Friday, September 16, 2011

Music for hard times

Last night Elaine and I heard a great recital by baritone Nathan Gunn and pianist Julie Gunn. Elaine heard much more than I did, as she was well acquainted with virtually all the music on the program: Gustav Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen [Songs of a wayfarer], Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe [Poet’s love], and songs by Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, and Harold Arlen. Schumann and Ives were the knock-outs. But for me the most arresting moment of the night came in an encore, a song from 1931:

They used to tell me I was building a dream,
and 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, I 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, up to the sun,
brick and rivet 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-de-dum,
Half a million boots went sloggin’ through hell,
I was the kid with the drum.

Say, don’t you remember? They called me Al,
it was Al all the time.
Why don’t you remember? I’m your pal.
Buddy, can you spare a dime?

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (music by Jay Gorney, words by E.Y. Harburg)
I want to call the Gunns’ performance of the song spellbinding, but that’s not it: rather than call attention to the artistry of the performers, the performance invited the listener to think of the world outside the great hall. It was a solemn and poignant close to a great night of music in our own hard times. I’d like to think that everyone got the point.

[Yes, the Gunns are a married couple. And no, this rendering of the lyrics is not definitive. The punctuation, line breaks, and stanza breaks are my best effort.]

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