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LYNN NEARY, host:

It's sing-along time on Weekend Edition. You know the melody, but we bet you don't know these lyrics. (Singing) I could go on crying big blue tears. All right, I'm going to stop. But does anything come to mind? Strange, because NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg says with different lyrics, the old song is being sung again these days with a small, scared shiver of nostalgia.

SUSAN STAMBERG: It was the anthem of the Great Depression, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Tune by Jay Gorney, lyrics by E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. Jay Gorney learned the melody at his mother's knee. Harburg got rid of the big blue tears. Although he was a man who loved colors, Yip Harburg wrote, "Over the Rainbow." But instead, he wrote in railroads and dimes for this one. Together, in 1932, they created a classic which has 21st-century reverberations.

(Soundbite of song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?")

Mr. RUDY VALLEE: (Singing) 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?

STAMBERG: Rudy Vallee had a big hit with the solo. Lots of singers recorded over the years. Why? What makes it great? With me at the piano in NPR's studio 4A is composer, conductor and classical music missionary Rob Kapilow, who does a series called "What Makes It Great" for Public Radio's performance today. Hi, Rob.

Mr. ROB KAPILOW (Pianist, Composer and Conductor): Hi.

STAMBERG: So what's the answer? What does make it great?

Mr. KAPILOW: Well, you know, the first thing that's surprising is it doesn't start in a major key like most Broadway songs...

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. KAPILOW: But appropriate to the Depression in a minor key.

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. KAPILOW: That's our first idea, and what's great is it goes from a C all the way up to a C with all the energy that made America's railroads.

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. KAPILOW: And a great syncopation. The second idea of the piece is another syncopation, what I call long-short-long, for "made it run." We then copy that lower for "made it race," and finish the first half, "against time."

Already there's a wonderful blending of images. Very concrete, "Once I built a railroad, I made it run." But then a metaphor, "made it race against time." And now, as we're reminiscing, we're actually happy about this moment in time before the Depression when we were building railroads, and we actually get to a major key here.

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. KAPILOW: But then heartbreakingly, under the word "time," we change to minor to set up the whole second half. Now it's no longer there. We're remembering it back in the good old days. Now we come back to that opening rhythm, "once I built a railroad," but now it has lost all its energy. Now it's wistful. "Once I built a railroad."

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. KAPILOW: We take our long-short-long idea, which has been here...

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. KAPILOW: Down here...

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. KAPILOW: Now to the lowest place of all for "now it's done". Now it's done the railroad, but also now it's done the good days in America, pre-Depression. And then the punch line is set up beautifully both musically and lyrically.

First, lyrically, it's the entire history of the Depression in a single phrase, brother, can you spare a dime? Utterly economical. It's not now it's done, I've lost my family. I don't have my home. It's just now it's done, and in one phrase, brother, can you spare a dime? I'm talking to you. Musically, it's been set up from the very beginning in a subtle, fantastic way. We've gradually gone down this scale...

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. KAPILOW: Though you don't realize it. So we've gone from Depression to hope. Now we go here.

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. KAPILOW: "Made it run," lower. "Made it race against time," still lower. "Once now," back to Depression.

STAMBERG: Through its very structure and the key that it's written in. What is the key?

Mr. KAPILOW: The key is in C minor.

STAMBERG: Minor always means sad, doesn't it?

Mr. KAPILOW: It means sad, and interestingly, the few Broadway songs that are in minor usually end in major with comfort, happy ending, but not this one.

STAMBERG: Here are the lyrics that Harburg wrote for the bridge, the middle section of this song. "Once in khaki suits, gee, we looked swell, full of that Yankee-Doodle-dee-dum. Half a million boots went slogging through hell, and I was the kid with the drum." So that's a real shift of tone, too. But again, it's looking back but not quite so peppy.

(Soundbite of song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?")

Mr. RUDY VALLEE: (Singing) Once in khaki suits, gee, we looked swell, full of that Yankee-Doodle-dum. Half a million boots went slogging through Hell and I was the kid with the drum.

