Video: Brother, Can You Spare a Dime (Al Jolson edition)

In my opinion, there are no greater white jazz singers in the first half of the 20th century than Al Jolson and Fred Astaire. Astaire is a jazz drummer (yes), and his off-the-beat phrasing is precise and perfect.

But for pure expression, Al Jolson, whatever his other failings, is the king.

Here he sings “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” far better than any later interpreter, including Barbra Streisand, who sang a career-making version herself.

Not that the actual content of the song matters to me, of course, in these “not a recovery” times. Nor those stunning period pictures either. Far be it from me to put these sounds and sights before you for a reason — because, you know, this is just entertainment — look, it’s shiny, and it’s got free Wi-fi.

Ok, you got me. Remember the Forgotten Man; this could be any of us these days. Al Jolson, singing it straight to you:


By the way, did you notice the lyrics? In this version, you do.

They used to tell me I was building a dream
So I followed the mob.
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear
I was always there, right on the job.

They used to tell me I was building a dream
With peace and glory ahead.
Why should I be standing in line
Just waiting … for bread?

Once I built a railroad, made it run
Made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done,
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower to the sun
Brick, mortar and lime.
Once I built a tower, now it’s done,
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee-doodle-dee-dum.
Half a million boots went marching through hell,
And I was a kid with a drum….

Brother, can you spare a dime?

When this was written, the “railroad racing against time” and “tower to the sun” (New York skyscrapers) were the bee’s knees, the biggest and brightest that Money could produce with small people‘s labor. Then the small people were cast aside.

Tough times; it’s not just for “those people” any more.


Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States. Click here for more. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius and Facebook.

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