From the late ’40s to the late ‘50s thousands of American citizens were accused of being Communists or prone to Communism and were the subject of investigations, interrogations, prosecutions, and put in jail. How many thousands of lives were destroyed by these investigations led by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy? A man of German-Irish descent who became famous during the Cold War era for making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence, methods that received the international designation “McCarthyism“.
In the summer of 2019 I first discovered the song “Brother Can You Spare A Dime“, one of the major hits of the Great Depression. Since 1932 when the song was released it went through various versions by countless musicians, famous or not. Due to this occasion and thanks to luck, I got to know the story of its composer, Jay Gorney, who wrote with his friend, the lyricist, Edgar Yipsel “Yip” Harburg.
(by Mike Pougounas and John Kastanaras – for the Greek version, follow this link to Merlin’s Music Box)
Thrilled by my discovery, I called John Kastanaras, owner of a well known Greek fanzine, Merlin’s Music Box, which was a printed edition back in the ‘90s but now is a web zine. I wanted to share with him my news and once again, it turned out that the world we live in is a much smaller place than we think.
John informed me that Jay’s son, Daniel, is his cousin, since he was married to John’s cousin, photographer Efi Vlachou-Gorney. They had settled in Greece in 1975, and when she passed away Dan left Athens. He is now living at their estate “Villa Efi”, somewhere outside of Corinth.
John made sure we got in touch with him and on a Saturday morning we took the car and went to meet Dan.
After an hour and a half drive, we found ourselves at the house of Daniel Gorney, in the company of spinach pies, his dog Nino, and under the open sky looking over the Loutra Oreas Elenis and the Saronic Gulf.
Dan greeted us with joy and after making a coffee, he leaned over the table holding a dossier full of papers, musical scores and posters. Lots of songs, thousands of notes, lyrics, names known and unknown, from a very difficult era, from another world, that existed only in my mind and through movies that I watched.
THE STORY BEGINS
Of course, before going for the meeting, I did a little research. As I was taking a look through Dan’s dossier, I asked him “Who wrote the scores? Did your father know how to write notes? ”
“He wrote them,” Dan replied with his broken Greek. “This is what he was doing for eight hours every day. He was always going around with a pencil and a sheet.”
Jay Gorney was born Abraham Jacob Gornetzsky on December 12, 1896 to a Jewish family in Bialystok of the then tsarist Russian Empire. His parents were Frieda (Perlstein) and Jacob Gornetzsky…
“Your father had left Russia, right? Today, of course, that region from which he left belongs to Poland.”
“Here’s a nice story my dad’s mom used to tell.” Dan changes his tone, mimicking his grandmother: “Sometimes this area was Russia, sometimes it was Poland. People didn’t know what country we lived in, so a committee was formed to ask people if they wanted to live on the Russian side of the border or on the Polish. They discussed it for weeks, until they came up with the decision that they preferred to be in Poland, because we all knew how heavy the Russian winters are”. The way Dan imitated his grandmother, as well as the hint about the Russian winter, made us laugh.
During the Russian Revolution of 1905, Bialystok was the HQ of the radical labor movement in the area, with strong organizations such as the Bund (the Jewish Labor Movement) and the Polish Socialist Party, and also the Black Banner (a Russian anarchist communist organization that emerged in 1903 as a federation of cadres known as Chernoe Znamia or Chornoe Znamia or Chernoznamentsy meaning The Black Banner). The Bialystok pogrom was one of a series of violent incidents against the Jews between 1903 and 1908. There was a population of 62,000 people living in this area by the end of the 19th century, 47,000 of which were Jews. The Bialystok progrom took place from June 14 to June 16, 1906, and 88 people were killed by the imperial Russian army.
As the bloody events were escalating, the family decided to leave their home and remain hidden for the next two weeks until they found a way to flee to the US.
They arrived on September 14, 1906.
“My daughter, Tatiana, has found all the names of family members on the passengers list that disembarked on Ellis island” Dan said. “My grandfather had some relatives in Detroit so this is where they went.”
