Brother, Can You Spare an Al?

21 02 2017

I was recently struck by the similarity between Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al,’ and the depression era’s ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,’ by Yip Harburg.  Though what Simon has to say about the song’s creation doesn’t refer to Harburg’s creation, there are too many factors to not draw a comparison. Apparently, I am not the first to make this observation.

The first two verse’s of Simon’s song contain lyrical phrases which are able to be correlated to Harburg’s song, penned for the 1931 Broadway musical New Americana, and many of the images from the  Graceland track are certainly reminiscent of the depression era. ‘Why am I soft in the middle, the rest of my life is so hard.’ – Simon The theme in both songs certainly brings one to wonder about the ‘hints and allegations.’ – Simon

With the exception of the chorus, the strongest direct connections are in the third verse of “You Can Call Me Al.’ From Harburg ‘Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al, It was Al all the time, Why don’t you remember, I’m your pal.’ and from Simon, ‘ I can be your long lost pal, I can call you Betty, and Betty when you call me, you can call me Al.’ This is a very strong correlation in my opinion.

Other strong reflections, I see in these lines: ‘They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead.’ – Harburg which seems to be directly reflected in Simon’s He sees angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity.’ These curious overtones suggest that Simon has never left his folk roots of songwriting, as the theme in each of these songs, as Harburg describes is ‘ He still has faith. He just doesn’t understand what could have happened to make everything go wrong.’

Perhaps from the point of view of  Harburg, ‘Half a million boots went sloggin’ through hell, and I was the kid with the drum,’ being Simon’s ‘cattle in the marketplace, scatterlings and orphanages,’ is one of the things that are wrong. This isn’t the Third World, or our first time around, yet no solutions have been proposed which allow for  ‘First World’ nations to demonstrate anything other than advancement in technology. Apparently, regardless of what technology is available, only compassionate use of resources can overcome the ever present struggles of which Simon speaks, ‘ He doesn’t speak the language, he holds no currency,’ and the age old question which Harburg phrases, ‘Why should I be standing in line just waiting for bread?’

It seems, from the point of view of these songwriters, that not much has changed in the last two generations, many of us are still hoping for Simon’s ‘shot at redemption’, and are perhaps still drunk from what Harburg refers to as ‘Yankee Doodly Dum.’