Teaching songs can be more than just pop music – A look at Protest Songs

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A look at ‘Strange Fruit’ and ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’

The 1920s and 30s in America was a time of racial discrimination for the black people while economically it was a time of the Great Depression. Times were not only hard but also scary with hatred and desperation flowing across the cities and plains of America. Like prisoners in shackles, the unfortunate ones at the bottom rung of life did not have a voice and ways of expressing how they felt in articulate terms.  This is why protest songs grew in prominence as they had a purpose, sentiment, and specific issues while invoking the reader to be shocked and angry. This is not withstanding that these songs were meant to inspire the reader to acknowledge and change the situation. For this essay I have chosen two protest songs that epitomize the era of discrimination and depression; ‘Strange Fruit’ and ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’ I will highlight their literary merits and social criticism.

Initially, the reader is struck by the titles of these songs. ‘Strange fruit’ asks why fruit that hangs off trees would be so strange.  What must the fruit be a metaphor for? Horror upon horror the fruit is the black man lynched; no wonder the fruit looks strange.  On the other hand ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’ is plain to see as we recognize someone destitute and begging.  In both cases, there are images of victims, and those victims are persecuted in different ways. One is for being non-white, and the other for being a hard working man, both are innocent citizens who have landed in a bad place that there seems no exit.

Moreover, as the reader reads on the full reality of the themes of these two songs highlighting lynching in all of its brutality and the fall out of the Crash of 1929 are exposed. ‘Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze’ cannot get more real, as the true horror of lynching is laid bare. While ‘the bulging eyes and twisted mouth’ show the gravity of the spectacle as these poor black men hung up for all to see for no reason at all. The protagonist in the ‘Brother, can you spare me a dime’ is left bearing his soul too, as he is ‘just waiting for bread’ instead of ‘building a dream’ and asking ‘can you spare a dime’ instead of building a rail road. Society has been criticized that has left this man and the black man fighting for their lives, notwithstanding that they could well be an upstanding member of society. The reader asks what have they done wrong to deserve this!

Here now lies the haunting social impact the songs. The man who ‘made it run’ the railroad that is, and ‘made it run against time’ and who also ‘was building a dream’ with ‘peace and glory ahead’ now invokes a sad legacy that in all that he did and all he was asked to do, he is now discarded for society to forget.  Furthermore, as much as is the case for the black man whose hanging body is ‘for the wind to suck’ and ‘for the sun to rot’. In both cases, the reader carries away the thought of life taken away. Nevertheless, for ‘Strange Fruit’ this was the first loud cries against racism. This was the way to move the black man’s story into the white man’s consciousness and Billie Holiday, the singer of Strange Fruit, her most successful song at that time.  Contrastingly, Brother can you Spare a Dime still resonates in the modern day world as the world come out of another economic collapse

To conclude, these two songs send powerful messages that are meant to get into the readers’ awareness of society and for him or her to feel abhorred by the situation. The reader is meant to feel sad but on the whole optimistic that times can change so that today those times are a distant memory forever banished to the history books but never forgotten.

(673 Words)


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