“Where did your father learn to play the piano?”
“They rented a piano by the week ‘cause his mom wanted his older brother to learn how to play,” Dan explained. “The brother wasn’t in the mood to learn, but my father attended the lessons and learned on his own. He later played for Nickelodeon. ”
PLAYING THE PIANO AT THE NICKELODEON
From 1905 to 1915 Nickelodeon was a hype in the States.
There were a number of remodeled warehouses, formed into small rooms, where people watched short silent movies at the price of 5 cents (a nickel).
Combined with the Greek word Odion, they came up with the name Nickelodeon, considered by some today as the ancestor of movie theatres.
Jay Gorney started playing music at the Nickelodeon at the age of 14.
“He was playing the piano during the projection of silent movies and the bug of music stayed with him ever since. He also went also to the university and graduated in law. He joined the band of the University of Michigan, making money that he sent to his family until he finished his studies in 1917. He saved enough money from playing music back then. ”
Jay went to work as a lawyer for $ 20 a week, but compared to the money he made as a musician, that was nothing so he decided to focus on music.
“My father met his first wife, Edelaine Roden, when the Jewish Club of the University sent him to persuade a girl to sit properly when riding a horse. The girl was Jewish and she was riding as a man instead of sitting sideways on the saddle. The two of them fell in love and she told him “Since you are a musician why do you bother with law?” So they moved to New York where he could find work in music. She was his first wife. Edelaine was crazy but she was a good person. After convincing him, he started working at Ziegfeld Follies. ”
The Ziegfeld Follies were a series of plays on Broadway in New York that started in 1907 and went on until 1931. They returned in 1934 and 1936 and turned into a radio show in 1932 and 1936 as “The Ziegfeld Follies of the Air.”
John Kastanaras tried to clear the picture by asking what did Jay do with Yip in the 20’s before writing “Brother Can You Spare a Dime”.
“He wrote musical reviews for the rich people to go to see live music. Ziegfeld Follies was a big name back then. It was sketches with big bands and girls with feathers.”
So in what financial state did the financial crash of the 1930s find Jay Gorney?
“My father got rich. Because of ‘Brother Can You Spare A Dime’ he became a wealthy man. During the depression he was at his high. The Americans could go see a movie with a nickel. It became something like television. It was THE entertainment and he wrote music for movies.”
(1933) Jay Gorney on the piano, lyricist Yip Harburg, choreographer Bobby Connelly and dancers on the scene of “Moonlight and Pretzels”
BROTHER CAN YOU SPARE A DIME
A new person appeared in Dan’s story telling:
“My father met Yip Harburg in New York and together they wrote ‘Brother Can You Spare A Dime’ which was a big hit.”
Yip Harburg was a lyricist, known for his social commentary in his lyrics and his liberal ideas. He advocated racial equality, gender equality, and trade unionism. He was also a fervent critic of religion. Apart from “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” that he co-wrote with Gorney, he is known to almost everyone for the song “Over the Rainbow“, since he wrote all the lyrics of Victor Fleming’s classic “Wizard of Oz”.
The first to record “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, Or “Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?” was Leo Resman with his orchestra in 1932 and was followed almost immediately by Charlie Palloy in the same year. But the version that became a hit was Bing Crosby’s, who included it in his Portrait Of Bing Crosby album (1932).
“Bing did it so well, that everybody imitated him… It’s a very moving song.”
The lyrics are about an unemployed man who, after being squeezed by the system, working on railways and construction and sent to fight in WW1 for the USA with the promise of a dream. He is now a beggar, begging for a dime from passers-by.
The song was originally written for the third production of the musical “Americana” (1932) but Republicans saw it as anti-capitalist propaganda and took advantage of every means available to withdraw the song from the show, and also tried to ban it from radio broadcasting.“The lyrics of the song are too dangerous to be written by an American,” they said.
