Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime

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“Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?”

When I set out to look for a song that would accurately and effectively represent the hardships, evils and effects of the depression era, I was faced with a unique challenge – One that I did not expect. From my time spent searching for a song that captures the essence of that lamented time, I learned that the Great Depression, in itself, held so much misery, so much adversity and strife, that there couldn't possibly be a single song that could take into account every subtlety and nuance of this forlorn period, and articulate it competently. Therefore, I was forced to think along a narrower line, made to choose an aspect of the Depression, that I wanted to elaborate on. Two of the most striking songs that I came across in my research, were “Remember my Forgotten Man” (1933), written by Al Dubin (lyrics) and Harry Warren (music), and “Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?” (1931), written by E. Y. Harburg (lyrics) and Jay Gorney (music). Both of these songs dealt with the same subject matter and were moving in their own ways. However, the latter song had the kind of melancholic air that made it, at least in my opinion, a better representation of the period under consideration. It is for this reason that I chose it for the purpose of writing this paper.

The two songs mentioned above, are among the few songs that deal seriously with the morose side of the Great Depression[1]. In their similarities, the most obvious seems to be that they both talk about the misery of the disenfranchised[2] individuals: The ones that the nation forgot. Disenfranchisement of the common man was one of the strongest themes of the Great Depression, or at least the one that struck me the most. As the country spiraled down into economic recession, the fate of the common man, the working class, hung in the balance. The state was in shambles and Americans were teetering on the precipice of a monumental trial of will and resolve. The depression that followed affected these people the most. It was bitter injustice, but no one, it seemed, could do anything about it.

The song “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”, I believe, aims to describe and comment – through questioning the state of affairs – on the fate of the afore mentioned “Disenfranchised Individual”. It aims to tell the story of his plight and confusion, and mourn his loss. The intended audience for the song itself seems to be anyone that would care to listen, to feel and share the sorrows of the time period; The lyrics, however seem to be a pained inquiry directed at the government. The song seems to plead to be heard, and questions the policies and circumstances that have come to be the narrator's bane. The song focuses entirely upon expressing the moods, sentiments, and particularly the confusion of the people that it speaks for; The tone, therefore, is aptly melancholic and questioning. Some might even detect in the tone, a veiled accusatory theme of sorts, towards the government for letting the collective fate of the masses fall to destitution and appalling misery by abandoning them. As regards to the voice the song speaks in, the lyricist, Harburg, communicates the questions and emotions of a “model” individual, if you will, that he creates. This individual is supposed to be a representation of all the countless people who were thus affected by the Great Depression. The opening verse of the song introduces the listener to this individual, and later verses also serve to elaborate his importance in the following ways:

“They used to tell me I was building a dream
And so I followed the mob.
When there was earth to plow or guns to bear,
I was always there, right on the job.
... Once I built a railroad, I made it run,
Made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad, now it's done --
Brother, can you spare a dime?
... Once I built a tower, up to the sun,
brick and rivet and lime.
Once I built a tower, now it's done --
Brother, can you spare a...
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