mandy Patinkin (The Princess Bride, Homeland)
Listen with us!
Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist:
Link to the Best of the Best 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: