E.Y. (Yip) Harburg’s parents were immigrants in 1890, who worked in the sweatshops of the Lower East Side in New York, where Yip was the ninth of ten children (six died in childbirth). Yip was raised in a Calcutta-like density of Jewish migrants, all fleeing from the Russian Tsar’s 1880’s pogroms against Jews, all in dire poverty. He inherited his humor and politics, in the face of struggle and fantasy, from a loving, literate and socialist father and his courage from a stern Jewish mother. He spent a great deal of time in the Tompkins Square Library, reading and writing poetry—studying the works of Wordsworth, O. Henry, W.S. Gilbert–and later, at a free City College, reading Karl Marx and G.B. Shaw. His passion for the American dream of a free and equal and socially just society became his deepest life purpose.
His lifelong friends, Ira and George Gershwin (also the children of immigrants), with a few dozen other artists together in the early 1900s, helped launch a new world cultural art form—the American musical theater. After the 1929 stock market crash destroyed his electrical appliance business, Yip schooled himself with the help of Ira Gershwin and Jay Gorney to become a lyricist.
Yip’s first iconic lyric came from a failed musical revue, Americana, in the nadir of the Great Depression. The song’s title was “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” which swept not only our entire country, but also the world of nations in 1932, and still survives into the 21st century around the world. The lyrics speak eloquently of the human cost of capitalism. The great music by Jay Gorney (a fellow Russian migrant) enfolded Yip’s lyrics as a chemical fusion. The “Dime” song has been sung through the 80-plus years since its introduction by Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee, then later by Judy Collins, Abbey Lincoln, Odetta, and Tom Waits. The song achieved international popularity. It still speaks not only for Americans, but also for residents of other capitalist countries.
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime (excerpt; lyrics by E.Y. Harburg; music by Jay Gorney)
They used to tell me I was building a dream
And so I followed the mob.
Where there was earth to plow or guns to bear
I was always there, right there on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream
With peace and glory ahead
Why should I be standing in line
Just waiting for bread?
In his second inaugural address delivered on January 20, 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “I see one third of a nation ill housed, ill clad, ill nourished.” In fact, the job-loss rate was about one third, and it was as certain then as it is today that black unemployment was more than double the white. The Great Depression lasted until the beginning of World War II (1941).
It is difficult to imagine how anyone in this world could not have some sense of what social, cultural and economic oppression feels like. And, it isn’t surprising that Yip Harburg, born in 1896 and raised in poverty, had an affinity for the earthy, bluesy urban sounds flowing from both the clubs and theaters. He and composer Harold Arlen, who had been a composer for many Cotton Club revues in Harlem, naturally gravitated toward one another.
Yip’s fortunes and accomplishments rose in 1938, when he and his collaborator, Harold Arlen, were selected to write the songs for the musical film, entitled The Wizard of Oz.
When I was twelve years old, I sat with my parents and two younger brothers and watched a television showing of the 1939 MGM epic film, The Wizard of Oz, along with an ever-growing population of Americans. By that time, I had acquired the requisite studied indifference to anything as frivolous as a song and dance children’s tale. That adolescent posture was irrevocably altered, as I became mesmerized, not only by the song and dance of “Oz,” but indeed by the words, the lyrics, and by how the spectacle itself spoke directly, not only to me but to everything I was beginning to understand about the world in general. There, in our humble living room, my family was laughing, singing, and being filled with optimism.
Years later, I realized that an important part of what we had witnessed was the well-orchestrated, well-directed, and well-produced words of a man who understood the rhythms, sounds, and music underlying humanity. Based on L. Frank Baum’s novel, “Oz” is widely considered a political allegory in the guise of a children’s fairy tale; a social commentary cloaked in fantasy. Here was a poet who could bring out laughter, love, and spirit in all of us, no matter what our struggle in life was. The fantasy of “Oz” appealed to the adult in all children and the child in all adults: Yip’s and Harold’s songs reached us.
