Edgar Yipsel “Yip” Harburg (born Isidore Hochberg 1896 – 1981) was a lyricist, librettist, and poet whose vast range included such memorable songs as “April in Paris” (with Vernon Duke), the Academy Award winning “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (with Harold Arlen), which ranks #1 in Songs of The Century by The Library of Congress, and “Lydia The Tattooed Lady,” forever associated with Groucho Marx (with Harold Arlen).
Schoolmate Ira Gershwin encouraged Harburg to write lyrics after the business he co-owned, Consolidated Electrical Appliance Company, failed in the crash. Up until then he’d only penned light verse. The celebrant was also widely known for his liberal politics and activism, later spending 12 years blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Today raconteur/vocalist Harvey Granat is joined by guests Ernie Harberg, Yip’s son, an extensively published scientist now on the board of The Yip Harburg Foundation and his wife Deena Rosenberg Harburg, author and President of The Yip Harburg Foundation
Yip Harburg’s first success was “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” (music Jay Gorney), called anti-American by Republicans. Ernie Harburg notes that “Dime” and “Happy Days Are Here Again” (Milton Ager/Jack Yellin) were the only two popular songs about the Depression. “Publishing companies only wanted love songs.”
Vernon Duke was the first great composer with whom Harburg collaborated. Granat sings 1935’s “Last Night When We Were Young” in true crooner fashion, doleful and lovely. “That was the only unrequited love song Yip wrote,” Ernie remarks.
By 1942 the lyricist had four shows on Broadway, Granat tells us. “Gershwin said it takes three to four years to become a lyricist.” From 1934’s Hooray for What, an anti-war musical written with Harold Arlen, we hear him sing “Down With Love.” Short phrases ride tandem with elongated delivery. Performance is deft and wry.
Apparently Harburg didn’t only contribute lyrics to The Wizard of Oz (the film has its 80th anniversary in 2019), Deena tells us her brother-in-law was more theatrical than composer Harold Arlen. Ernie goes further, explaining that the concept was Yip’s.“They were going to do the story and sing, do the story and sing. Yip created the first integrated musical film. He wrote much of the screenplay (uncredited) and all the spoken song introductions.”
Granat lightly sings excerpts from “If I Only Had a Brain” (the Scarecrow) and “If I Only Had a Heart” (the Tin Woodsman). Cleverness never grows old. “Yip said there are three things in the world, knowledge, love and courage,” Ernie says spotlighting the nature of the songs. “The film has a lot of political overtones too,” Deena adds. “Munchkin Land and Oz were both Utopian communities – no money, no war. It’s also a great score without love songs.” “Judy Collins told me Yip said the story is about an idealistic young girl who overthrew the politics of the land,” Ernie recalls.
The iconic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is performed by Joelle Lurie with phrasing as natural as breathing. She aptly seems carried away by the lyric whose notes waft and faintly warble. I just wish she’d look at her audience. “Key words are dare to dream and why can’t I, Ernie tells us. “Pete Seeger sang, why can’t you and I, which is sometimes used as a second reprise these days. It’s saying, join me, we can do it together.” Deena notes construction – “I heard it once in a lullaby is passive, dare to dream is first person, and why can’t I denotes action.”
From Cabin in The Sky (with Harold Arlen) Lurie sings “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe“ which brims over with shy, surprised appreciation.Vocal is velvet. “That was the first all black film in Hollywood,” Ernie notes. “Yip was always fighting for women, blacks, and social justice.”
In a complete change of pace, Harburg also wrote the score for The Marx Brothers, At the Circus. “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” is a marvel: …She has eyes that folks adore so/And a torso even more so/Lydia, oh! Lydia, that “Encyclopedia” /Oh! Lydia, the Queen of tattoo/On her back is the Battle of Waterloo/Beside it the Wreck of the Hesperus too/And proudly above the waves /The Red, White and Blue/You can learn a lot from Lydia…Granat is having an infectiously good time performing this. Attitude is just right.
Arlen and Harburg had issues over 1944’s Bloomer Girl which involves women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. Finian’s Rainbow paired the lyricist with Burton Lane. In this piece, he was able to give full reign to politics. Both carpet-bagging capitalism and racism are addressed. “One critic wrote it brought racism to the bar of humor. Granat sings a tickled “If This Isn’t Love” and a tango “Old Devil Moon.” His right foot taps; shoulders rise on high notes.
Harburg continued to write for theater while being blacklisted, but successes were few. Granat points out that our greatest lyricists were poets. Unlike most of them, Harburg actually published that effort. Our host reads from Rhymes for the Irreverent. The poem Truth is affecting: Truth must be smuggled in/It has no fatherland… The poem An Atom a Day Keeps the Doctor Away includes the line, Who will find the antidote for Pentagonoria? Ernie recites Oh Innocent Victims of Cupid by heart. Clearly the poems are worth reading.
One last anecdote. Ernie Harburg is asked where “Yip” got his nickname. He conjectures that it comes from Yipsel, an affectionate Russian colloquial meaning little squirrel and that when Lower East Side Jewish mothers called their children in to dinner, Mrs. Harburg called Edgar by that name. Harburg is as charming as his father must’ve been, Rosenberg extremely knowledgeable. An entertaining and illuminating event.
Harvey Granat Songs and Stories:On Yip Harburg
Musical Guests: Pianist Rob Kelley; Vocalist Joelle Lurie
92Y at Lexington Avenue
NEXT: On Cy Coleman with Guests author Andy Probst, the author of You Fascinate Me So: The Life and Times of Cy Coleman (Applause Books)
Performer Ronny Whyte
November 29, 2018 12 p.m.