Harburg, E. Y.

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E. Y. Harburg

Popular song lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg (1896–1981) was quoted as saying by Clyde Haberman of the New York Times that "songs are the pulse of a nation's heart, a fever chart of its health."

Harburg wrote the words to at least two familiar songs that reflected and embodied aspects of the American national outlook: "Over the Rainbow," from the musical film The Wizard of Oz, was a timeless expression of yearning, while "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" was a hard-luck story of the Great Depression that shaped so many American lives.

There was much more to Harburg than just those two songs, however. During the era of classic Broadway song, Harburg was a frequent collaborator with the top tunesmiths in the business, Wizard of Oz composer Harold Arlen above all. Harburg wrote lyrics for musicals whose stories he had developed from scratch, including several, such as Finian's Rainbow, that reflected his progressive political convictions. Harburg wrote romantic songs, comic songs, and serious songs in proportions roughly equivalent to those found in the productions of other songwriters. What defined his work above all was a sensitivity to the craft of the lyricist, often the forgotten partner in songwriting collaborations. "The magic in song only happens when the words give destination and meaning to the music, and the music gives meaning to the words," Harburg told his son Ernie (as quoted by Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle. "Together as a song they go places you've never been before."

Raised on Lower East Side

The youngest of four surviving children (out of ten born), Edgar Yipsel Harburg was born Irwin Hochberg in New York, New York, on April 8, 1896. His parents were Yiddish-speaking, Orthodox Jews who immigrated from Russia, and he grew up in the poor, crowded, and culturally vibrant Lower East Side neighborhood that spawned a host of other creative careers. Harburg came to his familiar name in stages. An unusually active child, he was called Yipsel, a Yiddish word for squirrel, or Yip for short. He made the nickname into a middle name when he married Alice Richmond in 1923, changing his name to Edgar Yipsel Harburg. Harburg liked the musical stage from the beginning. His parents, worried that he would have to perform on Jewish holy days, steered him away from acting, but his father sometimes took him to the theater when the two were supposed to be going to a synagogue.

In high school Harburg made friends with Ira Gershwin, a lyricist with talents equal to his own and later a mentor, for Gershwin, in tandem with his brother George, entered the music business long before Harburg did. After the death of his older brother Max from cancer at age 28, Harburg renounced his Jewish faith and became an agnostic. (A little Harburg poem reproduced in the biography Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz reads, "Poems are made by fools like me / But only God can make a tree / And only God who makes the tree / Also makes the fools like me / But only fools like me, you see / Can make a God who makes a tree.").

Harburg loved to go to plays and musicals, in both English and Yiddish. He also admired and studied the works of two of the great comic stage writers of past generations, especially W.S. Gilbert of the Gilbert & Sullivan light-opera duo and playwright George Bernard Shaw. Moving on to the City College of New York, Harburg remained friends with Gershwin, and the two contributed a humorous column to a college newspaper, signing it "Yip and Gersh." Harburg graduated from City College in 1917 and took a job with the Swift meatpacking company in the South American nation of Uruguay. The job was considered related to the national war effort and thus helped him avoid being drafted.

Many of Harburg's classmates took off to visit Europe in the 1920s, but Harburg, who felt a sense of satisfaction at supporting his still very poor parents, went into the electrical appliance business with a friend, Harry Lifton. The partnership prospered, and Harburg estimated that the two were worth a quarter of a million dollars at the peak of the economic boom. Married and with two children, Harburg continued to work in business through the 1920s, sometimes contributing light verse to newspapers on the side. He and his wife divorced in 1929, and he lost most of his money in the stock market crash of that year.

Welcomed Crash

The Depression feared by so many was welcomed by Harburg, for it gave him the chance to devote all his time to writing songs. "I was relieved when the Crash came," he told writer Studs Terkel in an interview quoted in Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz. "I was released. Being in business was something I detested. When I found that I could sell a song or a poem, I became me, I became alive…. When I lost my possessions, I found my creativity." Even before the crash, Harburg had renewed a contact with Ira Gershwin, who by that time was one of the best-known lyricists in the United States. Gershwin introduced Harburg to composer Jay Gorney, who had abandoned a career as a lawyer to try songwriting, and in the summer of 1929 they had contributed songs to a revue called Earl Carroll's Sketchbook.