Writing in 1900, Baum was probably reacting to the demise of the populist movement of the previous decade. Characters became representative: the Scarecrow (farmers), the Tin Man (industrial workers), and the Cowardly Lion (ineffective leaders of the Populist Party, whose logo was a Lion). Together with Dorothy and Toto, these characters bond to overcome the Wicked
Witches (financial interests). After navigating the perilous yellow brick road to the Emerald City, they confront the Wizard (federal government, corporate lobbyists, etc.) and timidly assert the will of the people.
The unforgettable Munchkinland operetta isn’t just a sequence of the speeches of mayors, council members, union leaders, heads of ladies auxiliaries, coroners, and soldiers. “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead!” is a celebratory anthem of a community’s victory over Evil—a universal cry against all tyranny.
The film’s signature song, “Over the Rainbow” almost didn’t make it into the film’s final cut, because some producers and executives claimed it was too complicated to sing. Nonetheless, “Rainbow” became the iconic ballad which inspires us on an emotional level, merging childlike yearnings and adult realities.
Over the Rainbow (excerpt; lyrics by E.Y. Harburg; music by Harold Arlen)
And the dreams
That you dare to dream
Really do come true….
If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh, why can’t I?
As both a children’s popular classic and grown-up hit melody, “Over The Rainbow” has probably been sung by more vocalists than any other song of its kind. Bing Crosby, Patti LaBelle, Barbara Streisand, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Bennett, Eva Cassidy, and Ray Charles have each lent their interpretations to this tune that gives us all a sense of hope in harsh times.
Years later, Yip and Harold collaborated on the first-ever Hollywood all-black musical film for general audiences, “Cabin in the Sky” (1943), which featured black artists who had been barred from mainstream cinema in the 1930s. Appearing during the Second World War, when the US government was somewhat encouraging Hollywood moguls to participate in racial unity, this film hit, directed by Vincente Minnelli (later to be deemed a master of the film musical), showcased no less than Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, John Bubbles, not to mention the extended cameos of the legends, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
When approached to write the lyrics for a film adaption of the 1940 Broadway musical written by poet John Latouche and composer Vernon Duke, Yip would later reveal that he didn’t think there were enough “Southern” songs to work with. Translation: it wasn’t real enough. Ethel Waters once called Arlen the “the Negro-est white man I’ve ever known.” What she undoubtedly was implying is that the composer understood, on some level, creatively and spiritually, how black people were feeling at the time. “Arlen’s hallmark is his synthesis of Negro rhythms and Hebraic melodies,” as Yip once put it. “They make a terrific combination, a fresh chemical reaction.” The song “Li’l Black Sheep” from the show, for example, somehow manages to capture the traditional timber and vibrancy of black gospel music, as it merges music, song, and shout.
Harburg’s early sensitivity to feminism, the anti-slavery movement, and the anti-war message resonates with me, as the proud son of parents of African and West Indian heritage, who worked at just about every sort of job available to put themselves through college. Written with composer Harold Arlen during World War II, “Bloomer Girl” (1944) is a fascinating theatrical story that showcases the struggles of both African American slaves and women in pre-Civil War days. Amelia Bloomer was a woman’s suffrage advocate, a contemporary of Susan B. Anthony, who advocated that women wear pants instead of cumbersome hoopskirts as a form of protest against their unequal treatment.
According to Yip, “The hoopskirt was an abominable torture chamber for women. Most weighed 50-75 pounds. For the sake of style, most women were victims. Amelia, knowing that women of the time were weary of liberation talk, said: “Get rid of those heavy hoopskirts, wear bloomers like men, let’s get pants and be equal.” The spark that lit the candle for this play originated from the work of Lilith and Dan James, both active in Hollywood radical circles at the time. Lilith rightly saw hoopskirts as just another ridiculous way of keeping women in their place. When “Bloomer Girl” was written, blacks were migrating north and west into an evolving industrial work force, and women were abandoning their aprons and seeking jobs as well. “…We were trying to deal with the inherent fear of change to show that whenever a new idea or a new change in society arises, there’ll always be a majority that will fight you, call you a dirty radical or a red,” said Yip. He also asserted that this was the first time on Broadway that feminist characters helped change the values of a slave-owning man to a belief in freedom for all, inclusive of blacks and women.
