Zinsser on Friday

Brother, Can You Spare a Job?

By William Zinsser | November 4, 2011


The black cloud of unemployment hanging over the land got me thinking of the lyricist E. Y. (Yip) Harburg and his anthem of the Great Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” It was written by Harburg and the composer Jay Gorney in 1932 for a musical, Americana, about “the forgotten man” and his betrayal by greedy capitalism. Gorney’s stately minor-key melody, sung by a worker standing in a breadline, perfectly matched the dignity and the despair of Harburg’s words:


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?


The song so lacerated the national conscience that radio stations banned it; they said it was “sympathetic to the unemployed.” But nothing could stop its momentum, especially after it was recorded by Bing Crosby. Overnight, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” became the leitmotif of the Depression and a powerful goad to Roosevelt’s New Deal. Today it still hovers in the national memory; I can hear its ghostly echo in the chants of the Occupy Wall Street marchers protesting the same inequalities.

Born Irwin Hochberg on New York’s Lower East Side, Harburg never forgot the poverty of his upbringing or the toil of his immigrant parents in a garment industry sweatshop. Only Irving Berlin, another urchin of that Jewish ghetto, was born as poor. Almost all the other songwriters in that golden age of “The Great American Songbook” were children of bourgeois comfort. Richard Rodgers’s father was a doctor. Jerome Kern, Lorenz Hart, Vincent Youmans, Burton Lane, and Alan Jay Lerner were the sons of prosperous businessmen. Harold Arlen’s father was a respected cantor. Dorothy Fields’s father was the popular comedian Lew Fields, and Oscar Hammerstein II came from a famous family of theatrical impresarios. They were also well educated. Cole Porter was a playboy who went to Yale. Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein, Howard Dietz, and Arthur Schwartz went to Columbia, and Schwartz also had a law degree. So did Hoagy Carmichael.

But Harburg was not only an incurable socialist. He was an incurable dreamer. In 1939, with the composer Harold Arlen, he wrote the guileless score of America’s favorite family movie, The Wizard of Oz, and its iconic ballad of infinite possibility, “Over the Rainbow.” No lyricist was more temperamentally suited to imagine a kingdom where happy little bluebirds fly and troubles melt like lemon drops. Arlen called him “the lemon drop kid.” An elfin man, known as Yipper, from yipsl, the Yiddish word for squirrel, he took Yip as his middle name.

But the squirrel never lost its political bite. In Harburg’s 1944 Broadway musical Bloomer Girl, composed by Harold Arlen, the reform campaigns of the suffragette Amelia Bloomer gave the liberal lyricist such inflammatory themes as feminism and civil rights. Arlen wearied of Yip’s insinuation of “propaganda” into the show and declined to work with him on Finian’s Rainbow. The eventual composer of that hit show, Burton Lane, also demurred, hesitating for three months while trying to decide whether Harburg would drive him crazy. Harburg did. Although the lyricist was often at his whimsical best (“When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love, I Love the Girl I’m Near”), ultimately that fable of a crock of gold stolen from a leprechaun rested on the evils of capitalist materialism, which Harburg satirized in songs like “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich.” Afterward, Lane wouldn’t speak to him for two years.

But the old socialist never stopped being true to what he believed, even when he was blacklisted by Hollywood for his political views during the McCarthyist 1950s. That was another distinction that set him apart from his fellow songwriters.

I’ve always resented messages in musicals and movies and other works of art. But as I watch the Occupy Wall Street movement struggling to be born, needing a Pete Seeger or a Bob Dylan to glorify its cause with a unifying anthem, I sometimes miss Yip Harburg and his nagging insistence that the American promise has gone badly askew. Until a new Harburg writes a new Depression rouser, here’s a shot at adapting his old one:


Once I had an office,

Gave it juice,

Helped America throb.

Then the system busted,

Cut me loose,

Brother, can you spare a job?

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