Friday, September 20, 2013

Brothers: Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

Brother Can You Spare a Dime? was written in 1931. The Great Depression had hit the United States with its full force. Men who fought for their country in World War I, who had come home to work at transforming the nation for the twentieth century, suddenly found themselves on breadlines. In Washington, Roosevelt had not yet been elected, and the plight of such men fell on deaf ears. The song was written for a Broadway musical called New Americana. New Americana was a musical revue, so Brother did not have to fit into a larger plot. I can find no other information about the show, so I think it is safe to say that Brother has proved to be far more enduring than the show that spawned it. As was the custom in those days, the song was soon covered by the pop artists of the day, and both Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee separately took the song to number one shortly before the Roosevelt election.

Dr John and Odetta render the song as a slow blues. Of course, this fits both the lyric and the style of the original composition perfectly. But they are two different kinds of blues artists here. Dr John, with his gruff delivery, renders a passionate reading of the song, beautifully capturing both the pride of his past and the pain of his present that the narrator feels. Odetta has a smoother delivery, and her reading of the song submerges the pain and subdues the pride; both emotions are quieter, but just as palpable. The two trade verses, and the tension between their two approaches creates a dramatic tension that makes the performance even more powerful. I have not included a purchase link in this post, because I have not been able to find a source for this recording; if anyone knows where it can be found, I hope you will share the link with everyone in the comments.

Before I go, I should comment about the video. It is the work of an artist and videographer who calls himself Spadecaller. Born Matthew Schwartz, Spadecaller specializes in artworks that make connections between spirituality and social justice. Here, he makes a brilliant connection between the Great Depression and conditions today by juxtaposing images from the 1930s with those from today. You can see more of his videos on his YouTube channel, and there is a gallery of his other artwork on his website.

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