In mock Southern-style, “Bloomer Girl” is about the efforts of Amelia Bloomer (renamed Dolly) and how her efforts affected their pre-Civil War family, including her brother-in-law, hoopskirt entrepreneur Horace Applegate, and his outspoken daughter, Evelina, the youngest and only remaining unmarried Applegate. Horace pushes his chief Southern salesman, Jefferson Calhoun, to court Evelina. The day before the Civil War starts, Evelina is politely instructing Jefferson on the subject of gender and racial equality. The situation gets more involved as Evelina, Dolly, and other feminists conceal Jefferson’s runaway slave/manservant, Pompey.
These plot machinations, rooted in social justice, became trademark Harburg, especially in terms of lyrics and book. Arlen’s special affinity for black music and Yip’s lifelong aversion to racial injustice were expressed well in this very successful Broadway musical. The context in which this play came about is fascinating, in that Roosevelt had ordered defense work to be integrated, perhaps in response to African-American leader, A. Phillip Randolph’s threat to organize a civil rights march on Washington. Blacks were entering factories, and some unions had fought the change with blood on their hands. Though the women’s movement was less established in that era, Harburg’s daring words and the power behind the entire production added to these leaders’ growing movement perhaps 20 years ahead of its time. “It was a show about the indivisibility of human freedom,” Yip asserted.
Among the songs that resonate for me from the production is yet another unique tribute to the Harburg legacy, “The Eagle and Me,” sung by the play’s winning character, Pompey, and the song is considered to be the first theater ballad that explicitly relates to the civil rights movement. Before this, there had certainly been more than enough of what were sometimes called “black plight songs,” such as “Ole’ Man River” and “Summertime,” which both feel more like passive acceptance of inferior circumstances, rather than as assertions of a firm desire to be free.
The Eagle and Me (excerpts; lyrics by E.Y. Harburg; music by Harold Arlen)
What makes the gopher leave his hole?
Trembling with fear and fright
Maybe the gopher’s got a soul
Wantin’ to see the light….
…Free as the sun is free
That’s how it’s gotta be
Whatever is right for bumble bee
And river and eagle
Is right for me
We gotta be free
The eagle and me.
According to Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg,
In the autumn of 1944, as one of the founders of the Hollywood Democratic Committee, Yip Harburg had been active in enlisting figures in the entertainment industry to promote Roosevelt’s presidential candidacy, and the election eve broadcast was to be the culmination of his efforts….
Yip’s most notable contribution to the broadcast was a song of a somewhat different nature than any he had worked on before. It was called “Free and Equal Blues,” and he had written it earlier that year with folk-song composer Earl Robinson. Robinson was a Seattle-born composer, who, upon graduating college in 1933, moved to New York, where he joined the Communist Party and became music director of the Workers’ Theater (which was absorbed into the Federal Theater Project in 1935).
The musical, “Finian’s Rainbow” (1947), is pure magic and notably one of Harburg’s most cherished theater achievements, as it is a fable that draws the audience into human truths that cannot be denied. Often described as a work of socialist review in the form of the American musical, it also remains a novelty in American popular culture in the way it uniquely pounces on racism, and wealth and class inequities in the world.
