Ballads of the Bonus Army

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photo: White Studio NY

Billy Rose Theatre Division

The Bonus Army has returned to the forefront of American minds — at least as represented by Facebook hits. In 1932, the unemployed convened in Washington, D.C., more an encampment than a march. They wanted jobs, as well as a promised bonus payment for military service, and occupied the Mall. The Hoover Administration, then in its final year, over-reacted with police and military force. The Bonus Army captured the American imagination but was soon forgotten as the impact of the Depression spread. The current army of un- or under-employed staged its protest with their votes to start an administration (and will undoubtedly be just as disappointed with the results).

For more than 25 years, I developed exhibitions and public humanities projects for The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. My last blog for the Staff Blog channels of nypl.org was on one of the key mages for our current exhibition, “Laughter, agita and rage”: Political Cabaret in Isaiah Sheffer’s New York (https://www.nypl.org/blog/2016/10/11/brother-can-you-spare-dime) It is appropriate that this image also kicks off my WordPress blog series since, tragically, it is once again timely.

There are two popular songs from 1932 that represent the Bonus Army and the economy that spawned it. One was premiered on Broadway; one in a movie musical, but each captured the emotional state of the Army and the public. This is a White Studio full stage shot of the scene in Americana, which introduced the song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” with music by Jay Gorney and lyrics by E. Y. Yip Harburg. came to represent The Depression. The title and a phrase from the lyrics “They used to tell me I was building a dream…” came to represent The Depression. Harburg and Gorney soon dissolved their partnership, but each had a long, successful career in popular music, while retaining their political views. They are well represented in the exhibition and by their manuscript collections at NYPL.

Yip Harburg wrote about the conditions that inspired the song for an 80th birthday lecture (1977): “breadlines, along with the pathetic millions whose savings and hopes were swept away. The system fell apart. The great American dream was derailed. The people were not angry, but baffled. They were not in revolt, but bewildered…”

Americana was an innovative Broadway revue that included long modern dance sequences by Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. The other song that elicits memories of the Bonus Army was introduced in a Busby Berkeley film that now personifies his art deco camp – Gold Diggers of 1933. It is the funniest of the Warner Brothers series, with cynical dialogue and intertwined plots that involve 3 adult romances and the rehearsals of a show. “Remember My Forgotten Man” was the finale of the show-within-a-show which otherwise had no political content.   Its songwriters, Harry Warren and Al Dubin, were not usually topical, but caught the correct mood for this song. Berkeley created a production number for it, complete with a kaleidoscope view of marching men. Unlike Harburg’s song, the forgotten men do not speak for themselves. Their troubles are presented in a lament is carried by Joan Blondell on screen and the voice of Etta Moten.

You can see “Laughter, agita and rage” at The New York Public Library for the Performing Art, 40 Lincoln Center Plaza, through December 301st.  (https://www.nypl.org/events/exhibitions/laughter-agita-rage) You can see Gold Diggers on DVD. I sincerely hope that we will not be seeing The Bonus Army on the Mall.

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