During the Great Depression there were really two songs that captured the spirit of the time. The first one I have already written about ( link to part one) in which I discussed and gave you various versions of the song “No one wants to know you when you are down and out”, so now I am going to have a look at the one that really does sum up the spirit and suffering of that awful time to perfection.
This is the well known song, Brother can you spare a dime?
Before I get into the many differing versions of this classic song, I should give you a wee bit of background to it. And who better to tell us what the song is really about than the guy who wrote the words – E. Y. “Yip” Harburg.
He had this to say about the purpose and message of this song, which by the way was actually written for a musical called Americana in 1930, just as the Great Depression was beginning to bite.
“I didn’t want a song to depress people. I wanted to write a song to make people think. It isn’t a hand-me-out song of ‘give me a dime, I’m starving, I’m bitter’, it wasn’t that kind of sentimentality”. The song asks why the men who built the nation – built the railroads, built the skyscrapers – who fought in the war (World War I), who tilled the earth, who did what their nation asked of them should, now that the work is done and their labor no longer necessary, find themselves abandoned and in bread lines.
It refers to “Yankee Doodle Dum”, a reference to patriotism, and the evocation of veterans also recalls protests about military bonuses payable only after 21 years, which were a topical issue.
So that is the background to this song, and to start us off I shall give you the best known and as near original version as there is, that being the version that Bing Crosby recorded back in the 30’s.
So as you can see, the guy is not really begging, he is saying what a huge contribution he made to things, and that now he has been dumped through no fault of his own. He still has his pride, but admits he needs help, but not as a beggar, but as an equal who is in temporary need. A powerful song.
The musical structure of this song is also interesting, as it does not conform to the normal “rules” of how songs in musicals should be written. I have taken this description from Wikipedia, as it is so clear and to the point.
The song has unusual structure for a Broadway song. Firstly, rather than starting in a major key, as most Broadway songs do, it begins in a minor key, which is darker and more appropriate for the Depression. When discussing the prosperous past and building the railroads, the song jumps an octave and moves briefly into a major key, evoking energy and optimism. It then reverts to the augmented dominant of the minor key in the word “time” in the line “Once I built a railroad, made it run / Made it race against time,” marking the end of prosperous times, and changing to a wistful mood. The song then ends, not on a note of resignation, but with anger – repeating the beginning (as is usual for Broadway songs), an octave higher, but with a significant change: the friendly “Brother, can you spare a dime?” is replaced with the more assertive “Buddy, can you spare a dime?”
Whilst Bing Crosby’s version is probably the best known, this song has been recorded by literally thousands of singers and musicians over the years – a tribute to its power and universality I think. In the course of digging into this song I have listened to literally several hundred versions of it, and have selected rather fewer to try and give you an idea of how this song seems to fit so many different approaches to music. Possibly also owing to the fact that the melody is based on an old Jewish lullaby apparently.
So, where to start?
Lets listen first to a remarkably powerful version by George Michael, not a singer I generally associate with this sort of song, but he has performed this song on a number of occasions, and has demonstrated a good understanding of its meaning, so here he is at one of the AIDS concerts. He seems to be suffering from a runny nose….. Curious.
You see what I mean? He has absolutely caught the meaning of this song, in his own unmistakeable style of course. But I like his interpretation, it is powerful and full of feeling and understanding of the point of the song.
Another version I came across and enjoyed is by a barber shop quartet of all things, these guys who go under the odd name of The Con Men, really go to work on this song, and give it a totally different feel to the way that George Michael dealt with it, but in their own way they also capture the essence of this song I feel. Have a listen and see what you think.
You see what I mean? It works remarkably well as a Barbershop Quartet song, not a style i would think would work for this song, but work it does.
Another interpretation of the song is a jazz version, by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, in which they take the theme through a whole load of different styles, from Bach to Basie as it were. Whilst this version lacks the spiritual hardness and tragic undertones of most versions, and is actually rather cheerful, it is still of interest on a musical level if no other.
The photos used with this video don’t really reflect the spirit of the music as played by those good gentleman it seems to me.. but the music is certainly interesting.
Here is a rather odd version I came across. An extremely English old guy with an accordion hanging on his chest gives a remarkably moving interpretation of the song – but it is truly odd.
Odd, but curiously moving I found it. Standing there in his pinstripe suite singing those powerful words in that impeccable English accent. Wonderful stuff.
Not all versions of this song are sad or even dramatic.. I found a number of versions that were actually cheerful and upbeat, in direct contradiction to the words, which seemed strange to me. I have chosen one version that shows this approach to represent them all, since it is both musical and fun… So stand by for the T-Sisters and their supporters to give you a truly upbeat version of this song..
Now that was fun, wasn’t it? Not sure I actually like their approach, but it is different, and why the hell not have a happy and upbeat version of this song?
And while we are busy with idiosyncratic versions of this song, here is the totally inimitable Tom Waits’s. Nothing much I can say abut this. One either loves or loathes Tom Waits’s voice and approach to his music – me, I love it, and have just about everything he ever recorded and can listen to him for hours on end happily. And I like his take on this song.. slow, serious and to the point.
And now to finish this look at the song that most sums up the whole experience of the Great Depression, I have what I think is probably the best, most powerful and moving version of them all. I know that when you see the image below, you will think, Tiny Tim???? Can I be serious in saying that I find his version perhaps the best there is? Yup, I am totally serious. His version, sung in his actual baritone voice rather than his silly falsetto voice, with a very cheerful and rowdy backing group gets absolutely to the core of this song I feel. Have a listen and see if you agree with me.
I feel he got exactly the idea behind this song, not a grouching and begging approach, but a definite feeling of “I am as good as you mate” and simply in temporary need of some financial help…
To my way of thinking this is head and shoulders above all the many, many other versions of this song I have listened to in the last few days as I researched this post. Also surprising to me personally, as I once worked on a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in which he appeared, and was very confused by how he behaved… Subject for a later post there I think.. Hmmmm..
So, there you have it, the second most important song of the Great Depression.
I hope that you have found something in my choice of versions that appealed to you, and that perhaps you now have a slightly better understanding of what this song is all about.