Yip was incensed by the violence aimed at the black equality movement during those war years, particularly the racism uttered every day in Congress by Mississippi’s Senator Theodore Bilbo and Representative John Rankin. Aware of a post-WWII climate, which caused investors to shun so-called “political musicals,” Yip decided to deal with this controversial subject on stage by having a prototype of one of the legislators turn black through a wish and forcing him to live under the conditions of Jim Crow laws. “I was making a point to every white person: Look—we use the word reincarnation. You might come back as a black, and here’s how you’ll be treated if you do,” warned Yip. With characters such as an Irish leprechaun, a union organizer, some bi-racial sharecroppers and white male gold-diggers, he also gets a few other choice messages across to audiences, such as: racism is partly motivated by greed, and the search for gold rarely ends in happiness. Cleverly embedded in this play is also the song “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich,” which articulates how society perceives a person’s problems differently based on economic and social status or class supremacy.
When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich (excerpt; lyrics by E. Y. Harburg; music by Burton Lane)
When a rich man loses on a horse,
Isn’t he the sport?
Chorus: Oh, isn’t he the sport?
But when a poor man loses on a horse,
He’s a gambler, he’s a spender,
He’s a lowlife, he’s a reason for divorce.
“Finian’s Rainbow” was not lost on black audiences or critics either, perhaps largely because it also represented a Broadway breakthrough by mixing black and white performers on stage, something Yip had long fought for. One critic appraised Yip’s satirical approach to the antiracist theme: “Prejudice is brought to trial at the bar of laughter…. In ‘Finian’s Rainbow,’ the fantasy is closer to the heart of reality than to the allegedly realistic plays that create a fantastic distortion of life and its values.”
Harburg Weathers the Storm of Social Unrest
Harburg was not a Communist and had no interest in overthrowing the American government, by any means, certainly, not through violence. But he did have some friends whose ideologies were more left than even his own. So, he was targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), because he refused to “name the names” of alleged Communist sympathizers for the Committee. During this oppressive witch hunt, Yip’s creative output did not suffer as much as that of the members of his potential audiences. He was blacklisted, an ironic slur, from working in films, television and radio. But the “powers that be” at the time took exception not only to his willfulness as a lyricist, but more specifically to his authoring a campaign song for 1948 presidential candidate, Henry Wallace, with composer Milton Ager and script-writer Paul Robeson, while Robeson chaired the Madison Square Garden rally before the general election. Wallace’s unsuccessful run as a Progressive Party candidate in 1948 was with Idaho Democratic U.S. Senator Glen H. Taylor as his running mate, a man who advocated for universal government health insurance, an end to the nascent Cold War, full voting rights for black Americans, and an end to segregation. Wallace’s campaign included African American candidates’ campaigning alongside white candidates in the segregated South, and he also refused to appear before segregated audiences or to eat or reside in segregated establishments.
Yip Harburg had courage of his own and a saving grace that spared his being banned from working in the Broadway Theater. Yip noted, on being banned from work in film, TV, and radio, that Broadway was the only free industry left in America…. Yip had guts. It didn’t hurt that there were still lingering rave reviews of his past work, which helped him maintain a level of respect on Broadway. “Bloomer Girl,” (a project he originated, directed and lyricized), had been an unquestionable hit, as had the more idiosyncratic “Finian’s Rainbow,” in which he conceived the book and the lyrics (and which was made into a film in 1968, and survives as a DVD and as a perennial regional production in the Czech Republic).
Yip’s next recognized collaborative effort with Fred Saidy, “Flahooley” (1951), came out of Yip’s determination to show how our economy works, “…that we cannot afford to lose the profit system if it means giving people everything they want.” The setting was in the toy factory of B.G. Bigelow, whose toy designer, Sylvester Cloud, spawns a new Christmas doll named “Flahooley,” who lets out an infectious laugh.
Bigelow authorizes mass production of this sure-seller doll just in time for the Christmas rush and then is visited by State Department officials, along with three Saudi Arabian emissaries. One of them bears an ancient magic lamp, which seems to have lost its magic. “Toycoon” Bigelow is more preoccupied with his competitor, who has managed to come up with a cheaper knock-off of the doll, and is also secretly owned by Bigelow! Bigelow fears closure of his factory, but Cloud shows up, rubs the lamp, and a genie named Abou pops out, who agrees to make as many of the “Flahoohey” dolls as the market will bear. For a while, business is booming, until the glut of over-production works against Bigelow. The local community starts destroying the dolls, then turns on Abou, who has been targeted by federal authorities as a “commie.” He and the original doll flee the scene.
