Friday, January 14, 2011

Friday Songbook: Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

This Friday series is going to be fun for me, because I get to research the great songs and songwriters of American musical history. I love the music of the 20s and 30s, not only the often brilliant songwriters, but the great performers as well. We opened the series with Ellington performing Take the A Train. This week, I've been thinking about the music of E. Y. "Yip" Harburg. He was the lyricist behind The Wizard of Oz, It's Only a Paper Moon, among many other great songs. And he wrote the simple yet stunning lyrics for Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

It's interesting to me that the melody is a Russian lullaby, fondly recalled by the song's composer, Leo Gorney. Humm the tune of "Dime" to yourself, and the Russian-ness of it will become fairly obvious. The contribution of Eastern European immigrants to American pop culture during this period is remarkable.

"Dime" was almost the very theme of the 30s, and became huge hits by the likes of Jolson, Vallee, and Crosby. I've been sampling these various versions, and I love them all. I also very much like the contemporary version by the inimitable Tom Waits. But the version I want to feature is by Dr. John and Odetta. Odetta's singing after the piano break ("Say, don't you remember, you called me Al") is incredibly poignant, and of course the bluesy rendering, stripped of the 30s era Salvation-Army-style horn section you usually hear, seems to suit the lyrics well.

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