Today's New Yorker Of the Day, Lyricist of "Over the Rainbow" and "Brother, Can You Spare and Dime."
Y. (Yip) Harburg (1896-1981), in a career spanning over fifty years, was known as “Broadway’s social conscience.” A master lyricist, poet and book writer, Yip was always dedicated to social justice. He wrote the words to over 600 songs, most notably all the lyrics in the 1939 motion picture classic “The Wizard of Oz,” including “Over the Rainbow” which was voted the Number 1 recording of the 20th century in a 2001 poll conducted by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Recording Industry Association of America. He was not without a sense of humor too.
Yip Harburg, the youngest of four surviving children (out of ten), was born Isidore Hochberg on the Lower East Side on April 8, 1896. His parents, Lewis Hochberg and Mary Ricing, were Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jews who had emigrated from Russia. He later adopted the name Edgar Harburg, and came to be best known as Edgar "Yip" Harburg. He attended Townsend Harris High School, where he and Ira Gershwin, who met over a shared fondness for Gilbert and Sullivan, worked on the school paper and became lifelong friends.
After World War I, Harburg returned to New York and graduated from City College which Ira Gershwin had initially attended with him, in 1921. After Harburg married and had two children, he started writing light verse for local newspapers. He became a co-owner of Consolidated Electrical Appliance Company, but the company went bankrupt following the crash of 1929, leaving Harburg "anywhere from $50,000 – $70,000 in debt," which he insisted on paying back over the course of the next few decades. At this point, Harburg and Ira Gershwin agreed that Harburg should start writing song lyrics.
On Broadway Yip began writing lyrics for multiple revues in the 1930s which included songs that became standards including “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” the classic anthem of the Depression (with composer Jay Gorney, 1932) and “April in Paris” (with Vernon Duke, 1932). He wrote lyrics for the satiric Life Begins at 8:40 (1934, with co-lyricist Ira Gershwin and music by Harold Arlen). He also conceived and wrote lyrics for book musicals with political and social themes, including Hooray for What! (1937, with an anti-war theme, music by Arlen) and Bloomer Girl (1944, feminist, anti-racist theme, music by Arlen).
He co-wrote the book (with Fred Saidy) and wrote the lyrics for Finian’s Rainbow (1947, music by Burton Lane) which won the Henderson and George Jean Nathan Awards for Best Musical Comedy; for Flahooley (1951, music by Sammy Fain), and for Jamaica, starring Lena Horne (1957, music by Arlen). He conceived the book and wrote the lyrics for The Happiest Girl in the World (1961, a musical version of Lysistrata, music by Jacques Offenbach). His last Broadway lyrics were for Darling of the Day (1968, music by Jule Styne).
In Hollywood, Yip Harburg wrote lyrics for numerous film musicals during the 1930’s and 1940’s. His most famous work was The Wizard of Oz (1939, with Arlen). In this classic, Yip conceived the integration of song and script, wrote the recitative for the Munchkin “operetta,” and wrote the lyrics to all the songs, including the Academy Award-winning “Over the Rainbow.”He was also the final script editor and made significant contributions to the dialogue.
In 1962 he and Arlen scored the animated feature Gay Purr-ee (now a video classic featuring the voice of Judy Garland). From 1951 to 1961 during the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations and the McCarthy hearings Yip was “blacklisted” for his political views from film, television and radio. Broadway, however, remained free from this kind of censorship.
Altogether, Yip wrote the lyrics to over 600 songs with a variety of composers. “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (1932, with Arlen), “Over the Rainbow” (1939, Arlen, which won the Academy Award), “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” and “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe” (1943, Arlen, from the film Cabin in the Sky). Later, with Lane, he wrote “Old Devil Moon” and “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”
The team of Arlen and Harburg also wrote Groucho Marx’s signature song, “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” (1939, from At the Circus). In 2006 Yip’s two volumes of satiric light verse, Rhymes for the Irreverent (1965) and At This Point in Rhyme (1976) were reissued together in one hardcover edition under the title Rhymes for the Irreverent by the Freedom from Religion Foundation in cooperation with the Yip Harburg Foundation. The foundation (activities currently suspended) has funding projects related to social and educational justice, educational scholarships and political documentary films.
Yip Harburg died on March 5, 1981 at 84 years young. Below are the lyrics to one of his songs. In the coronavirus crisis, the lyrics resonate in yet another way.
Song lyric: “The Silent Spring” (1963); Lyric by Yip Harburg. Music by Harold Arlen
This song inspired by and named after Rachel Carson’s landmark 1962 book about environmental degradation, was introduced by Lena Horne at a civil rights benefit concert at Carnegie Hall in October 1963; she subsequently recorded the song and it is included in the album “Here’s Lena Now!” (20th Century Fox Records).
Not a leaf is heard to murmur, Not a bird is there to sing, And bewild’ring eyes Scan the fearful skies, Asking “why” this strange and silent Spring?
Children hide and roses tremble, Doors are dark and shades are down, And the rains of hate Rust the garden gate, As the ghost of Spring stalks the town.
Is this the land where flags were flown, To bring this hopeful world a dream Of Spring unknown? Is this the dream? Is this the Spring? The silent Spring that silent men Have reaped and sown?
(sources: primary yipharburg.com and wikepedia (also photo of Harburg).