A Tribute to Blacklisted Lyricist Yip Harburg: The Man Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz

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Posted by Henry_
  10,973 25 Nov 2016, 1:48 pm

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November 25, 2016

His name might not be familiar to many, but his songs are sung by millions around the world. Today, we take a journey through the life and work of Yip Harburg, the Broadway lyricist who wrote such hits as "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" and who put the music into The Wizard of Oz. Born into poverty on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Harburg always included a strong social and political component to his work, fighting racism and poverty. A lifelong socialist, Harburg was blacklisted and hounded throughout much of his life. We speak with Harburg’s son, Ernie Harburg, about the music and politics of his father. Then we take an in-depth look at The Wizard of Oz, and hear a medley of Harburg’s Broadway songs and the politics of the times in which they were created.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN
:
Today, we pay tribute to Yip Harburg. His name may not be familiar to many, but his songs are sung by millions around the world, like jazz singer Abbey Lincoln and Tom Waits, Judy Collins, and Dr. John from New Orleans, Peter Yarrow, that’s Al Jolson, and our beloved Odetta.

"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" may well be a new anthem for many Americans. The lyrics to that classic American song were written by Yip Harburg. He was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. During his career as a lyricist, Yip Harburg used his words to express anti-racist, pro-worker messages. He’s best known for writing the lyrics to The Wizard of Oz, but he also had two hits on Broadway: Bloomer Girls, about the women’s suffrage movement, and Finian’s Rainbow, a kind of immigrants’ anthem about race and class and so much else.

Today, in this Democracy Now! special, we pay tribute to Yip Harburg’s life. Ernie Harburg is Yip’s son and biographer. He co-wrote the book Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz?: Yip Harburg, Lyricist. I met up with Ernie Harburg at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts at Lincoln Center years ago when they are exhibiting Yip Harburg’s work. Ernie Harburg took me on a tour.
ERNIE HARBURG
:
The first place is business about words, and one of them is that the songs, when they were written back in those days, anyhow, always had a lyricist and a composer, and neither one of them wrote the song. They both wrote the song. However, in the English language, you know, you have "This is Gershwin’s song," or "This is" — they usually say the composer’s song. I’ve rarely ever heard somebody say, "This is Yip Harburg’s song" or "Ira Gershwin’s song." Both of them would be wrong. The fact is, two people write a song.

So I’m going to talk about Yip’s lyrics and then lyrics in the song. Now the first thing we’re looking at here is an expression really of Yip’s philosophy and background, which he brings to writing lyrics for the songs. And what it says here is that songs have always been man’s anodyne against tyranny and terror. The artist is on the side of humanity from the time that he was born a hundred years ago in the dire depths of poverty that only the Lower East Side in Manhattan could have when the Russian Jews, about two million of them, got up out of the Russian’s shadows and ghettos, and the courageous ones came over here and settled in that area of what we now know as the East Village. And Yip knew poverty deeply, and he quoted Bernard Shaw as saying that the chill of poverty never leaves your bones. And it was the basis of Yip’s understanding of life as struggle.

AMY
GOODMAN
:
Let’s go back to how Yip got his start.

ERNIE
HARBURG
:
Yip was, at a very early age, interested in poetry, and he used to go to the Tompkins Square Library to read, and the librarians just fed him these things. And he got hooked on every one of the English poets, and especially O. Henry, the ending. He always has a little great ending on the end of each of his songs. And he got hooked on W.S. Gilbert, The Bab Ballads.

And then, when he went to Townsend High School, they had them sitting in the seats by alphabetical order, so Yip was "H" and Gershwin was "G", so Ira sat next to Yip. One day, Yip walked in with The Bab Ballads, and Ira, who was very shy and hardly spoke with anybody, just suddenly lit up and said, "Do you like those?" And they got into a conversation, and Ira then said, "Do you know there’s music to that?" And Yip said, "No." He said, "Well, come on home."

So they went to Ira’s home, which was on 2nd Avenue and 5th Street which is sort of upper from Yip’s poverty at 11th and C. And they had a Victrola, which is like having, you know, huge instruments today, and played him H.M.S. Pinafore. Well, Yip was just absolutely flabbergasted, knocked out. And that did it. I mean, for the both of them, because Ira was intensely interested that thing, too.

