From the website of the Social Welfare History Project:
“In 1932, a young New York City lyricist named E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, together with composer Jay Gorney, penned what is considered the anthem of the Great Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” It was part of the 1932 musical Americana. The melody is based on a Russian-Jewish lullaby Jay Gorney’s mother had sung to him as a child. It was considered by Republicans to be anti-capitalist propaganda, and almost dropped from the show; attempts were also made to ban the song from radio. However, the song became best known through recordings by Bing Crosby, Al Jolson and Rudy Vallee. Their versions of the song were released just before Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s election held on Tuesday, November 8, 1932. The Bing Crosby recording became the best-selling record of its period, and came to be viewed as an anthem of the shattered dreams of the era.
In the song a beggar talks back to the system that stole his job. Jay Gorney said in an interview in 1974 “I didn’t want a song to depress people. I wanted to write a song to make people think. It isn’t a hand-me-out song of ‘give me a dime, I’m starving, I’m bitter’, it wasn’t that kind of sentimentality”. The song asks why the men who built the nation – built the railroads, built the skyscrapers – who fought in the war, who tilled the earth, who did what their nation asked of them should, now that the work is done and their labor no longer necessary, find themselves abandoned and in bread lines.”
“Ira Gershwin was Harburg’s classmate at Townsend Harris Hall, the prep school for City College. “There we wrote a humorous column for the high school paper entitled ‘Much Ado,’ ” related Harburg, “and we collaborated on one Broadway show in 1934, ‘Life Begins at 8:40,’ for Bert Lahr. Ira and I have been close friends ever since school. I still visit him when I’m out on the coast.”
Harburg noted that he was influenced by his teachers at City College and by authors George Bernard Shaw, Sir William Schwenk Gilbert, Jonathan Swift, Sean O’Casey, Oscar Wilde, and Mark Twain, all of whom were noted satirists. When asked about his techniques for composing lyrics, Harburg told CA [CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS]: “Anything goes, as long as it generates a song. Most ballad tunes are written first, and the lyrics fitted to the music. Sometimes the composer is given a title or possibly a line or two to work with. Most comedy songs start with several lines or possibly a whole verse. There are no formulas. Everything is geared to the particular psyches of composer and lyricist.”