Dan shook his head and concluded, “I’ve kept an article that says that it was considered as one of the most anti-capitalist songs in history. That and Pete Seeger‘s ‘The Banks Are Made Of Marble’.” He then he came up with Seeger’s lyrics and sang cheerfully but with a twist: “But the banks are made of marble. With a guard at every door. And the vaults are stuffed with silver. That the farmer sweated for”.
“That, and ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime’ were considered the most anti-capitalist songs. But the story of how Yip came up with the lyrics is also great. Jay Gorney had the melody and they loved it. But it was too strong for a song about a man who lost his woman, too strong about a woman who lost her man. It was what they were writing. Torch songs. And they walked through Central Park to come up with an idea for this tune they had. A guy with a pulled-up collar came up and said “Hey brother can you spare a dime?” Daddy always said ‘I don’t remember if he ever got his dime.’
It has been said that this song changed the way the average man looked at a guy in the street saying ‘Hey man, can you spare some change?’ Before the song he was a bum, a beggar. After the song… you know at this state this was a working man and a soldier.”
Dan grasped an old acoustic guitar in his hands.
“This one was given to me by Yip. From the cradle I’ve had this song. It’s the background song to my life.” he said and started singing:
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 sloggin’ 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
Say buddy, can you spare a dime?
Once in khaki suits, ah gee we looked swell
Full of that yankee doodly dum
Half a million boots went sloggin’ through hell
And I was the kid with the drum
Oh, 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?
A song that, as someone said contains the whole story of the Great Depression and its consequences in one sentence.
“Since ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime’ was pessimistic, they decided to write something more upbeat in response,” Dan continues “So Jay and Yip composed ‘Dusty Shoes.’ Basically they tried to boost the morale of the average American. Here’s the lyrics sheet and the music score,” he said, and handed them over to us while he played “Dusty Shoes” on the guitar.
“The success of ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime’ was the reason my dad was called to Hollywood in order to write music for movies because in the meantime they managed to add sound to the films. So he went to Hollywood with Edelaine, his first wife, my half-brother, and they also invited Yip to stay with them. Eventually, however, Yip took my father’s wife and ran away. I sent him a message on his 80th birthday saying “I’m thankful to you eternally. If it wasn’t for you, where would I be?”
After a few laughs, we talk a little about Yip, the song “Over the Rainbow” and the rumor about the pairing of the 1973 Pink Floyd album ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ with the visual portion of the 1939 film ‘The Wizard of Oz’. Rumor has it that if you start playing Pink Floyd’s album right after MGM’s lion roars for the third time there are moments where the Wizard of Oz and the album appear to correspond with each other.
Jay Gorney remarried, this time to Dan’s mother, Sondra Karyl.
“My mother was a Communist. I am not 100% sure…,” Dan said “but she probably told him that she would accept getting married to him only if he joined the party. You see, my father was 25 years older than she was… ”
We asked him if this is when Jay joined the party.
“I don’t know, he said ‘It’s my right not to answer that question. Nobody has the right to ask me that question’ he took the fifth amendment.”
After the release of “Brother Can You Spare A Dime”, Roosevelt was elected president. Did Jay Gorney have any war experience?
“My father had already served in World War I. He said “I fought the 1st World War with a stick.” He conducted a military band. He tried to put on a couple of shows. During the McCarthy era they had a show, a big show called ‘Meet the People.’ A few shows opened in Hollywood. He used local talent and out of work actors and actresses. It spent three years in New York, played London. It was a big show. So, in ’56 I think, after the Black List, he tried to do it again.”
Dan stood up and went to another room. He returned with a photo.
“Yes, here’s Lionel Stander. Major actor and commie. He appeared before my father on the House Un-American Activities Committee.” In 1953 they called Stander before the committee. But he wasn’t cooperative, and the whole incident described in Eric Bentley‘s skit ‘Are You Now or Have You Ever Been.’ Dan laughed and explained: “A revue, they had different skits. In one skit, there was the character of a lawyer interrogating a witness and he sang ‘Are you now or have you ever been, in love? Are you now a follower or a member of that gang that love and live where they want to…’ he tried to make fun of the committee. The Committee was asking ‘are you now or have you ever been a Communist? They closed that show really quickly. I mean the manager ran off with the cash, the electric blew out and other dirty tricks. They sabotaged that show.”
