Who Was Yip Harburg? Originally Published May 29-30, 2020.

May is Jewish American Heritage Month!  Edgar Y. “Yip” Harburg (he liked to say his middle name was “Yipsel,” but folks were dubious) was born Isidore Hochberg on April 8, 1896, to Lewis Hochberg and Mary Ricing, from Russia, on New York’s Lower East Side.  We lost him to a car accident on March 5, 1981.  E. Y. Harburg’s name remains on many songs that we all know and still sing.  And he is a relative of our Interim Executive Director Ken Turkewitz’ wife Carol.

Known for the social currency of his lyrics, and for pushing the boundaries, Mr. Harburg attended Townsend Harris High School, where he and Ira Gershwin shared their fondness for Gilbert & Sullivan and wrote for the school newspaper.  They became lifelong friends.   He graduated from City College in 1921, married, they had two children, and he became co-owner of Consolidated Electrical Appliance Company, which threw him into huge debt in the 1929 crash.  He would pay back the debt over the next few decades.  He had been writing light verse for the local papers, and Ira Gershwin convinced him he should start penning lyrics.  Gershwin introduced him to composer Jay Gorney, and after their collaboration on Earl Carroll’s Sketchbook, a Broadway revue produced by the popular Earl Carroll, Mr. Harburg composed for a series of such revues, including Americana in 1932, which included the song “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” (one of your correspondent’s favorites, and one Rabbi Adelson enjoys singing as well), composed with Mr. Gorney.  That song became a hit as America faced the Great Depression; it expressed the sentiment of the time.  Mr. Harburg would later quip, “I left the fantasy of business for the harsh reality of musical theatre.”

Messrs. Harburg and Gorney soon went to Hollywood for contracts with Paramount, where Yip was paired with composers Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Burton Lane, Jerome Kern, and Jule Styne.  He shared with Harold Arlen the 1940 Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song, for “Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz.  Yes, we can sing many of his songs!  His son reported that he also contributed many of the dialogue segues.

Mr. Harburg was a renegade, a proponent of equal rights 80 years ago, and was a Democratic Socialist.  That sort of Socialism – though it had been put forth successfully by President Franklin Roosevelt, possibly with the help of Mr. Harburg’s song – got him blacklisted as a Communist during Joseph McCarthy’s HUAC hearings.  In 1950, he wrote to the Committee “As the writer of the lyric of the song ‘God’s Country,’ I am outraged by the suggestion that somehow I am connected with, believe in, or am sympathetic with Communist or totalitarian philosophy.”  His passport was revoked; his work prospects disappeared.  In 1951 he opened the musical Flahooley with score by Sammy Fain, satirizing the anti-communist sentiment.  It closed after forty performances.  (Perhaps we should revive it?)

His work had been anti-war, feminist, and anti-racist, including the musicals Hooray for What!, Bloomer Girl, Finian’s Rainbow (he cowrote that book with Fred Saidy), and Jamaica (with Mr. Arlen, starring Lena Horne, who had appeared in Cabin In the Sky by Arlen and Harburg, the first all-black musical to be adapted into a movie). 

Mr. Harburg and Earl Robinson wrote the song “Hurry Sundown” in 1966 for the film of the same name.  It didn’t get into the film but Peter, Paul & Mary recorded it and it made the 1967 Billboard charts.  He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972.  He also wrote:  “Riddle Me This,” “April in Paris,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Then I’ll Be Tired of You,” “Last Night When We were Young,” “Down with Love,” “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” “The Free and Equal Blues,” “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich,” “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” and “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” among numerous others (nearly 600) from his shows and films.  He also authored two books, Rhymes for the Irreverent (1965) and At This Point in Rhyme (1976). 

There is a YipHarburg.com, and a Yip Harburg Lyrics Foundation, supporting works of social justice, equality, and freedom as promoted by musical theatre.  About his first hit during the Depression, Mr. Harburg would tell Morley Safer of 60 Minutes in 1978, “I didn’t want to write a song that depressed people; I wanted to write a song that made people think.”  He has also been quoted, “All the heroes of tomorrow are the heretics of today.”