Harburg worked with 31 different composers between 1929 and 1934, and for the rest of his life, in contrast to other lyricists who worked only in songwriting teams, he collaborated freely with almost any composer who came his way. His biggest successes at the beginning, however, came with Gorney, and none was bigger than "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" The song, written in 1932 when the Depression was at its worst, was part of a revue called Americana that had an unusual level of social commentary for the Broadway stage of its day. Harburg started out to write a love song, but the lyric went through various drafts as it evolved first into a sharp satirical attack on the monied Rockefeller family and finally into the portrait of a ruined worker ("Once I built a tower / To the sun / Brick and rivet and lime / Once I built a tower / Now it's done / Brother, can you spare a dime?") that it finally became.

That same year, Harburg also teamed up with the highborn composer Vernon Duke on the revue Walk a Little Faster, which contained the standard "April in Paris." (The two disliked and avoided each other but still managed to write several enduring songs.) It was also in 1932 that Harburg first collaborated with Harold Arlen. They contributed a little-known song called "Satan's Li'l Lamb" to Americana, but their second song, inserted into the play The Great Magoo, was another standard—"It's Only a Paper Moon." Harburg and Arlen went on to write 109 more songs; among Harburg's roughly 375 song credits, Arlen's name appears far more often than that of any other composer.

Their most famous collaboration was undoubtedly "Over the Rainbow." Harburg had experienced great success through the 1930s, working with various composers on songs premiered by great musical performers like Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger. In 1937, for the first time, he originated the idea for a show, writing book and lyrics together (the music was Arlen's) for the politically oriented revue Hooray for What? Harburg and Arlen were brought together for The Wizard of Oz by producer Arthur Freed.

Shaped Conception of Film

Harburg wrote all the lyrics for the songs in The Wizard of Oz, and the film reflected his creative input in many ways. As the screenplay took shape, it was Harburg who suggested the seamless integration between songs and story that gives The Wizard of Oz much of its appeal; the technique was rare in musicals at the time. The dialogue between Aunt Em and Dorothy that precedes "Over the Rainbow" in the film was written by Harburg, and the rainbow image, which did not appear anywhere in the book The Wizard of Oz, was entirely his creation. It dovetailed splendidly with the film's then-novel use of color. Harburg also demonstrated a sexy streak in his songwriting that year with "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" ("She has eyes that folks adore so / And a torso even more so"), written for film comedian Groucho Marx.

Writing musicals through World War II, Harburg returned to Hollywood with Cabin in the Sky (1943), a musical with an all-black cast that included a young Lena Horne. Cabin in the Sky featured another Harburg-Arlen standard, "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe." Moving between Hollywood and New York for several years, Harburg wrote lyrics for Bloomer Girl (1944) an innovative musical, set just before the Civil War, that addressed issues of race and gender equality. As far as his personal life during this time, he married Edelaine Roden in 1943.

The issue of race came to the fore in Harburg's greatest musical of the postwar years, Finian's Rainbow (1946). The show arose in Harburg's mind as a result of his anger at segregationist legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate by Mississippi lawmakers Theodore Bilbo and John Rankin. "The only way I could assuage my outrage against their bigotry was to have one of them turn black and live under his own [Jim Crow] laws and see how he felt about it," Harburg said in a speech quoted in Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz? The show, with music by Burton Lane (Arlen turned it down on the grounds that it was too political), verged on a Marxist theme but was loaded with great Irish-flavored melodies like "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?," giving Harburg another major hit.

Although he was never a member of the Communist Party, Harburg was blacklisted in Hollywood beginning in 1950 along with a host of other progressive artists. The blacklist affected Broadway less severely, however, and Harburg continued to work in New York. Among his hits of the 1950s was Jamaica (with music by Arlen), a Lena Horne vehicle that ran for 550 performances. Harburg had another success with The Happiest Girl in the World (1961), in which he set words to preexisting melodies by French operetta composer Jacques Offenbach.

In his old age, Harburg published two volumes of light verse. He continued to write songs, premiering a new one, "Time, You Old Gypsy Man," at a concert held at New York's 92nd Street YMCA in 1980. The following year he had a heart attack while driving alone in Los Angeles; his car swerved into the path of traffic, and he was killed. Although lyricists have received comparatively little recognition in comparison with composers in studies of popular song, Harburg's reputation was secure and his work is certain to endure.


Furia, Philip, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, Oxford, 1990.

Meyerson, Harold, and Ernie Harburg, Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz?, University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Volume 1: 1981–1985, Scribner's, 1998.


Daily News (Los Angeles), January 28, 1999.

New York Times, March 7, 1981; January 13, 1993; May 3, 2005.

San Francisco Chronicle, November 17, 2004.

Washington Post, March 7, 1981; November 16, 1993.

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