A Song That Helped Define the Depression, and Can Still Be Sung Today

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He crouched by a corner newsstand on the Upper West Side, a pathetic figure with his hand out. You’ve seen him a thousand times, him or countless other street people like him. You’ve also heard his cry: “Can you spare any change?”

Nobody is likely to write a song about that man, certainly not those rappers who say they are social commentators yet seem obsessed with the baubles they wear and the women they bed.

Seventy-five years ago, though, a couple of tunesmiths heard a similar plea and produced a song that endures as an anthem for the downtrodden and the forgotten.

There was a tribute to it last night at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Evenings dedicated to a song are not ordinary. But then, in its staying power, neither is “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Its soulful music by Jay Gorney and sorrowful lyrics by E. Y. (Yip) Harburg have been recorded over the decades by singers as diverse as Bing Crosby and Tom Waits, Al Jolson and Judy Collins.

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