BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME?

(E. Y. HARBURG/JAY GORNEY) (1932)

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In "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," Harburg creates an Everyman narrator for his song, a person who has built railroads, skyscrapers,. and tilled the fields. This person has contributed to the vast bounty of the land (through his plow) and kept faith with the promise of the land by bearing guns for it in time of war. There is even a veiled allusion to the mytheme of manifest destiny when the narrator tries to understand how, after he has helped build a dream of "peace and glory ahead," he can now be standing in a breadline. And there is a somewhat ironic allusion to the patriot's mytheme in the lines where he describes the half-million "boots" that went slogging through hell "Full of that Yankee Doodle-de-dum." This last line would remind listeners of the old Revolutionary War song, and also of George M. Cohan's "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and his "Over There." The allusion is veiled enough that Harburg wouldn't necessarily bring down the wrath of the man who once "owned Broadway" but the line serves as a mild indictment of the patriotism that swept us into war but seems not to be reciprocal. Harburg has said of his narrator that he isn't bitter, "He's bewildered. Here is a man who had built his faith and hope in this country. . . . Then came the crash. Now he can't accept the fact that the bubble has burst. He still believes. He still has faith. He just doesn't understand what could have happened to make everything go so wrong" (quoted in 1971, Green 69).

Timothy Scheurer, Born in the USA, Jackson, Mississippi, 1991, pp. 118-119.

Lyrics as recorded by Bing Crosby, 1932, transcribed by Manfred Helfert.

DOWNLOAD AND LISTEN TO SONG (REAL AUDIO FORMAT, 500 KB)

FOR A RELATED/SIMILAR SONG, SEE ALSO "Remember My Forgotten Man"

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.
They used to tell me I was building a dream
With peace and glory ahead --
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

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 dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee, we looked swell
Full of that Yankee Doodle-de-dum.
Half a million boots went slogging 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.
Why don't you remember, I'm your pal --
Say, buddy, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, ah, gee, we looked swell
Full of that Yankee Doodle-de-dum.
Half a million boots went slogging 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.
Why don't you remember, I'm your pal --
Buddy, can you spare a dime?

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