April 8, 1896 –Edgar Yipsel “Yip” Harburg:
“If Happy Little Bluebirds Fly Beyond the Rainbow, Why, Oh, Why Can’t I? “
Yip Harburg was a powerful, extraordinarily gifted lyricist. If you have not heard of him, you have heard his words. He is responsible for the lyrics to one of the most famous songs of all time.
Most of his success came from music for the movies. Few of Harburg’s Broadway shows met with commercial success. His biggest hit, Finian’s Rainbow, is considered in the second rank by most Musical Theatre fanatics, and I know a few. His other shows are mostly forgotten.
Harburg was born on Manhattans’s lower side. Like so many songwriters, he was the son of immigrants. From childhood, he was known as “Yip”, short for Yipsel, which he gave as his middle name although he said he acquired it as a boy on the East Side. Originally, he said, he was known as Yitsel, which became Yipsel, meaning the squirrel, because of the speed with which he scampered around.
As a boy, Harburg frequented the Yiddish theater, Vaudeville houses, Broadway shows. When he finished school, his chum, Ira Gershwin, introduced him around to composers just starting off in the biz that might need a lyricist.
He literally turned his fate on a dime when wrote the lyrics to Brother Can You Spare A Dime? for songwriter Jay Gorney in 1931. A true anthem of the Great Depression, it speaks to everyone who has ever gone after the American dream, failed, and then looked for economic and spiritual uplifting. The song helped to push forward Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s New Deal.
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?
Harburg wrote politically charged lyrics for many socially conscious works: Hooray For What? (1937) is an anti-war musical; Cabin In The Sky (1943) with music by Harold Arlen, was the first all-black musical to be adapted to a film; Bloomer Girl (1947), again with Arlen, was about slavery and women’s suffrage. Finian’s Rainbow (1947), written with Burton Lane, scrutinized racism in the USA and was one of the first musicals to have an integrated cast. Jamaica (1958) with Arlen, spoke out against colonialism, commercial culture and the threat of nuclear war.
Even though Harburg was not a Communist, but a Socialist, he was still targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and blacklisted from working in films, television, and radio in 1950 because he refused to name names. He was unable to find work for a decade.
“I didn’t mind. I think I’m a rebel by birth. I contest anything that is unjust, that causes suffering for humanity. My feeling about that is so great that I don’t think I could live with myself if I weren’t honest.
I’ve always been aware of the idiocy of the whole Establishment and the system. I’ve always thought that the way to educate, to teach, the way to live without being miserable, even though you’re surrounded by misery, was to laugh at the things that made you miserable. I’m stirred and my juices start flowing more when I can tackle a problem that has profundity, depth and real danger by destroying it with laughter.“
Harburg’s lyrics are often about the working poor, disenfranchised, oppressed and weary. Yet, everything I have read about him emphasizes that he was full of smiles, whimsy and optimism. He advocated that all people should be guaranteed basic human rights, social and political equality, free education, economic opportunity, and universal health care during an era when such ideas were not part of the popular discussion.
For Finian’s Rainbow in 1947, for which he wrote the book in addition to the lyrics, Harburg satirized an economic system dependent on keeping gold reserves buried in the ground. He created the character of a racist Southern senator who suddenly turns black.
“I fought on the Rooseveltian, Darwinian and Freudian side of life. I try to make my songs put these ideas in an entertaining way. I’m trying to find out why I’m alive, why I’m writing songs and why my songs had this commentary of the social system. They were always mistaken for anti-Establishment, Socialism, Communism and all the other ‘isms’.“
Love songs, of course, were an important part of a songwriter’s catalog, but Harburg’s love songs have a roundabout quality. Harburg:
“I doubt that I can ever say ‘I love you’ head on. It’s not the way I think. For me, the task is never to say the thing directly, and yet to say it – to think in a curve, so to speak.“
In It’s Only a Paper Moon, a guy tells the object of his affection that the moon is made of paper, it is hanging over a cardboard tree, but there’s still love: “It wouldn’t be make-believe if you believe in me“.
I met him once when I was working at ASCAP. A slight, brash man with a puckish manner and twinkling eyes and a big laugh.
Harburg was killed when the car he was driving swerved into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with another vehicle on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles in May 1981.
Harburg’s greatest contribution to popular culture are the words for the songs in The Wizard Of Oz (1939), and his most famous lyric was for a little ditty we know as Somewhere Over The Rainbow, the ultimate Gay Anthem.
When all the world is a hopeless jumble
And the raindrops tumble all around
Heaven opens a magic lane
When all the clouds darken up the skyway
There’s a rainbow highway to be found
Leading from your windowpane
To a place behind the sun
Just a step beyond the rain
Somewhere, over the rainbow
Way up high
There’s a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby
Somewhere, over the rainbow
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true
Some day I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops
That’s where you’’l find me
Somewhere, over the rainbow
Blue birds fly
Birds fly over the rainbow
Why then, oh, why can’t I?
If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh, why can’t I?