But what happened when they invited his father to the committee?
“He seemed to be cooperative at the beginning. But then he started telling about how his father got US citizenship. He said that he helped his father to learn English by writing a song ‘which I’d like to perform for you now’ and he tried to sing in the House Un-American Activities Committee a song called ‘The Bill of Rights’:
‘Old Thomas Jefferson he said one day, the people have got to be respected.
I won’t be here for very long so come what may their rights always have to be protected.
The Sage of Monticello was such a prophetic fellow and according to his likes, he wrote the Bill of Rights.
All of our problems have a solution in what Mr. Jefferson wrote. The first ten amendments to our constitution to which please note: quote…” and Dan sung the first amendment from the Bill of Rights to his father’s tune.
Suddenly Dan stopped singing.
“He tried to sing that and they brought the gavel” Dan hits softly the table three times and continues “Mr. Gorney there’ll be no singing in this hearing. And daddy, my poor little daddy who was so shy and afraid of authority he said ‘but you had so many pigeons signing here. Trained pigeons I’d call them.’ He wouldn’t say stool pigeons ‘cause that was a dirty word and he was very polite. And they shut him up.”
So they ruined his career.
“The FBI was on the phone. Was outside the door. Any time they heard of a job offer or a project they called up and said ‘do you know he is a commie? Do you know that the American Allegiance is gonna come out and picket you if you put this music on?” And they surrounded him and made it impossible for him to work. That’s the Black List. It’s not just a list. FBI agents would follow me to school and spoke to the principal of my high school. They interviewed my first grade teacher ‘did little Daniel say anything… communist?’ My first grade teacher… I mean they really surrounded the whole family. They made it impossible for him to work so my mother was forced to go work.
Did this stop at some point?
“It was the height of his carreer. He must have been 55-60 when this happened. He continued to write but he couldn’t get anything produced. He worked with other black listed writers and it was quite literally a conspiracy to keep these people off the market. It’s one of the reasons I live in Greece. I left the country that prosecuted my daddy. Most of this industry is about money, and there were progressive people who built the American musical theater. Most of them, like Gershwin and others, happened to be German-Jews and Russian-Jews. Yip was friends with the Gershwin brothers in high school. Yip was poor. Gershwin was a German Jew. They had a gramophone and Yip visted them to listen to records of Gilbert and Sullivan. ”
We asked him if there were any Jews on the side of the accusers at the time of McCarthy that were chasing other Jews on the grounds that they were Communists.
“The lawyer for McCarthy,” Dan replies, “Roy M. Cohn. McCarthy’s lawyer. Senator McCarthy was an alcoholic from the Midwest. A W.A.S.P. (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). Roy M. Cohn said to McCarthy, this is right after World War II and the Holocaust. “You can’t go after this Jewish commies. You can’t do it because you’re a Mick and you’ll look just like Hitler. But me, I’m a Jewish boy. I’ll go after them. He was actually a mentor to Nixon and Trump. So he hired a nice Jewish boy.”
We spoke a little about the “duck and hide drill”.
“It was the Cold War, commies were painted, they had horns and a tail. They were the evil.”
One night in 1933, Jay Gorney was coming out of the movie theatre where he watched the short movie ‘Merrily Yours’ (also known as ‘Frolics of Youth’) starring Shirley Temple. He found her dancing outside the theatre and recognized her. He arranged an audition for her for December 7, 1933 for the movie ‘Stand Up and Cheer!’ Temple took the part and signed a contract with Fox Film Corporation for $ 150 a week. This role was decisive for her career. “The producer of the movie ‘Baby, Take a Bow’ (1934) wanted a 14-year-old girl to play in the film, but my father insisted and told him to try Shirley Temple first.”
