Extra listening: "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"
The Great Depression lasted from 1929 to 1941. After the unprecedented prosperity of the 1920s, it came as a stunning surprise to Americans, an economic catastrophe smashing both the rich and the poor. It ripped up businesses, families, friendships, loyalties. The song “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?”, written in 1931, sums up the atmosphere of that dark time well. Listen to it, and then discuss the following questions in pairs or groups.
- In the lead-in to the song, the speaker refers to what “they” told him. Who do you think “they” are? What have they told him?
- What kinds of work has this man done? What does this tell us about his background, education, income? What kind of person is he?
- He was told he was “building a dream.” What dream do you think he is referring to?
- How does the song tell us he has been reduced to begging and hand-outs?
- What are the “khaki” suits he is referring to? Why is this particularly poignant?
Songs as poems
- Poems make use of images to convey meanings. What do you think are the most striking images of this poem? What meanings do they convey to you?
- Poems also use rhyme schemes to move the reader (and listener) along from line to line. Which words rhyme here? Is there a system to this? Is it the same for all parts?
- Contrast is important in poems. It sets us thinking. What is the bread-line contrasted to in the lead-in? What is the effect?
- One theme of this song is broken relationships and loyalties. How is this shown? Are there other themes?
- Poetry can make exaggerated statements for effect. For example:
- About the railroad: “I made it run against time.”
- About the tower: “I built a tower up to the sun.”
Why do this? What effect is the writer trying to evoke?