Review of Yip Harburg: Legendary Lyricist and Human Rights Activist by Harriet Hyman Alonso

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Yip Harburg: Legendary Lyricist and Human Rights Activist

by Harriet Hyman Alonso
Wesleyan University Press

Yip Harburg, lyricist, leftist, and a man who looked to the rainbow, may have been the only person in the United States to claim that the “Great Depression was the best thing that ever happened to him.” At least this is what he tells us from the pages of Yip Harburg: Legendary Lyricist and Human Rights Activist by Harriet Hyman Alonso. “I was relieved when the Crash came,” he told Studs Terkel in an interview. “When I lost my possessions, I found my creativity.” Alonso has made a wise choice to have Harburg’s witty and optimistic voice drive this biography. After all, the man who wrote the words to the wistful “Somewhere (Over the Rainbow)” and the sly “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” was an accomplished raconteur as well as an Academy Award–winning songwriter.

In the first years of the twentieth century, when he was about seven or eight, Isidore Harburg was enchanted by a performance of Peter Pan. On that school field trip, he recognized his “love for fantasy and my love for people that were a little larger than life.”

Harburg, who wrote the lyrics for “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “April in Paris,” and “Over the Rainbow,” among hundreds of other songs, could have been one of his own characters. Born in 1896 on New York’s Lower East Side, he was the youngest child of Russian immigrants, who were “but a speck among the 26 million immigrants, many from Eastern Europe, who came to the United States between 1870 and 1920.” The source of his nickname Yip is never completely verified, a quirk Alonso captures from the Terkel interview as “one of those funny things that stick to you for the rest of your life.”

Alonso is understandably charmed by Harburg; she leaves us to our own acceptance of Yip’s explanation: that his parents called him yipsl,  “squirrel” in Yiddish.

Young Yip (even his nickname sounds like a lyric) was exposed as a boy to the then-thriving Yiddish theater on Saturdays by his entertainment-loving father, who had neither the quarter for the show nor his wife’s approval to skip synagogue. Harburg recalls that “the House of God never had much appeal for me. Anyhow, I found a substitute temple—the theater.” Yiddishkeit, as well as the social welfare of the Henry Street and Christadora Settlement Houses, and a three-dollar-and-six-cent-a-week job as a lamplighter kept this poverty-stricken squirrel busy.

Alonso makes Harburg out to be good company. Although the two never met, Alonso, a history professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a member of the Peace History Society, has drawn on archived interviews, speeches, and lyrics to bring his saucy, savvy voice to life. Citing famous composer-lyricist teams like Rodgers and Hart, Lerner and Loewe, she admonishes the reader for “remembering duos as a single unit” that generated words and music as one. Harburg was half of many two-man teams, collaborating with at least fifty-eight composers, she tells us. Alonso urges the reader to complete the experience by seeking out recordings of Harburg’s songs.

Harburg himself was more than a whiz with words. A few credits shy of graduation from City College in 1918, he took a job in Uruguay with Swift and Co., the meat company, a position offered to him by a wealthy City College alumnus. Back in New York a few years later, he cofounded, with a college pal, the Consolidated Gas Iron Company, which sold electrical appliances, quite a turnabout for a former urchin lamplighter. He married, had two children, divorced, invented an easy-open ironing board and a dryer for baby clothes.

“All I had left [after the Crash] was a pencil,” Harburg told Terkel, with characteristic hyperbole and optimism.

Harburg, like his future scarecrow, also had a brain, and nerve. When the stock market crash put an end to the Consolidated Gas Iron Company, valued at about a quarter of a million dollars, he turned to classmate Ira Gershwin for advice. Gershwin, who had once stood him for tickets to a performance of The Mikado, introduced Harburg to composer Jay Gorney,  with whom he ultimately collaborated on more than one hundred shows. (Harburg married Edelaine Gorney in 1943, somehow managing to remain friends and sometime collaborator with her former husband.)

