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.

  1. 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?
  2. What kinds of work has this man done? What does this tell us about his background, education, income? What kind of person is he?
  3. He was told he was “building a dream.” What dream do you think he is referring to?
  4. How does the song tell us he has been reduced to begging and hand-outs?
  5. What are the “khaki” suits he is referring to? Why is this particularly poignant?

begging

 

Songs as poems

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. Contrast is important in poems. It sets us thinking. What is the bread-line contrasted to in the lead-in? What is the effect?
  4. One theme of this song is broken relationships and loyalties. How is this shown? Are there other themes?
  5. 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?
  • Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? 2:21