E.Y. “Yip” Harburg was Broadway’s most complex lyricist. At once outspoken, liberal, and uncompromising, Harburg was also sentimental, romantic, and humorous. He was a man of strong moral and political beliefs who exhibited great tolerance toward those whose politics differed from his own. He believed in the power of lyrics and used that power to move audiences both emotionally and artistically.
Harburg was born in New York City on April 8, 1898. He began writing lyrics while still at New York City’s Townsend Harris High School, where he toiled on the school newspaper alongside schoolmate Ira Gershwin. While he was at City College, Harburg’s work was published in Franklin P. Adams’s influential column, “The Conning Tower.” After graduating, Harburg opened an electrical supply store, which failed at the onset of the Depression. He then followed in the footsteps of Gershwin and became a lyricist. Harburg’s first partner was composer Jay Gorney. After contributing songs to a succession of musical revues, the team struck gold with “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?,” written for a show called Americana (1932). The song became the unofficial anthem of the Depression.
Harburg scored hits in three early revues: Walk a Little Faster (1932) featured Vernon Duke and Harburg’s “April in Paris,” and people couldn’t believe that Harburg had never actually visited Paris but that his inspiration had come from a travel brochure; The Ziegfeld Follies of 1934 is credited with a Harburg and Duke score, including the successful “What Is There to Say?,” although it also included the songs of many other writers; and for Life Begins at 8:40 (1934), Harburg teamed with his old friend Ira Gershwin. Along with Harold Arlen, they came up with such hits as “Let’s Take a Walk Around the Block,” “You’re a Builder Upper,” and “Fun to Be Fooled.”
Beginning in 1935, Harburg devoted himself to film scores. He continued to collaborate with Harold Arlen in Hollywood while also working with Johnny Green, Walter Donaldson, Jerome Kern, Burton Lane, and Jay Gorney on occasion. The year 1939 turned out to be a banner one in which Harburg and Arlen scored the Marx Brothers extravaganza At the Circus, including “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” and what might be the finest score written for film, The Wizard of Oz. This was Harburg and Arlen’s first work for Judy Garland. In 1943, the team wrote a new score for the film version of Cabin in the Sky, featuring such hits as “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” and “Ain’t It de Truth.” The latter, sung by Lena Horne, was cut from the film and recycled by the team for their Lena Horne Broadway vehicle Jamaica.
Hooray for What! (1937), written in collaboration with Arlen, was Harburg’s first book show. Songs included “Down with Love,” “Moanin’ in the Mornin’,” and “In the Shade of the New Apple Tree.” This antiwar musical gave Harburg ample opportunity to express his pacifist leanings. He then explored both race relations and women’s rights in the brilliant Bloomer Girl (1944), which included such hits as “Right As the Rain,” “The Eagle and Me,” “T’morra T’morra,” and “Evelina.” Harburg was honing his ability to entertain even as he made social and political statements.
His greatest success was certainly Finian’s Rainbow (1947), written in collaboration with Burton Lane (and Fred Saidy, with whom he wrote the libretto). Finian’s has one of the theatre’s finest scores, including “How Are Things in Glocca Morra,” “Look to the Rainbow,” “Old Devil Moon,” and “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love.” His associates felt that Harburg, who at times could be magical and mischievous himself, bore more than a passing resemblance to the character of Og the leprechaun.
When Harburg was blacklisted and couldn’t find work in Hollywood, he turned his attention to Broadway, producing a rare failure in Flahooley (1951). However, the score, with music by Sammy Fain, does provide some excellent songs, including “He’s Only Wonderful,” “The World Is Your Balloon,” and “Here’s to Your Illusions.” Artistically, Jamaica (1957) suffered because it was too much a vehicle for its star, Lena Horne, but the Arlen/Harburg score includes such fine songs as “I Don’t Think I’ll End It All Today,” “Push de Button,” and “Napoleon.” Harburg tackled the Lysistrata legend for his Broadway show The Happiest Girl in the World (1961). The music was adapted from the works of Jacques Offenbach, to which Harburg added lyrics that perfectly reflected his view of the world. Although some thought Harburg’s unofficial theme song was, “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love (I Love the Girl I’m Near)” from Finian’s Rainbow, those who knew him best felt his theme might be “Adrift on a Star.”
In 1963, Harburg and Arlen wrote a new score for Judy Garland (Arlen had written the music for A Star Is Born in the meantime), for the 1962 animated film, Gay Pur-ee, and followed it with another song for her, the title song of 1963’s I Could Go on Singing.