Alonso writes in an allegro tempo, the perfect upbeat rhythm for Harburg’s joie de vivre, optimism, and what’s come to be called networking, and her cheerful tone takes us easily from Harburg’s incarnation as canned-meat executive and appliance inventor to a writer who was, in Harburg’s own words from a 1971 interview, “always living in a live, vibrant, vigorous world.” From 1929 to 1937, Harburg wrote the lyrics for more than fifty musicals—songs including “April in Paris” (which he wrote from images in travel brochures) ,“If I Only Had a Brain (a Heart; the Nerve”), and “It’s Only a Paper Moon”. Some were romantic, some satirical, but as in “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” which premiered in the 1932 stage revue Americana, his songwriting reflected his cynical view of the political status quo.

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” became the anthem of the Great Depression. In lyrics like “They used to tell me / I was building a dream” he wrote of the forgotten man, but in a broader sense, his biographer writes, Harburg depicted “the inequities of the capitalist system.

Alonso has taken great care to include the full lyrics to this and many other Harburg compositions, giving the lyricist full voice and letting his craft continue to do the work he intended. Satire and wordplay make him the unofficial progenitor of songwriters like Tom Lehrer and Randy Newman, writing about much more than the casual listener might assume.

“The three basic things in life are knowledge, love, and courage,” Harburg told Terkel. Harburg, a Roosevelt man, saw the misfit rogues on the Yellow Brick Road as avatars of the administration’s best intentions. Roosevelt called for freedom from want, and time for learning and the arts, Alonso writes, and so Harburg’s scarecrow longs for knowledge, the tin man for a heart, and the lion for courage.

You’re hearing those lyrics in your head as you read, aren’t you?

Yip Harburg: Legendary Lyricist and Human Rights Activist deserves a more inspired title, and I hang that flawed hat on the house rather than the author. Harburg, blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1950s, described himself in a radio interview two decades later as “one of those nice, vociferous guys who was fighting injustice and joining all the good movements at the time.” Alonso takes pains to point out, in Harburg’s words, that he “had never… joined the Communist Party.”

Her deconstruction of the imagery and characterization in Harburg’s lyrics alone is worth the price of the book. For my money, the book’s coverage of the struggle over the title “Somewhere (Over the Rainbow)”—originally called “Over the Rainbow Is Where I Want to Be”—makes it belong on the Oz-enthusiast’s shelf beside Aljean Harmetz’s canonical The Making of “The Wizard of Oz.” (Alonso shares the wealth by citing parts of Harburg’s interview from that book.)

But so much sunshine needs a cloud, and Alonso tempers the weather with other voices from Harburg’s life. From choreographer Vernon Duke, a recollection of an “aggressive” Harburg delivering a “poignant address on the subject of Park Avenue Parasites” before storming out of a rehearsal. From Burton Lane, with whom Yip collaborated on Finian’s Rainbow, a story of the fracture in their friendship due to what Lane recalls as Harburg’s initially “heavy handed” and “angry” second act. Finian’s Rainbow takes place in the fictional state of Mississitucky and involves the theft of a leprechaun’s a pot of gold, three wishes, and a xenophobic white senator turned into a black man. Harburg himself later described the popular show, which opened on Broadway in January 1947, ran for 725 performances, and won the first Tony Award ever given for choreography, as “twenty five years ahead of its time.”

As he aged, Harburg’s political commitments stayed true to form. He supported the civil rights movement and wrote a song called “Freedom Is the Word” with Burton Lane for a 1964 NAACP broadcast celebrating the tenth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Harburg also opposed the war in Vietnam, performing at antiwar rallies and donating money to organizations including the Congressional Peace Campaign Committee. But his taste in music—or perhaps ours—rendered him an alter kocker, a word he surely knew. (It’s a slightly vulgar Yiddish endearment for a grouchy old man.) Speaking at UCLA in 1977, he said, “I cannot sing the songs of today. Because the songs of today depend upon percussion, beat, instrumentation, gyrations, weird sounds, clownish garments… My roots go back to Gilbert and Sullivan. The roots of today, they go back to gibberish.”

Yip Harburg: Legendary Lyricist and Human Rights Activist is a talky book, but even when he’s complaining, I like the company.

(Editor's Note: The Yellow Brick Road is in 3-D for the first time in Imax theaters,  Without Yip Harburg, Judy Garland wouldn't be dreaming of going  somewhere over the rainbow.)