Stony broke

We may be heading for economic meltdown, but music, as ever, has the power to console. Here are four songs about being skint…

The theme is obvious enough as we head into 2012 amidst economic predictions that range from miserable to apocalyptic, but while compiling a list of songs about being broke I found that all my choices seemed to be American. This might mean that the Americans sing more about being skint, or sing better about being skint, or that I just didn’t look hard enough for some international alternatives. (Perhaps readers can suggest some for a future Euro-poverty post…)

Or it could be that, because dreams of attaining wealth and success are so woven into the fabric of the American psyche, so, inevitably, are broken dreams and shattered illusions part of the artistic culture. Written for the 1932 musical New Americana by Jay Gorbey (music) and E.Y. ‘Yip’ Harburg (lyrics), Brother, Can You Spare a Dime is the anthem of the Great Depression. I’ve included Al Jolson’s version but Youtube perusal will yield plenty more (some substituting ‘Buddy’ for ‘Brother’), including those of Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, Dean Martin, George Michael, Mahlerman’s favourite Dr John and general Dabbler favourite Tom Waits.

If a dime was enough for a bum in 1932, inflation has ensured that by 2011 a whole dollar is the minimum donation required. Classic soul-throwback Aloe Blacc (born, magnificently, Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III) has soared to success on this side of the Pond in the last year. And why not, I think this is a terrific little number…

Next, another Californian who has made a big impact over here. Born in 1941 as Steven Gene Wold,  homemade guitar-basher Seasick Steve left home at 13 and lived rough and on the road in Tennessee and Mississippi until 1973, hopping freight trains, labouring on farms, working as a carnie and a cowboy and all that kind of stuff. Of this experience he once said: “Hobos are people who move around looking for work, tramps are people who move around but don’t look for work, and bums are people who don’t move and don’t work. I’ve been all three.”

Here’s I Started Out with Nothing and I Still Got Most of it Left

Finally, a man who is very much not broke, but who is perhaps the most generous live performer in the world of rock. Even those poor ignoramuses who don’t like Bruce Springsteen enjoyed his mid-noughties project of playing the songs of Pete Seeger with a big band. But nobody who likes music could fail to appreciate this, since it is simply a group of very accomplished musicians playing for the joy of making music together.

How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live? isn’t actually a Seeger song, it’s a variation on a composition by one Blind Alfred Reed, written in New York in 1929, and so, with the inevitability of a boom and bust economic cycle, we end up right where we started, back in the Great Depression…

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7 thoughts on “Stony broke

    January 15, 2012 at 09:31

    Hard times always seem to produce great music and literature. Thanks for a good start to the day.

    January 15, 2012 at 12:30

    Yes Brit, for quite a while I could be numbered among the ignoramuses. The brand of blue-collar rock that The Boss dispensed seemed to me too sanitized and choreographed….not Rammstein enough.
    Then one of my daughters dragged me up to Crystal Palace on a hot summer evening a few years ago and…..well, judged purely as value-for-money, I have rarely seen any individual, or group, give quite as much.

      January 15, 2012 at 18:14

      I saw him at the Millennium Stadium in 2008 – no support, no interval, on stage for 3 hours, starting at full throttle and ramping it up from there. Astonishing.

      Compare the experience of seeing Bob Dylan live…

    January 15, 2012 at 15:52

    Seasick Steve has obviously been reading H.L. Mencken, specifically The American Language (3rd edn, 1936): ‘Tramps and hoboes are commonly lumped together, but in their own sight they are sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migratory laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but soon or late he returns to work. A tramp never works if it can be avoided; he simply travels. Lower than either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when impelled to motion by the police’

    January 15, 2012 at 17:28

    Very apposite Brit, what with skint Greeks and all (beware of greeks not bearing gifts) The Jarrow Hunger Marchers apparently sang Wor Nannys a Mazer then the Internationale with, as an encore, Abide with me. That Jarrow mob eh? bunch of shoe-less presbyterian commie pooftahs.

    January 15, 2012 at 21:34

    Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III probably earned lots of dollars from his curiously cool song, but if not I could always do with another intern…

    January 16, 2012 at 03:48

    Johnny Cash’s “Worried Man” is a great song on the theme.,, stark, simple, brings you right to the edge of hunger and fear, with no resolution- based on a chance encounter he had with a “bum” in Jamaica, I believe:

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