The show concludes with the song, “Sing the Merry,” what might still be considered an indictment against holiday commercial exploitation. The last stanza was dropped from the song and the entire song was omitted from the original cast album:
Maybe partly because it satirized the consequences of overproduction and mass consumption and mentioned a few stores by name, the show itself was neither a great critical nor commercial success, its first run closing after 48 performances, but its social significance, as well as its appeal to young people, has been lasting. “It [‘Flahooley’] came at a very bad time,” Yip reflected. “They thought this was a dangerous anti-capitalistic show and anything that anti-capitalistic is unpatriotic.” The witch hunt of HUAC, now taken up by Senator Joe McCarthy, intensified the extremes of fear and paranoia about “Communist spying” that had been gripping the nation, and the blacklist era began.
Yip Harburg was fortunate enough to have earned some royalties from songs and shows, as well as having investments, but many of his colleagues who had also been banned from working were not as fortunate; a few of them actually left the country or committed suicide. Yet, Yip also faced unimaginable obstacles in trying to pursue a craft that was his life and blood for more than ten years. Almost all of his prospects for film work were blacklisted, including the Judy Garland picture, “A Star is Born,” and a cartoon feature adaptation of “Finian’s Rainbow.” When recruited with Harold Arlen in 1956 to work on the music for a movie about Nellie Bly, the pioneering female journalist nationally known for reporting on workplace conditions and government corruption and her brave undercover assignments, Harburg recalled meeting with the head of the International Alliance for Theatrical Stage Employees to discuss being un-blacklisted. They apparently had a file on him “thicker than all my works” and wanted to know whether or not the “Joe” in the hit song “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” from “Cabin in the Sky” referred to Joe Stalin. In true form, Harburg burst out laughing, which didn’t go over well, needless to say.
Yet, throughout all these ordeals, Yip Harburg trooped forward, continuing to challenge the inequities in our culture. Nothing that happened to him would ever beat the soul out of him. By 1957, he had created an engaging attack on colonialism and commercial culture in “Pigeon Island,” later to become “Jamaica” (1957), a musical centered on the theatrical template of an island fisherman, Koli, whose girlfriend Savannah longs for an urban existence. A rival suitor from Harlem, Joe Nashua, arrives and shakes the island’s tranquility by convincing the other fishermen to dive for pearls, a more profitable venture. Greed sets in and a mushroom cloud appears over the horizon that frightens most of the islanders, except maybe Savannah’s sage grandmother. Suddenly, the Jamaicans re-appreciate their native land, and especially the fish that feed them and the beautiful nature that surrounds them. Savannah chooses Koli over Joe, and the ominous “nuclear” clouds fade away. One of the songs in the musical, “Leave the Atom Alone” especially discomfited a few critics as “inappropriate” for the Establishment effort to defend America.
Harburg’s suave social commentary reminds us of the shallowness of being caught up in financial gain, particularly in the lyrics of “Hooray for the Yankee Dollar,” which illustrate the insidious effects of American tourism as well as the effect that the almighty dollar has on the human psyche.
Hooray for the Yankee Dollar (excerpt; lyrics by E.Y. Harburg; music by Harold Arlen)
Hooray for de Yankee dollar….
Jackson, Lincoln, George Washington,
Sons of Liberty,
Brought de Yankee dollar ’round
To make us free.
In 1961, Harburg wrote the lyrics for “The Happiest Girl in the World,” whose title and promotion might have disguised the fact that it was essentially an anti-war and pro-feminist show which predated Vietnam and the women’s movement of the late sixties. According to “Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz,” by Harold Meyerson and Yip’s son, Ernie, Harburg didn’t let the sixties pass him by. He published two books of political verse: “Rhymes for the Irreverent” (1965) and “At This Point in Rhyme” (1976).
