Rod Gorney, the son of late theater and film songwriter Jay Gorney, was at the recent ASCAP Foundation Awards ceremony in New York to present the Jay Gorney Award. The award recognizes a songwriter’s original song for its message of social conscience/significance, and in presenting it, Gorney noted how his father, who wrote “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” with lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, had taught him that “all songs, whether intended or not, have social significance.”
Gorney, who is a professor of psychiatry and psychoanalysis at UCLA, expanded on this in a conversation a few days later.
“Father was not only a wise philosopher but a deeply committed humanitarian who made it his business to try to exert whatever influence he could toward the kindly treatment of all human beings, and animals as well,” Gorney stated. “So I grew up in a family that simply assumed that you were concerned with the condition of the world, and this is manifested in the work my father did as a songwriter.”
“Brother Can You Spare a Dime?,” of course, is the perfect example. The 1930 composition, which was written about unemployed workers and soldiers forced to stand in bread lines, is among the best-known songs of the Great Depression, and was famously recorded by the likes of Bing Crosby, Al Jolson and Rudy Vallee.
“The irony is that people recognized that it expressed a human perception that something was wrong with the world—that people could stand in line for bread after fighting a war,” explained Gorney. “The problem for all human beings is that because of the nature of our unconscious, we oppose that which is painful–especially for ourselves: Because it’s inconvenient to be aware of it too intensively, we tend to blot it out when it happens to someone else.”
Gorney recalled a childhood memory of seeing a man standing in a bread line in the rain.
“I asked my parents, and they said, ‘You see, they don’t have money to buy food, and need be given free bread.’ I asked, ‘Well why don’t they have money?’ and my father said, ‘You see, they don’t have jobs, and if they don’t have a job, there’s no work and no money.’ ‘But why don’t they have jobs?’ He said, ‘Let’s take your tricycle down to the courtyard!’ He was trying to distract me–this line of inquiry from a five-year-old kid was distressing to an adult, who was also wondering the same thing–‘Why do people suffer?’”
This was about the time that Jay Gorney and Harburg wrote “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”
“I sat in a corner watching and listening as they wrote that song,” said Gorney. “They were told had to have a song to go in a musical called Americana within 10 days, and they were fishing around to see what they could come up with and were working on a torch song—but neither Yip nor Jay felt good about writing that kind of song, and put on their overcoats and went into Central Park to get some ideas for something better. A guy in a thin jacket with the collar turned up walked up. He was shivering, and said, ‘Brother can spare a dime?’ and they both yelled, ‘That’s it!’ and they both gave him a $20 bill. ‘What’s this for?’ he asked. ‘Because you told us something very interesting. Good luck to you!’ And they came back to the apartmetnt and wrote the song.”
Gorney’s mother had been watching the proceedings through a window.
“She went to our closet where she and her friends had accumulated clothing to give away, and found a raccoon coat–which was de rigueur for upper-crust society–and took it and ran down in her summer dress and sandals into the snow and found the guy–who had purchased a hamburger and cup of coffee–and draped the coat around him and said, ‘My husband and his collaborator thank you for the great idea.’ ‘I don’t know what you mean,’ he said. She said, ‘Listen to the radio over the next few weeks and you’ll understand.’ And she bundled herself up and ran back to the apartment. She knew when she heard the embryo of the song that it was going to be a hit, and an important song.”
Such was “the ambience” of Gorney’s childhood.
“I was always aware that the world was full of deprivation and grew up wondering why it was in such a mess,” he said. “I’d ask my father, and he’d get more and more upset that my tender mind was full of depressed thoughts. He told me that every part of our society–every creation by an artist, industrialist or mechanic–has significance for the well being of our society and we should all pay attention to that aspect of what we create in the world to make sure its signficance is beneficial and not harmful–and that stuck with me, as you can imagine. It was very formative in my life, and had something to do with the profession I went into.”
Gorney noted that his father remained heavily “involved on a continuing basis with songs of deliberate social significance.”
“One of them, ‘The Bill of Rights, ‘ set the First Amendment to music, and was a really memorable song widely used in schools and colleges and commercially, too. ‘Juarez and Lincoln’ was about a poor country boy [Benito Juarez] who became president of Mexico, and Lincoln, who was a poor country lawyer who became president of the United States. It makes the point that both were poor but studious and were liberators.”
In Jay Gorney’s song “General MacArthur’s Message to the Russian Army,” he commemorated MacArthur’s congratulatory message to the Russian Army over its successful—though costly—victory after the German invasion.
“It’s not as well known as the other songs, but was very significant because at the time the U.S. was extremely grateful that the Russians, at a cost of several million lives, managed to repel the Nazis, just as their predecessors had repelled Napoleon,” said Gorney. “MacArthur wrote a message to the courageous Russian army in which he said that it turned the tide and drove the aggressor from it’s territory at enormous expense, and deserves the devotion and congratulations of peace-loving people everywhere. This was at a time when Churchill and Roosevelt and other allies were trying to reduce American enthusiasm for collaborating with Russia, and Jay chose to musicalize this message so that its significance would not be lost on the American people and be forever remembered–but with the onset of the Cold War it disappeared form the American consciousness with the deliberate intent of changing our recognition of what the facts of World War II were.”
But Jay Gorney, his son said, was not looking to pursue “any particular political objective.”
Rather, “he wanted to make sure that people had access to education and were consciously mindful of really vital elements of American culture. So he persisted in composing songs that were deliberately crafted with messages of encouragement for peace and equality and freedom, and that’s largely the reason why he is known and revered now—not just for ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime?’ but for all these other songs.”
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