"Nickel And Dime Blues," from the bluegrass/hip-hop group Gangstagrass, is the first single from their album No Time For Enemies
. Dan Whitener
, who sings lead and plays banjo on the track, broke down the lyric for Songfacts:
This whole song for me is about not having any money, so I wanted to focus on some of the causes and situations that exacerbate poverty.
First verse:Well I went on down to the corner store
Just to get a little bottle of pills
Cause the man on the television told me
There's a cure for all my ills
Well I walked on up to the counter
And I told him what I had
He said "You ain't got no money,
You can't afford to be feeling so bad
This verse I wanted to start with healthcare, pharmaceuticals, the opioid crisis, so many things all just relating to trying to feel a little bit better when you feel bad. And that all basically comes down to when you don't have money, you can't afford to feel bad.
Plus, the advertising system in our country really plays havoc with pharmaceutical medication. Drugs shouldn't be advertised, they should be studied, prescribed, and insured.
Chorus:Oh, can you spare a nickel, brother
Can you spare a dime
Need a couple more dollars now
Just to get me on down the line
I actually wrote this chorus 10 years ago while I was busking on the New York subway platforms. Busking, if you don't know, is playing music with your instrument case or hat or tip jar set out so you can make some money from tips. Basically, what every musician is doing right now trying to make a living online.
Second Verse:Well I went down to the bodega
Just to get a little mountain dew
When I opened up my wallet
There wasn't nothing but an IOU
Well I told my situation, I asked him
"What do you got for me?"
He said "I got this knuckle sandwich
And I'll give it to you for free"
I liked being able to reference "mountain dew" i.e. moonshine, in a double-meaning kind of way to bring it into a different context. I felt like that fit with this band. This verse really comes down to poverty equaling hunger. When you don't have money, you don't have food. Not only that, you get treated like a second-class citizen, or even not like a human being. You ask for a handout, people can get real mad, and even violent. All this because you're hungry and you want something to eat.
Another thing to think about is when you're in an impoverished neighborhood, sometimes you find yourself in what's called a food desert. Bodegas are nice and all, but often people who live in low-income neighborhoods don't have reasonable access to fresh produce and quality groceries at affordable prices. This makes the situation worse by compounding conditions like poor nutrition, which contributes to poor overall health, which leads us back to the first verse again.
Third Verse:Well I could not pay my ticket
And I could not pay my bail
Well the judge couldn't pay me the time of day
And he throwed my ass in jail
Well they gave me a nickel and a dime
And they placed them upon my eyes
For it cost much more to keep me here
Than it did to let me die
So what happens to you when you're poor? You probably will end up in the system. Homelessness, vagrancy, and other situations that overlap with poverty are often criminalized, and there are many factors that intersect that mean people will end up in jail instead of a homeless shelter or mental health institution. With an already overloaded justice system, cases like these can easily go overlooked, and the mass incarceration situation continues to grow.
The last few lines are about how much it ultimately costs the system (that's the taxpayers, by the way) to imprison people, and to put them to death. Honestly, both prospects are expensive, never mind which one costs more. The truth is, we could be spending less money just to feed, clothe, care for, and educate the many people who end up going through the system. That's really the ultimate message here. All of this, just because somebody didn't have a nickel and a dime to rub together. That last part is an allusion to Greek mythology; Charon, the ferryman, is said to carry the dead across the river Styx to the underworld, but of course you need a few coins to pay the man, so it was custom to bury the dead with coins placed on their eyes. You can't even afford to die, if you're poor.