That began their lifelong friendship. Then Ira went on to be one of the pioneers, with 25 other guys, Jewish Russian immigrants, who developed the American Musical Theater. And it was only after — in 1924, I think, that Ira’s first show with George Gershwin, his brother, that they started writing together.

AMY
GOODMAN
:
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess in 1940.

ERNIE
HARBURG
:
Yip’s career took a kind of detour, because when the war, World War I, came and Yip was a socialist and did not believe in the war, he took a boat down to Uruguay for three years. I mean, he refused to fight in the thing. That’s shades of 1968 and the Vietnam War, right?

AMY
GOODMAN
:
And why didn’t he believe in World War I?

ERNIE
HARBURG
:
Because he was a full, deep-dyed socialist who did not believe that capitalism was the answer to the human community and that indeed it was the destruction of the human spirit. And he would not fight its wars. And at that time, the socialists and the lefties, as they were called, Bolsheviks and everything else, were against the war.

And so, when he came back, he got married, he had two kids, and he went into the electrical appliance business, and all the time hanging out with Ira and George and Howard Dietz and Buddy De Sylva and writing light verse for the F.P.A Conning Tower. And the newspapers used to carry light verse, every newspaper. There were about twenty-five of them at that time, not two or three now owned by two people in the world, you know. And they actually carried light verse. Well, Yip and Ira and Dorothy Parker, the whole crowd, had light verse in there, and, you know, they loved it.

So, when the Crash came and Yip’s business went under, and he was about anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000 in debt, his partner went bankrupt. He didn’t. He repaid the loans for the next 20 or 15 years, at least. Ira and he agreed that he should start writing lyrics.

AMY
GOODMAN
:
Let’s talk about what Yip is most known for: Finian’s Rainbow, The Wizard of Oz. Right here, what do we have in front of us?

ERNIE
HARBURG
:
We have a lead sheet. We are in the gallery of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and there’s an exhibition called "The Necessity of Rainbows," which is the work of Yip Harburg. And we are looking at the lead sheet of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" which came from a review called Americana, which—it was the first review, which was—had a political theme to it: at that time, the notion of the forgotten man. You have to remember what the Great Depression was all about. It’s hard to imagine that now. But when Roosevelt said, "One-third of the nation are ill-clothed, ill-housed and ill-fed," that’s exactly what it was. There was at least 30 percent unemployment at those times. And among blacks and minorities, it was 50, 60 percent. And there were breadlines and—

Now, the rich, you know, kept living their lifestyle, but Broadway was reduced to about 12 musicals a year from prior, in the '20s, about 50 a year, OK? So it became harder. But the Great Depression was deep down a fact of life in everybody's mind. And all the songs were censored—I use that loosely—by the music publishers. They only wanted love songs or escape songs, so that in 1929 you had "Happy Days Are Here Again," and you had all of these kinds of songs. There wasn’t one song that addressed the Depression, in which we were all living. And this show, the Americana show, Yip was asked to write a song or get the lyrics up for a song which addressed itself to the breadlines, OK?

And so, he, at that time, was working very closely with Jay Gorney. Jay had a tune, which he had brought over with him when he was eight years old from Russia, and it was in a minor key, which is a whole different key. Most popular songs are in major. And it was a Russian lullaby, and it was da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da. And Jay had — somebody else had lyrics for it: "Once I knew a big blonde, and she had big blue eyes. She was big blue" — like that. And it was a torch song, of which we talked about. And Yip said, "Well, could we throw the words out, and I’ll take the tune?" Alright.

And if you look at Yip’s notes, which are in the book that I mentioned, you’ll see he started out writing a very satiric comedic song. At that time, Rockefeller, the ancient one, was going around giving out dimes to people, and he had a—Yip had a satiric thing about "Can I share my dime with you?" You know? But then, right in the middle, other images started coming out in his writings, and you had a man in a mill, and the whole thing turned into the song that we know it now, which is here and which I can read to you. And if you do this song, you have to do the verse, because that’s where a lot of the action is.

AMY
GOODMAN
:
Can you sing it to me?

ERNIE
HARBURG
:
Alright, I’ll try. It won’t be as good as Bing Crosby or Tom Waits.

https://www.democracynow.org/2016/11/25 ... ricist_yip

* One of my favorite versions of the song, violinist: Papa John Creach "Over the Rainbow"



https://youtu.be/7mua_DNvFwQ?t=103
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