Wednesday, November 17, 2010

An Old, Regrettably Familiar Song

Most of the day I've spent acquiring (yes, paying money for stuff) the wherewithal to extend my bread-baking project to new recipes, and to make it possible, Dog willing, to bake some bread in a conventional oven, something I haven't done since I was about 25 years old. I consider it a gesture of hope, and not the kind Obama offers his erstwhile supporters.

But that's not what I'm writing about tonight. This evening I continued reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (link is to Amazon), one of the finest books I've ever read... but not a cheerful or uplifting book. I've gotten as far as the Great Depression (the First Great Depression? we don't quite know yet, do we?), and the late lamented Zinn relates his conversation with the late lamented Studs Terkel about the latter's interview with songwriter Yip Harburg:

Yip Harburg, the songwriter, told Studs Terkel about the year 1932: "I was walking along the street at that time, and you'd see the bread lines. The biggest one in New York City was owned by William Randolph Hearst. He had a big truck with several people on it, and big cauldrons of hot soup, bread. Fellers with burlap on their feet were lined up all around Columbus Circle, and went for blocks and blocks around the park, waiting." Harburg had to write a song for the show Americans. He wrote, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"

[Harburg quotes a verse of the song which I had not heard before. - SB]

Once in khaki suits,
Gee, we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee-Doodle-de-dum,
Half a million boots went sluggin' through Hell,
I was the kid with a 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?

It was not just a song of despair. As Yip Harburg told Terkel:

In this song the man is really saying: I made an investment in this country. Where the hell are my dividends? ... It's more than just a bit of pathos. It doesn't reduce him to a beggar. It makes him a dignified human, asking questions— and a bit outraged, too, as he should be. 1
And today, as history repeats itself for a country that seems not to have understood what it said the first time around, I proclaim: "I made an investment in this country. Where the hell are my dividends? ... I am a dignified human, asking questions— and a bit outraged, too."

1 Zinn, pp. 390-91.


  1. jams, here are the lyrics, presumably of the whole song.

    Here is Al Jolson's rendition... very moving.

    My favorite instrumental rendition is by jazz pianist Dave Brubeck on his "Just You, Just Me" CD. Brubeck lived through the depression as a child; you can really tell from his arrangement that he understands the suffering people underwent.



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