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A Key Depression-Era Composer, Remembered

He created a tune that became an anthem for the Great Depression, and he discovered Shirley Temple, but few people today remember his name. Now, composer Jay Gorney's widow has written a memoir in tribute to her late husband. It shares the title of his most famous work: "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"

Gorney, who came to the United States from Russia as a young boy, left a career as a lawyer to try his hand at composing. He wrote the plaintive melody for the 1932 song and collaborator Yip Harburg furnished the lyrics.

Both Gorney and Harburg were progressive political activists. Gorney helped raise money for farm workers and joined such groups as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and the Hollywood Democratic Committee.

But his activism made him a target of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In 1953, he was summoned to appear before that panel. Gorney refused to inform on others and was ultimately blacklisted. He turned to teaching, where he was able to earn a little money and some satisfaction from helping young people.

Sondra Gorney says she wrote the book, in part, because her husband never really got over being blacklisted. There was something else, too: "This wasn't just our story, it was a whole historical period. I find that young people know nothing about it, and [that] disturbs me," she says. "This is the history of a country -- not just a memoir of two people, but how it fit into what was happening in the world, and our world here in America."

Jay Gorney died on Flag Day, June 14, 1990, at the age of 93.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Iris Mann

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