The Fox executives liked her so much that they started promoting her immediately. On the movie she sang and danced with James Dunn.
“There’s a great movie where Shirley dances with the black actor, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson,” Dan says.
Shirley Temple enjoyed collaborating with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Off camera she was calling him Uncle Billy.
We wondered if ASCAP is working properly .
“ASCAP is a fantastic organization,” Dan says. “It’s a big, strong, aggressive, paying organization. I get royalties for my father. The copyright stands for 75 years after the composer’s death.” This is when Dan comes with information that we didn’t know. “My old man was one of the founding members of the American Guild of Authors and Composers (AGAC).” To sum up, this organization, which protected writers and composers, had started as a Songwriters Protective Association in 1931 and changed its name to the American Guild of Authors and Composers in 1958. “There was nothing before that. In 1915 the song ‘Tea for Two’ was sold for 10 dollars. And he sold all the rights in Tin Pan Alley.”
OTHER JAY GORNEY SONGS
The discussion with Dan evolves around other songs that his father wrote and Dan points out that he probably wrote about 500 songs, but none of them repeated the success of “Brother …”
John remembered Billie Holiday singing “You’re My Thrill” which Gorney wrote in 1933 for the film “Jimmy and Sally”. I found dozens of cover versions of this song, most notably by Peggy Lee (1956), Ella Fitzgerald (1961), Nat “King” Cole (1966), Chet Baker (1988), Robert Palmer (1990), Joni Mitchell (2000) and others. Billie Holiday’s version came out in 1950.
“What a beautiful song. Torch song” Dan added. “Billie nailed it and nobody dared to do it.”
THE SECRET OF LIFE
“When I was 18-20 years old,” says Dan, “my father told me the secret of life. He asked me, ‘do you want to know the secret?’ I said ‘what’s the secret?’ he said ‘don’t write music at the piano. You write music on your walk down Broadway and you try to bring it back and remember it. At the piano you only play what you learned yesterday.’ I’m not a musician particularly but for him that was the most important secret of life. I think, to me, that’s one of the most endearing things that shows who my daddy was. Fantasy is the ultimate instrument but it’s not always easy to play what you hear in your head.”
Jay Gorney died on June 14, 1990 at the age of 93. Apart from Dan, he also had a daughter with Sondra Karyl. She’s Dan’s big sister, Karen Lynn Gorney, and because, as I said before, the world is too small, Dan’s sister was John Travolta‘s dancing partner in “Saturday Night Fever“. Their older half-brother, Dr. Rod Gorney, is a well-known psychiatrist in California.
Dan Gorney, after his beatnik years in Greenwich Village, went through a hippie phase, and moved to Greece in 1975 where, as he says, he found what he was looking for.
We ask him if he ever got into music professionally.
“The definition of professional is you get paid,” he says. “The phrase says ‘he who pays the piper, calls the song.’ If you get paid, the guy who’s paying says ‘sing this’. If you don’t get paid you can sing whatever the fuck you want. I just play. I love playing.”
“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, Or “Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?” is one of the best-known American songs of the era of economic depression of the 1930s. It has been covered by over 100 artists, including legends such as Al Johlson, Abbey Lincoln, Mel Torme, Tom Jones, Dean Martin, Connie Francis, The Weavers, Peter, Paul & Mary, Jesse Colin Young, Dr. John with Odetta, Judy Collins, Eartha Kitt, St Valentine’s Day Massacre (Jon Lord‘s band after Artwood and Deep Purple), Sun Ra Arkestra (with Phil Alvin on vocals), Dave Brubeck , Eugene Chadbourne, Thea Gilmore, George Michael and Tom Waits. Want more?
Thank you very much Dan Gorney for the hospitality, the time you spent with us and for your memories. And, of course, for the lunch at the beach of Loutra Oreas Elenis. And to Tatiana Gorney-Vlachou of course for the photos from her personal archive…
Take care and be safe, Dan …