Mr. KAPILOW: Right. And in fact, you get the rhythm of the march right here to set up the bridge, and already we realize the whole bridge is marching in World War I. And suddenly, the music tells us what the words don't. The words themselves, as you read them, sound almost peppy - "Once in khaki suits, gee, we looked swell." But in fact, the music is not only marching but listen to these harmonies under "gee, we looked swell."

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. KAPILOW: It's anything but swell in the music. "Full of that Yankee-Doodle-dee-dum.' And we're marching, "half a million boots." As the words get more and more angry, "slogging through hell."

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. KAPILOW: Now, it finally becomes personal. It's no longer an abstract I. "I'm the kid with the drum." Now it's really about me. Higher and higher, the highest note in the song so far, and now we come to the true genius of the song.

(Soundbite of song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?")

Mr. RUDY VALLEE: (Singing) Say, don't you remember, they called me Al. It was Al all the time. Say, don't you remember, I'm your pal. Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Mr. KAPILOW: So the amazing thing is that we come back to the opening, and in all Broadway songs, we repeat the beginning.

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. KAPILOW: But here, it's higher. He's so angry that it's up here. It's "Say, don't you remember," the highest note of the piece so far. Then we start to copy just like the first verse, but now it's personal. I'm not only the kid with the drum, I'm Al.

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. KAPILOW: "They called me Al, it was Al, all the time." The melody is exactly the same as the first time. We come again, "Say don't you remember." But here's the brilliant stroke.

(Soundbite of song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?")

Mr. RUDY VALLEE: (Singing) I'm your pal. Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Mr. KAPILOW: Instead of staying down low like we did the first time...

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. KAPILOW: "I'm your pal," it's up a whole octave. It's "I'm your pal." We're literally screaming at you, and then instead of finishing with weary resignation from the Depression down here, "Buddy, can you spare a dime?," it's an octave higher. It's here...

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. KAPILOW: "Buddy," with a (unintelligible) and a fortissimo. So instead of finishing down low, we are now up high. We've gone from Depression to hope in the first verse, and we finish with anger. And although the first two times were always "Brother, can you spare a dime?," a kind of harmless brotherhood of man, it finishes with "Buddy, can you spare a dime?" We don't finish with any happy endings, with any life is a bowl of cherries. We're finishing with the anger of the two socialist creators, Gorney and Harburg, always feeling the time-immemorial complaint that the workingman doesn't get the rewards. In the middle of the Depression, in 1932, when no one was saying this out loud, they had the courage to say it on Broadway.

STAMBERG: And the people who heard it then and really heard it all through the ages never forgot it. And my best example of this comes from NPR's own Rudy Vallee. Daniel Schorr, our senior news analyst, sang this song on the air once, a Capella.

(Soundbite of Daniel Schorr singing)

DANIEL SCHORR: (Singing) 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? Once I built a tower to the sun brick and mortar and lime. Once I built a tower, now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime? Once in khaki suits, gee, we looked swell, full of that Yankee-Doodlee-yum. Half a million boots went sluggin' through hell, and I was the kid with the drum. Say, don't you remember, they called me Al, it was Al all the time. Say, don't you remember, I'm your pal. Brother, can you spare a dime?

STAMBERG: NPR's Daniel Schorr. And Rob Kapilow, listening to that song again as people have remembered it since the 1930s with a really special resonance for today.

Mr. KAPILOW: The more things change, the more they stay the same. You know, and anytime you tell such a powerful, universal story in the particular, it's always going to be relevant. And anytime you have the courage to speak true to the power, it will always sound contemporary.

STAMBERG: Thanks very much. The song is "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Music by Jay Gorney, lyrics by Yip Harburg, analysis by composer-conductor Rob Kapilow. The tune for our times. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

NEARY: Susan Stamberg describes her research of "Brother, Can Your Spare a Dime?" on our Weekend Edition blog at npr.org/soapbox. And you can hear five different versions of the song plus comments from both the lyricist Yip Harburg and composer Jay Gorney at nprmusic.org.

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