by John Lawrence from the San Diego Free Press
Lyricist for "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"
E.Y. Yip Harburg (1896-1981) was born Isidore Hochberg on New York's lower east side of Russian immigrant parents. His nickname, Yipsel, was later shortened to Yip. Unlike many of his contemporary songwriters like George and Ira Gerswin, with whom he was friends, Yip grew up in poverty and never forgot it.
He was known as "the social conscience of Broadway". He wrote the words to over 600 songs including all the lyrics for the 1939 production "Over the Rainbow" starring Judy Garland. The music was composed by his collaborator, Harold Arlen. He wrote the words for the classic anthem of the depression, "Brother Can You Spare a Dime." From 1951 to 1961 during the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations and the McCarthy hearings, Yip was “blacklisted” for his political views from film, television and radio. Broadway, however, remained free from this kind of censorship. In Hollywood Harburg was interrogated by communist witch hunters. He had composed a song, "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe." They asked him which Joe he was referring to. "Was it Joe Stalin?"
Yip worked with many composers, but he wrote the most songs with Harold Arlen - 155. Harburg, a lifelong socialist, but never a communist, always included a strong social and political component to his work, fighting racism and poverty. Two of his most overtly political Broadway plays were Bloomer Girls, about the women’s suffrage movement, and Finian’s Rainbow, a kind of immigrants’ anthem about race and class.
Yip went to high school with Ira Gerswin who wrote the lyrics as part of the songwriting team with his brother George who wrote the music. They became lifelong friends. Yip, along with the Gershwins and Irving Berlin, all from Russian immigrant Jewish families, went on to develop the American Musical Theatre and Hollywood Musicals. They also contributed a substantial number of songs to the Great American Songbook as sung by Frank Sinatra and others.
As a socialist, Yip refused to fight in World War I. He did not believe that capitalism was the answer to the human community and that indeed it was the destruction of the human spirit. And he would not fight its wars. And at that time the socialists and the lefties, as they were called, were against the war.
The Wizard of Oz
Arthur Freed was a songwriter and aspiring producer with MGM studios. After the success of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Freed lobbied MGM to produce a similar movie based on L. Frank Baum's 1900 children's book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He made sure Judy Garland got the role of Dorothy.
On May 19, 1938 Arlen and Harburg signed a contract with MGM to write the songs for The Wizard of Oz for $25,000. Although Freed was far to his right politically, he allowed Harburg to make the Munchkins members in good standing of a labor union! Harburg had much to do with the seamless integration of songs and plot. In three weeks he and Arlen had written "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead," "We're off to see the Wizard," and "If I Only Had a Brain/ a Heart/ the Nerve." They had written all the songs for the movie in just a few weeks leaving two months to come up with the final composition, a ballad for Judy Garland. Judy's attitude towards songwriters had been made clear when Irving Berlin tried to tell her how to sing one of his songs in another movie. She told him, "You write 'em; I'll sing 'em."
For the final song, Arlen and Harburg had to come up with a hit, a blockbuster, the equivalent of "Some Day My Prince Will Come" from Disney's Snow White. For slow songs, the music usually comes first and Arlen struggled hoping his muse would pop the melody into his head. Weeks passed and he had nothing. His agitation grew. In The Man That Got Away - The Life and Songs of Harold Arlen, author Walter Rimler quotes Harburg as saying, "I can't tell you the misery a composer goes through when the whole score is written, but he hasn't got that big theme song that Louis B. Mayer is waiting for... He surely sweated it out and he couldn't get a tune."
The breakthrough finally came toward the end of their fourteen week contract. Arlen said to his wife, Anya, "Let's go to Grauman's Chinese Theater." As they drove by Schwab's Drug Store on Sunset Boulevard, Arlen suddenly said, "Pull over." His muse had suddenly revealed to him the notes of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." They turned around and drove home where Arlen put it down on paper after which he called Harburg and asked him to come over. At first Harburg didn't like the song so they called in Ira Gershwin to help them. After making a few changes Harburg warmed up to it but could not come up with the first line. The first two notes represented an octave leap. He tried "I'll go over the rainbow," "Someday, over the rainbow" and "On the other side of the rainbow." Finally, Harburg's girlfriend Edelaine Gorney stepped in. Eddie finally chirped "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and Yip exclaimed, "That's It." For years Yip begged Eddie to allow him to put her name on the song along with his. But she said, "Don't be silly, it's your song."
Somehow, Harburg had been able to put the meaning of Arlen's music into words. And in an even less explicable way, Arlen had come up with a handful of notes that have meant more to people than those of any other song. It isn't known if he or his father ever considered it ironic that while the cantor toiled week in and week out at the synagogue, adhering to Sabbath and Kashrut law, improvising music as he davened on behalf of his congregation, it was to his wayward son, as he and his shiksa wife drove along Sunset Boulevard towards garish Grauman's Chinese Theatre, that the miracle had been granted.
Arlen's father always worked Somewhere Over the Rainbow into his religious services for the rest of his life. Judy Garland's performance was so good that she became associated with the song much more so than the two guys that actually wrote it.
But that wasn't the end of the saga. In the previews Arlen and Harburg were shocked to discover that Rainbow had been cut. The producers thought that a song sung by a girl as she walked around a barnyard wasn't appropriate and slowed the already too long movie down. Freed demanded that the song be put back in ("Rainbow stays or I go."), and the producers agreed reluctantly since Freed was already at work on another film starring Garland and Mickey Rooney that looked like a moneymaker. And the rest is history.
Over the Rainbow won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. The song is number one on the "Songs of the Century" list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. The American Film Institute also ranked "Over the Rainbow" the greatest movie song of all time on the list of "AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs".
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime
They used to tell me
I was building a dream,
And so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow
Or guns to bear,
I was always there
Right on the job.
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?
Once I built a tower
To the sun,
Brick and rivet and lime;
Once I built that tower;
Now it’s done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?
First performed in 1932, it was the only song about the Great Depression. Nobody wanted to talk about it, let alone sing about it.