When nuclear dust has extinguished their betters,
Will the turtles surviving wear people-neck sweaters?
Yip was involved with many left-wing movements, rallies, and civil rights, environmental, and anti-war demonstrations. After the publication of Rachel Carson’s bestselling book “The Silent Spring,” which deals with the destruction of the environment, Harburg and Harold Arlen wrote a song in 1963 with the same title, only it dealt with the social environment (e.g., “the rains of hate”), the year of the John F. Kennedy and Medgar Evans assassinations, a song that Lena Horne recorded. It ends with these words:
The Silent Spring (excerpt; lyrics by E.Y. Harburg; music by Harold Arlen)
Silent men, take heart, take wing,
And sing away this silent Spring.
When approached by Earl Robinson to help work on a title folk song for the Otto Preminger film, “Hurry Sundown,” Yip wrote:
Hurry Sundown (excerpt; lyrics by E.Y. Harburg; music by Earl Robinson)
Hurry down sundown
Take this old day
Wrap it in new dreams
Send it my way….
Preminger never used the song; however, Milt Okun, publisher and arranger for Peter, Paul & Mary, did, and it became the only song of Yip Harburg’s that made the charts in the 1960s.
The times were a-changing, and the latter 60s and 70s might have left Harburg a little bewildered. Speaking to Studs Terkel once about the onslaught of new songs from the sixties, he said “The new songs are anti-grammatical, and anti-poetical. They are tasteless and unmelodic.” He could easily have been talking about many of the songs in our present day. Though he admired some of the new songwriters and lyricists arriving on the theater scene, including Stephen Sondheim and Sheldon Harnick, he also must have longed for the process of creation that had worked so well for him and the composers with whom he had collaborated. In an unpublished essay called “The Young Composers,” he mused, “I suspect that much of the difference springs from the way in which shows are written today, much from the lack of great composers to challenge the lyricists to write greatly, and much from the climate of the times…. A great song requires a great composer.” And, we add, a great lyricist is also required.
From Yip, who preferred to write lyrics to music rather than the reverse, these observations come as no surprise. Nonetheless, up until his eighties, he kept his edgy sense of humor and was a mentor to countless writers and singers. In 1981, he and other Broadway writers helped start up the Musical Theatre Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, founded by Deena Rosenberg, which remains one of the few university-based programs where authors and composers can collaborate to create musical plays.
On the day of his death from a heart attack in 1981, Yip was on his way to a story conference for a film version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” Here was a man who was both in his time and way ahead of his time. A man who could mix tears with laughter and could change the way you saw life and the people around you. “We’ve had all the fine miracle revolutions the world could possibly dream of,” he wrote. “But we have not yet learned how to curb our egos, how to think honestly, without the primitive emotions of greed, power or hostility getting in our way.”
Stephen Holden tells us how Yip kept the faith, a skeptic who dared to dream:
When E.Y. (“Yip”) Harburg died in 1981, America lost a song lyricist whose mixture of compassion, humor, conscience, and craft were well ahead of their time. The man who wrote the words for “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and “Over the Rainbow” was a social realist who believed in a better world, a romantic who saw through his own illusions, a man of the people who was a master of the sophisticated bon mot, a skeptic who had faith. If these qualities seem contradictory, they were reconciled in Harburg’s lyrics by an expansive sense of humor and an unshakable faith in human nature. If Harburg could accept a paper moon in a cardboard sky and still believe in love, he reasoned, so could everyone else. Life might indeed be a joke, but it was still a delicious one.
Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg. Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz? Yip Harburg, Lyricist. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993, 213-215.
Stephen Holden. Introduction to The Yip Harburg Songbook. CPP-Belwin,1994. Reissue: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2009.