Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

My parents married during the so-called "Great" Depression, and I grew up watching my mother take pieces of used wax paper, smooth them out and refold them, for future use. She saved string, too. And made rubber band balls. So the notion of saving, parsimony, thrift, was deeply embedded — in me, and in all of my young friends.

The song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" is one I always knew. And as I was preparing to talk about it with Rob Kapilow for Weekend Edition Saturday, I learned some marvelous things about its origins.

The melody is one that composer Jay Gorney always knew. His mother sang it to him — a Polish lullaby she brought over from the old country. Gorney put it in a Broadway revue about the Depression called "Americana." The revue went nowhere, but lyricist Yip Harburg thought he could save the show. He invited some Tin Pan Alley composers to play old tunes they had stored away in trunks. Jay Gorney played his mother's lullaby. Harburg liked the tune, but thought he could write better lyrics. And he was right.

Gorney and Harburg were introduced by Harburg's good friend Ira Gershwin. The men were born in the same year — 1896 — the children of immigrants, and grew up dirt poor. Both were politically active, spoke out for the rights of the underdog workingman, and both were blacklisted. Their political passion rings out in this song. And surely contributes to its longevity.

In an interview, lyricist "Yip" Harburg spoke about words and music. A well-written song, he said, "makes you feel a thought." Music makes you feel. Lyrics make you think. Together, they make magic.

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