Harburg’s last Broadway show, Darling of the Day (1968), was written with Jule Styne. The show starred Vincent Price and Patricia Routledge, whose singing voices did not serve the score well. Although it was a failure, Harburg and Styne considered it their My Fair Lady. And while it may not be as wonderful as the Lerner and Loewe show, it does have an excellent but sadly unappreciated score.
Harburg died on March 5, 1981, on a trip to Hollywood. (KB)
Harburg and composer Jay Gorney (then Paramount Pictures’ East Coast music director) were strolling through Central Park when a beggar asked, “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” Substituting the word “brother” for “buddy,” Harburg had a classic lyric—a symbol of the great Depression.Brother Can You Spare a Dime
Arlen considered this song one of his top two compositions.Last Night When We Were Young
“Ain’t It De Truth,” was an early hit for Lena Horne which she performed in the film, Cabin in the Sky only to have the number cut, supposedly at the request of a jealous Ethel Waters, but possibly because she sang the number in a bathtub and it was considered too risqué for its time. Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg later interpolated the song into Jamaica.Ain’t It De Truth
Harburg was working on the “Barcarolle” lyric and having trouble with it. His wife stepped out of the house for a few hours and when he came home, there was no dinner on the table, but she’d left him a note. She knew he was working on a very tough lyric and she wrote, “Don’t worry I know you’re a man who’s always valiant enough to always swim against the tide and keep your eyes on the universal stars and your hand on the eternal plow. It’ll come to you and you will find one meatball in the icebox.” So he thought, “Why can’t the boat in the song, instead of being a gondola, be the earth—which is a universal boat that is roaming around in space?” From there, he wrote the lyric. He commented, “I know why I’m here. I’m here because I’m on a boat. I’m a little astronaut in a great big astronautic vehicle called the world. Here we are adrift on a star.”Adrift on a Star
"Harold Arlen met Oscar Hammerstein in the Astor Hotel while we were in rehearsal. Hammerstein said to Harold, “Yipper’s such a good writer, why does he always have to get mixed up with such things as Hooray for What! and war? The stage is not a place for proselytizing and propaganda. The stage should be used for entertainment.” Now this was Oscar Hammerstein, a nice, human decent wonderful guy.
Everybody thought that I was spoiling the protocol or in someway hurting the theatre by representing social causes in my musicals. I really felt honestly that like Shaw, Gilbert and Sullivan, Swift, satirists, I was only doing an honest job of educating and getting people thinking about good things.
Always the political and social climate affect the writer. The writer is not ever living in a void. He’s living in a live, vibrant, vigorous world and he tries to reflect that world around him. Of course, you must have some predisposition to react to that world. There were many chaps in 1930 who were still writing about castles in the air or palaces in Long Island. If you go through the list of songs and the list of shows that were done during that era, most of them just kept right on with parties at the Fitzgeralds and little puffy love plots. But I think I had a predisposition to feeling for the underdog. I grew up in the slums. I know what it is to work in a sweatshop. I know what it is to have your father come home from a sweatshop after working 12 hours a day and greeting him. I know what it is for a neighbor to come and ask for a piece of bread and what it to have your rooms emptied by the sheriff and be put out because you can’t pay the rent. When you know that, you also start thinking about causes, what is the cause of those things. Then you get interested in reading. Then you begin taking courses that will give you an insight into the reason for this poverty for this kind thing. When you come out, if you’re an artist of any kind, then you’re certainly going to apply the thing that impressed you most as a child. So that you make a hookup between cause and effect. It will work inside you. Your creative juices will be working around the thing that either has aggravated you or made you hostile or made so you philosophical and wise, that you want to educate others about it or that you want to laugh at it."E.Y. Harburg
"Every lyric was fingerprinted and the history of it taken and the microscopes were applied to every word to see what hidden meanings there were and I lost many a job and people were afraid to write with me. They used to call you in at Metro and say, 'Look it we don’t want any messages in the stuff you write. We like your stuff we don’t like you messages.' They had one big cliché, 'Messages are for Western Union.' They would have kicked me out if it wasn’t for the fact that I was able write humorous stuff and things that made the thing work."E.Y. Harburg
"In making me a kind of assistant during the formation of the New Americana score, he taught me how to work at lyric writing. I had been a dilettante at it, trying hard but very undisciplined, waiting for the muse to smile. Yip taught me to go seeking her, never letting a day or a work session go by without something to show for it. Often the songs went unpublished, but there were songs. Finished. Complete. Work done."Johnny Mercer