3: Audio clip and printed lyrics, Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” sung by Bing Crosby, 1932.
Although often described as a movement in painting, social realism was also seen in photography, music, and film. In 1932 New York City lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, together with composer Jay Gorney, wrote one of the best-known songs of the Great Depression, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” for the musical review Americana. The song became famous through recordings by Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee. Unlike the optimistic happy-ending tone of most Broadway songs, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” offers no solace for the shattered dreams of the Depression. In this way, it is the lyric equivalent of the social realist paintings included in this kit. For further reflections on the song, listen to this NPR story about the song, or read this commentary, from which the information in this paragraph was drawn.
Suggested Activity: Have your students listen to the song and read the lyrics. Then invite them to pick the two lines they find most compelling and explain why. Ask your students: Why do you think the composers made the narrator a railroad builder and a WWI veteran? How is the experience of listening to a song different from looking at a painting for you? Does the song convey similar messages to the paintings in this kit? Do you experience those messages differently because of the medium? Bing Crosby was the most popular singer in the country at the time. What do you think of his singing? Do you think a modern singer would choose to sing these lyrics differently, and why? Invite your students to imagine a modern version of this song. What new lyrics might they add for the present moment? Who could they imagine singing it, and what would it sound like?
Source: Bing Crosby, "Brother Can You Spare a Dime," The Essential Bing Crosby. Columbia/Legacy, 2014.
E. Y. Harburg, J. Gorney, lyrics, "Brother Can You Spare a Dime," © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., NEXT DECADE ENTERTAINMENT,INC., SHAPIRO BERNSTEIN & CO. INC.