On Apr. 7, 1932, Franklin Roosevelt, then governor of New York, gave his first coast-to-coast radio address on the National Broadcasting Company. He called for economic solutions that rose “from the bottom up,” and for financial support for farmers and relief to small banks and homeowners. And he asked Americans to have faith “once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”
That summer, a song written in 1930 capturing the spirit of the forgotten man’s struggle shot to the top of the charts: Jay Gorney and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Gorney had fled Bialystok with his family following a major pogrom, and Harburg was the child of immigrants. Both men were outsiders due to their Jewishness and their left-leaning politics, yet their description of the forgotten American resonated across the nation.
Gorney and Harburg crafted the song for the Lee Shubert revue, Americana, which took the “forgotten man” as the over-arching theme for its variety show of drama, song, dance, and marionette acts. The revue ran for 77 performances and was the third iteration of Americana, after ones in 1926 and 1928. Like its contemporary Show Boat (1927), Americana had a theme, but unlike that first true “book” musical, Americana’s vaudeville roots showed in the eclecticism of the acts.
Journalist J.P. McEvoy, later an editor for Reader’s Digest, inspired the three Americana musicals, as did H.L. Mencken’s monthly “Americana” column. The Broadway composer Vincent Youmans collected a $10,000 advance to score the 1932 Americana but promptly left the project due to personal problems. Yip Harburg took up the reigns, bringing in composers with whom he would ultimately collaborate on a career of successful songs: Jay Gorney, Burton Lane, Vernon Duke, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, and others.
Gorney and Harburg were introduced by mutual friend Ira Gershwin, who was busy writing lyrics to accompany his brother George’s gorgeous jazz pieces. Gorney and Harburg initially labored as staff composers for Paramount’s New York studio. They wrote uncredited pieces for a number of Fleischer Brothers cartoons and assembled songs and sketches for the variety program The Eveready Hour. The duo crafted the song “What Wouldn’t I Do for That Man?” for the musical Applause (1929) and the song “Hot Moonlight” for the revue Shoot the Works (1931). “What Wouldn’t I Do for That Man?” appeared in the 1929 film, Glorifying the American Girl. Prior to Americana, Gorney/Harburg songs also appeared in Earl Carroll’s Sketch Book (1929), Earl Carroll Vanities (1930), and Ziegfeld Follies (1931).
Jay Gorney was born Abraham Jacob Gornetzky in Bialystok within the Pale of Settlement in 1896. The Gornetzky family resettled in Detroit and Gorney earned two degrees from the University of Michigan. Gorney served in WWI, playing music for the troops at home, and had a successful jazz band. He abandoned law for a career in music. By luck or guile, Gorney became a fixture at the Gershwins’ musical evenings, rubbing shoulders with a network of music professionals who helped his career.
Harburg, born 122 years ago this weekend, was the son of immigrants. He grew up in the Lower East Side of New York City, where Jewish culture dominated his world. Jumping head first into American life, Harburg’s father Lewis took his young son to the theater rather than to synagogue (and hid these escapades from Harburg’s mother Mary). In high school Harburg sat near his friend Ira Gershwin, who introduced him to recordings of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Harburg’s stake in an electrical appliance business faltered at the dawn of the Great Depression; by some accounts, the business lost $250,000. Harburg often claimed the death of the business led him to become a full-time lyricist, but the desire to change careers likely preceded the financial downturn.
Jay Gorney’s music for “Brother” grew out of a lullaby his mother had sung him in Russia. Listeners sometimes point out that “Brother” resembles the song that would become Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” which was adapted by composer Samuel Cohen in 1888 from songs popular in Eastern Europe, including work by Giuseppe Cenci and Bedrich Smetana. Gorney’s music initially had been accompanied by traditional “torch song” (love song) lyrics but Harburg suggested that the tune and its original lyrics were mismatched. As the song’s (possibly apocryphal) creation tale goes, the songwriter and lyricist were walking in Central Park when they came across a man in stylish but shabby clothes who called to them, “Brother, can you spare a dime?” Gorney and Harburg instantly agreed that the phrase captured the mood of the day, and Yip rushed home to set words to paper.
1932 proved a banner year for Harburg, who had hit songs in three Broadway shows concurrently. “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” ran in Americana, “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (Harold Arlen/Harburg) in The Great Magoo, and “April in Paris” (Vernon Duke/Harburg) featured in Walk a Little Faster. Harburg later became best known for his 1939 work, “Over the Rainbow,” which he wrote with Harold Arlen, and the other songs from the film The Wizard of Oz. “Over the Rainbow” has proved of enduring resonance, with its latest notable use in the finale in the fundraising concert Ariana Grande held in Manchester, England in June 2017 following the terrorist attack in that city.
There are at least 52 recordings of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” produced in English within the United States, and the song was also popular abroad. Bing Crosby recorded “Brother” in 1932, followed shortly thereafter by Rudy Vallee’s rendition. Variety’s charts of top ranking songs (separated by publisher as well as location—New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles) had both Crosby’s and Vallee’s recordings at No. 1 in various markets in late 1932 or early 1933. Bing’s recording in particular contributed to the immediate and long-term success of the tune, and was a major hit for the singer, who propelled the song’s title into the popular lexicon. The title refrain became the calling card for fundraising efforts and newspaper ads, and appeared widely in popular media.
The Americana sketch preceding the singing of “Brother” involved some gangsters seeking the good will of a local judge and planning for a breadline to be held on a city street as a political stunt. Theater scholar Ethan Mordden calls the song’s importance “really more political than musical.” Its power stems, he says, “not only from the grandeur of Gorney’s melody, but from Harburg’s imagery as well.” It is important to note how the main character of “Brother” has thrown himself into the work of nation building, including the construction of skyscrapers and the laying of track:
Once I built a railroad
Made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad
Now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?
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