featured as finale of Mervin Le Roy's 1933 film "Gold Diggers of 1933"
© 1937 M. Witmark & Sons

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Among the songs that deal seriously with the Depression and that have some relevance to the myth of America are "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (1932) by E. Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney and "Remember My Forgotten Man" (1933) by Al Dubin and Harry Warren. The songs share some interesting similarities. First, both songs depict the disenfranchised individual. Both feature structures that contrast a driving, martial rhythm and melody in one section with a more lyrical section. Both are written in a minor key, which adds an element of poignancy. Both songs also allude to two mythemes: the land and opportunity. And, finally both songs enunciate a theme that will be common in the Depression and that we will see in the folksong movement during the same period: that of the soldier who has served his country in the preservation of freedom and opportunity but who is now excluded from that same opportunity.... "Remember My Forgotten Man," delivered by Joan Blondell in her own inimitable popular Sprechstimme style, the narrator seems to be addressing government as she reminds them that her man cultivated the land and carried a "rifle in his hand." The songwriters paint a picture of a man who has contributed to the plenty of the land, fought to defend that land and all it stands for, and is now disenfranchised from it. The narrator also reminds the powers-that-be that, if they forget him, they are forgetting her, because a woman cannot live without a man. There is no cryptic socialist message here, but the audience could walk away from this song with a feeling of solidarity; each of them, like this woman, shared in the tragedy of the forgotten man. The tone of the song, like that of "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?" is somber and suggests an attitude of despair and disillusionment.

The context of its performance is important to this song. The message one would derive from it if it were played at home or heard in a club would be somewhat different from what audiences experienced watching the film Gold Diggers of 1933. In that film, the song is the finale, a huge Busby Berkeley production number, which begins by vividly parading hundreds of "forgotten men" across the stage but ends up on an "up" note as, in typical Berkeley style, the chorus forms the NRA eagle for a classic center weighted shot. The structure of the scene then takes one from despair to hope -- an entirely different feeling from what one would have if the tune were heard in isolation.

Both songs leave enough room for people to identify with the narrator. Both songs bring into the treatment of the myth a new dimension, the role of the individual. The idea of God is almost totally absent from all the songs (including those of the folk-protest tradition) in the 1930s, and the sense of community is only marginally suggested in the music of Tin Pan Alley. The individual, however, is given new stature as the personal supplants the communal.

Timothy Scheurer, Born in the USA, Jackson, Mississippi, 1991, pp. 118-119.

Lyrics from "Gold Diggers of 1933", transcribed by Manfred Helfert.


I don't know if he deserves a bit of sympathy,
Forget your sympathy, that's all right with me.
I was satisfied to drift along from day to day,
Till they came and took my man away.

Remember my forgotten man,
You put a rifle in his hand;
You sent him far away,
You shouted, "Hip, hooray!"
But look at him today!

Remember my forgotten man,
You had him cultivate the land;
He walked behind the plow,
The sweat fell from his brow,
But look at him right now!

And once, he used to love me,
I was happy then;
He used to take care of me,
Won't you bring him back again?
'Cause ever since the world began,
A woman's got to have a man;
Forgetting him, you see,
Means you're forgetting me
Like my forgotten man.

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