Starting “Of Mice and Men” in Song: “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

January 20, 2014 — Leave a comment

The English I Honors teacher in my department recently suffered a serious concussion; no reading or writing for several weeks. Her classes must go on, however, and the new unit on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is next in the curriculum.  A long term substitute is scheduled for next week, and the students could easily read the novel before her arrival.

Moreover, there is a packet of information and worksheets in the file cabinet with background information on the 1930s and the author, John Steinbeck. The practice of providing such a lengthy introduction, however, is associated with “over-teaching”, a practice now discouraged in the Common Core English Language Arts Standards. In statewide tests students will have to meet the standards of the Common Core, and they will encounter texts from many different sources. The recommendation is that students should practice “close reading” where they can independently mine the language of the text for meaning:

“Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature. They habitually perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally” (ELA Common Core)

The 9th graders could be staggering indeed; they have just completed a unit on Greek tragedy using Oedipus the King. Some students might suffer whiplash in the jump from 5th Century BCE Ancient Greece to 20th Century California in the Salinas Valley. There needed to be a powerful “bridge” to prepare students for this leap in time and ensuing debate between free will and fate.  What could be accomplished without the teacher directed lecture, especially if the teacher is not available? What format could saturate students in an environment of the 1930s?

A few minutes of research on YouTube provided an answer; I could have a substitute show students several versions of the Bing Crosby’s song recording of Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s anthem for the Great Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

The historical accuracy of some of the photos in this first rendition may be questionable, but the message of an average man’s struggle to find employment in the early 1930s is made very clear. The second version below is a sing-a-long-version that is particularly good as a karaoke opportunity. After watching the first version, all students sang along, some with more gusto than others, following Crosby’s cadence in the second version:

After singing, the students reviewed the lyrics:

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime”

lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (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 Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And 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?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Say, don’t you remember, I’m your pal?

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

These lyrics provided students an opportunity to “close read” the context of the Great Depression, particularly in the lyrics “Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell” and “Half a million boots went slogging through Hell.” While they understood that after the stock market crash there were unemployed men who had helped in the building of railroads and towers, more than one student made the connection that there are currently soldiers who have returned from serving in Iraq or Afghanistan who have not found employment either. Their brief discussion was enough to set up Steinbeck’s tale of Lennie and George, who share a dream of finding employment to be independent farmers raising rabbits.

Once the background was established, students could then read the novel independently, the way the Common Core recommends in the reading standards. Additionally, the long-term substitute can now complete the leap from classical to contemporary tragedy without having to dwell on historical context. The only downside might be getting rid of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”… a song-worm now in their brains!

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