Terry Fowler

Brother, Can You Spare a Context?

Songs from the 20s and 30s often had an introduction – sometimes called a verse – that preceded the main melody, the one that everyone knew and hummed. Stardust, Over the Rainbow, On the Sunny Side of the Street all had introductory themes that set the stage, so to speak, for the rest of the song.

The way these introductions fit into the primary tunes is so intensely satisfying to me that they often bring on a rush of emotion as the music makes the transition into the song proper. Listen to Al Jolson or Bing Crosby sing Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. In fact, it’s not just the primary melody that becomes more meaningful, so does the song’s message. The introduction provides a context for the rest of the song, which in the case of Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? not only has a compelling social and political theme but also completes a concise and moving story.

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (1931)

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 Doodly 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?

Often, these days, you only hear the second part, as if it is really the most important part of the song. Once you’ve heard it both ways, though, it’s hard to dismiss the importance of the introduction.

A great many of our problems can be connected to disregarding context in this way. For example, we think that a single strain of rice or potato can be grown anywhere in the world and produce excellent yields. We have identified different vitamins and minerals as being important to our health. Even though these vitamins and minerals are presented to us in our food in concert with dozens and even hundreds of other nutrients, we separate each one and put it into a tablet. Its context in nature is ignored. Then we wonder why crops fail and vitamin supplements by themselves are only marginally effective.

In a very broad sense, history is context. What is happening now always has some sort of historical context, personal and collective, whether we want to admit it or not. Often in our personal memory bank, we recall events but selectively forget why they happened. So their meaning becomes hidden to us. Certainly, collective history is subject to manipulation by powerful élites and winners of wars. So, totally aside from being given the wrong facts, we are systematically deprived of information about the context of political leaders’ decisions.

For example, western governments find themselves deeply in debt in 2012 and are claiming they have no money for social services or environmental assessments, but neither they nor the mainstream media are anxious to remind us why the national treasuries are empty: four years ago greedy institutional speculators were rescued with trillions of dollars – and euros – of taxpayers’ money. Context is being ignored. And why did they have to be rescued in the first place? More context.

The same kind of manipulation occurred in the 1930s. It was largely stock speculation that led to the Great Depression, but when the Great Depression took hold in 1930, most discussion and certainly songs about it were not encouraged. In the way we are afraid to talk about cancer, this was treated as an economic disease too terrible to confront directly.

In late December 2011, Democracy Now! had a special on Yip Harburg, the man who wrote the words to Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? in the early 1930s. According to Ernie Harburg, Yip’s son, the music industry and the political and economic elites soft-pedaled the catastrophe that was unfolding. In 1932, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? was the only song that addressed the reality and it did so with devastating accuracy. It might have been embarrassing to the upper class, but it gave strength to those who were determined to make changes. Some say it even helped FDR get elected.

Just as incorporating the introductory verse into the song makes it more meaningful, putting the song itself into historical context amplifies its power for us in the 21st century. But we can go one step further. Those millions in the US and Europe who were living through such harsh conditions were energized by Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? because it set the stage for the drama of their lives. It gave public meaning to their personal experiences and became part of the context for organized change.

This happened in the 1960s, when music became part of the the political and social upheavals of the time. It expressed what was happening, and it drove events as well – freedom singers, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and dozens of others were part of the raising of political consciousness and social change. Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing was literally part of changing the times.

Songs and stories can be used to help us perceive our own contexts and nourish the energy we need for a genuine transition to a more sensible economy and politics of our own. Listen to some of the old songs and reflect on the importance of understanding context. This kind of understanding is accessible to us now, in these perilous times, but there don’t seem to be the same kind of music makers or story tellers to stimulate our imagination as in the past. Or, perhaps there are. Songs of the Occupy movement? Michael Moore’s films? But they are drowned in the tidal wave of cyberculture.

The time is ripe for a new song – or story – because the times don’t seem to be changing, in spite of all our technological razzle-dazzle. The time is ripe for something that worms its way under the cacophony of mass media and Internet and Facebook and rivets our attention on the link between our personal lives and the global environmental and economic shifts that threaten us.

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? gives a few hints about what it might be like. First, the words will be simple; let the academics attach fancy nouns to all the meaning and movement between the lines. Second, eloquence will be lost if those simple words are literal – the guy obviously didn’t make that railroad all by himself. And the way it portrays the context of our personal lives will be so clear that it will lift us off our feet.

“They used to tell me I was building a dream. Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?”