I am one of the last of a small tribe of troubadours who still believe that life is a beautiful and exciting journey, with a purpose and grace which are well worth singing about.
— E.Y. "Yip" Harburg
Yip Harburg (April 8, 1896 — March 5, 1981) was one of America's greatest lyricists. You probably don't even recognize his name, but I guarantee you know some the words he wrote, as they were written to melodies crafted by a variety of renowned composers to become some of the most famous and popular songs of the early Twentieth Century.
Born as Isidore Hochberg to orthodox Russian Jewish immigrants on Manhattan's Lower East Side, his name was later changed to Edgar Harburg in order to sound more "American," a common practice of that era. His nickname, Yip, comes from the Yiddish word yipsel (squirrel), on account of his energetic playfulness. His parents immersed him in as many of the cultural aspects of life that were available in the Jewish ghetto, particularly the arts. His life's work would be profoundly impacted by his childhood experiences with Yiddish theatre and its unique blending of social commentary with humor and fantasy. He worked a variety of odd jobs while growing up, selling newspapers, lighting streetlamps along the East River, and even jarring pickles in a pickle factory.
Harburg attended high school at Townsend Harris Hall, a school for gifted students, where he worked on the school paper and became life-long friends with classmate Ira Gershwin. They both attended City College (later part of the City University of New York), and both contributed to F.P. Adams' column in the daily New York World, the city's leading publication for light verse. After graduation in 1917, Harburg's ardent socialist political views led him to relocate to Uruguay, where he worked in a meat packing plant and as a journalist until the end of World War I. In 1920, he returned to New York City where he and a business partner founded the Consolidated Electrical Appliance Company. The company did well for almost a decade, but went bankrupt following the economic crash of 1929.
The Depression Era
Prior to 1929, Harburg had been writing poetry and light verse much as he'd done in school, but after the stock market crash, he decided to try and make a living as a lyricist. His old friend Ira Gershwin, who was doing well writing the lyrics to songs composed by his brother George, loaned Harburg $500 (over $5000 in today's dollars, adjusted for inflation) and introduced him to a number of composers. One such songwriter, a former attorney named Jay Gorney, proved to be a creative match for Harburg, and they collaborated on songs for a number of successful Broadway revues, as well as a number that Helen Morgan sang in early film musicals. In the 1932 revue Americana, they wrote "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?", one of the first songs to actually address the hardships of the Depression — a subject that all mainstream entertainment completely ignored (sound familiar?). Many Republicans at the time maintained that the song was anti-capitalist propaganda, and pushed for it to be banned from the radio and dropped from the stage show. The song ended up becoming an anthem of the Great Depression.
That same year on Broadway, Harburg wrote "April in Paris" with composer Vernon Duke, and 1933 saw the hit "It's Only a Paper Moon" with Harold Arlen and Billy Rose. Harburg and Gorney were offered contracts with Paramount Pictures, which further opened the door for Harburg's career as a lyricist. He began working in both New York and Hollywood with a number of other composers. The musical revue Life Begins at 8:40 brought Harburg together with Ira Gershwin for the first time for lyrical collaborations on songs with Harold Arlen, such as "Let's Take A Walk Around The Block" and "Fun To Be Fooled".
World War II
During the decades that followed, Harburg and Arlen had a great deal of success as a musical team, but their partnership reached its peak in 1939 when the pair wrote all the songs for the MGM musical The Wizard of Oz. Harburg saw L. Frank Baum's story as a Depression era fantasy, and wrote the songs with Arlen so that they would be integrated into the story itself, something that was unprecedented for musical theatre and film at that time. In 1940 Harburg and Arlen won a "Best Original Song" Academy Award for "Over the Rainbow" (a song that won the "Most Performed Feature Film Standards on TV" ASCAP Award in 1986, was voted "top song of the 20th century" in 2001 by the Recording Industry Association of America, and declared "greatest film song of all time" by the American Film Institute in 2004). To write all the lyrics to the songs in what would become the single most watched cinematic musical of all time is a career achievement that nobody could ever top, but Harburg's success did not stop at the Emerald City.
In 1943, the songwriting duo penned the score for the film Cabin In The Sky, which featured the popular song "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe." This would be subject to an interesting interpretation by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the following decade. The Broadway musical Bloomer Girl in 1944 saw Harburg making another controversial political statement in his lyrics, as the show addressed the issues of abolition, women's rights, and the horrors of war. He followed this with the score for the movie musical Can't Help Singing, along with composer Jerome Kern, which included the title song, "Californ-i-ay," and "More and More". Before the year ended, he contributed to the controversial pro-Soviet film Song of Russia that featured the Harburg/Kern composition "And Russia is Her Name".
The McCarthy Era
After the war, Harburg wrote the lyrics for what is largely considered his masterwork, the 1947 Broadway musical Finian's Rainbow. Working with composer Burton Lane, the story deals with racism and prejudice, and is perhaps the finest expression of Harburg's liberal passion for social issues. The musical's score includes "Old Devil Moon", "Look To The Rainbow", "If This Isn't Love" and "Necessity". It hasn't seen a run on Broadway in over 40 years, but is widely performed to this day by many high school drama departments across the United States.
Unfortunately, post-WWII America was not a good time to be openly liberal or express socialist ideas, and in June of 1950 Harburg's name was printed in Red Channels, The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. Coupled with his affiliation with the Hollywood Democratic Committee, the film industry had the "evidence" they needed to blacklist Harburg, and the US Government revoked his Passport. He was no longer able to work in Hollywood, and returned to New York where he scored the musical Flahooley with composers Sammy Fain and Fred Saidy. A parody of the rabid anti-communist sentiment fueled by US Senator Joseph McCarthy and the witch hunts that characterized politics during that decade, the show was a flop. The story line was complicated and heavy-handed, but Harburg's being blacklisted didn't help.
Blacklisted or not, Harburg was determined to keep working. He wrote poetry and musicals throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with highlights including 1957's Jamaica with Arlen composing, and 1961's The Happiest Girl in the World to the music of Offenbach. He wrote the title song with Arlen for Judy Garland's final film, I Could Go On Singing in 1963, and collaborated with composer Jule Styne for 1968's Darling of the Day.
Yip Harburg truly fits the description of a Great American Songwriter, as he has put words to songs that have become threads of the very fabric of American culture. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972. He died in a road accident in Los Angeles, California at the age of 84. His son Ernie Harburg and writer Harold Meyerson published Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz?: Yip Harburg, lyricist in 1993, which the New York Times Book Review calls "... required reading for anyone interested in the great American songs."
On April 28, 2005, the United States Postal Service issued a 37¢ stamp honoring the master lyricist's lifetime of achievement and place in the pantheon of great Americans.
Thanks to Democracy Now! for their November 25, 2004 tribute to Yip Harburg: