Study Guide

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? Introduction

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? Introduction

In a Nutshell

In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression and extreme unemployment, the American people on the whole were pretty optimistic.

Wait, what? Give us some of what they had for breakfast. Oh, corn mush with milk? Nevermind...

It should seem a little bit off. The same can't be said for the American people in the midst of the far less intense recession of the late 2000s.

A sweet little showtune, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" became the most popular song of the early 1930s, capturing some of the sadness and disillusionment of the times. It also captures the innocence, summing up the mentality of a dispossessed America with a "sharing-is-caring" message that during the late-2000s crisis, would strike a lot of people as downright socialistic.

Was Bing Crosby—the guy who did "White Christmas," and then got it stuck in our heads—a socialist? Hardly. 

But was the American outlook back then different from the American outlook during a 21st-century crisis? Most definitely. Read on to find out just how much things have changed in the decades since Bing Crosby's brotherly crooning first graced the radio.

About the Song

ArtistCrosby, Bing
Year1932
LabelBrunswick Records
Writer(s)Jay Gorney and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg
Musician(s)Bing Crosby (vocals)
Learn to playChords, Sheet Music
AlbumBrother, Can You Spare a Dime?

Music Video

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Influences on Crosby, Bing

John McCormack
Mound City Blue Blowers
Al Jolson

Influenced by Crosby, Bing

Frank Sinatra
Regis Philbin
Dean Martin
Roy Brown
David Allen
Tony Martin
Eddy Arnold
Floyd Tillman
Red Foley
The Blue Dahlia

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? Resources

Books

Milton Meltzer, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? The Great Depression 1929–1933 (1991)
A useful young adult history of the Great Depression.

Shmoop: Great Depression Best of the Web
We couldn't help but cite ourselves here for suggestions of other books about the Great Depression. Shmoop up your reading list.

Albums

The Great Depression: American Music in the '30s
Here are 21 Great Depression-era songs, including Rudy Vallee's version of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"

The Essential Bing Crosby (2014)
These hits spanning Bing's career are all digitally remastered and include "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)," "I've Got the World on a String," and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Not to be missed if you want a basic Bing Crosby fix.

Images

Bing Crosby
The Bing-man did not necessarily role-play the working class Joe every day of the week.

Bread Line Fashion
On the other hand, it seems that the look of the average American man was quite a bit more hat-and-suit-wearing way back then, making Bing's suave look perhaps a bit more "average" than it would be today.

"There's No Way Like the American Way"
This depressing, ironic picture of Americans in a bread line brings the song's bitter point home.

Depression Photos
The bread line pictures and crowded urban images are troubling. But some of the harshest scenes from the 1930s were captured in more rural places, where people were literally starving to death.

Movies & TV

Richard Lawson, "Twenty Movies About the First Great Depression To Watch During the Sequel," Gawker (October 2008)
Lawson's saucy column begins with some classics—"It's A Wonderful Life," "The Grapes of Wrath"—and then moves into the slightly more obscure, concluding with a film called "Gold Diggers of 1933." We long to know what that's all about.

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? (1975)
This historical documentary features James Cagney as "an American everyman," much the same role Bing Crosby casts himself in for the song.

Websites

Bing Crosby's Official Site
Bing's descendants maintain a nice Bing Crosby website full of the sound of his smooth baritone: the place for all things Bing. Enjoy.

PBS "Breadline" Series
Watch a series of episodes about Great Depression history and access a collection of personal stories about living through the Great Depression.

Heath Lowrance, "How the Great Depression Gave America the Blues," History Magazine (September 2008)
This is an interesting discussion of the development of the blues as it related to the miserable economic times in the 1930s. It will be interesting to look back at musical trends of the late 2000s and try to figure out if the recession had any noticeable effects.

Video & Audio

"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (1932)
Ah, Bing.

"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Cover by George Michael
We hereby offer you a different, more mustachioed version of the now timeless classic.

"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Cover by Alison Moorer for the History Channel
We're not exactly sure what the historical value of the new video is, but Moorer gives a nice performance.

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