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Remembering Yip Harburg

Dick Flacks
February 12, 2014
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Watching the 2011 Academy Awards last January, I was mildly astonished when the finale turned out to be a rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by a chorus of kids from P.S. 22 in Staten Island. I marveled that a song written some seventy-two years ago (it’s as old as I am!) continues to serve as a perfectly appropriate anthem, a centerpiece for many of life’s soundtracks. In just the last few months, Judy Collins turned the song into a children’s book and recording; the hit TV series Glee! used it as a rousing climax to its first season; James Taylor used it as a finale in his concert commemorating the 120th anniversary of Carnegie Hall, saying that it was the “anthem” of the place (remembering Judy Garland’s debut at Carnegie in 1939).

I paid attention to these happenings because the song — and its author — have played an important part in my life. The lyricist was E.Y. (Yip) Harburg, who was, in fact, the principal writer of the entire Wizard of Oz film. Back in the 1950s, when a lot of us red-diaper babies were teenagers, many of us were well-versed in the blacklist and its victims in show business. One of the prominent ones was Yip Harburg, whose Broadway musical, Finian’s Rainbow, had become a huge hit show just as McCarthyism was really gathering force. That show broke much ground: It was the first Broadway show with a racially mixed cast, and its theme and songs (thanks to Yip’s lyrics) carried a good deal of bite about matters of class and race. For some of us, Finian’s Rainbow was the first Broadway show we were taken to see, and the cast album made its way into all of our homes.

Mickey Hartman and I met at a counselor orientation session for Camp Kinderland just before the summer of 1957 and became a couple in camp. Somehow, we had a phonograph and an LP of Finian’s, and one warm afternoon we made out while listening to it. So we were bonded (and have been ever since!) and our shared interest in Yip Harburg had a lot to do with it.

Two years later, I started graduate school in Ann Arbor, and soon after found myself sharing an office with an older student named Ernie Harburg. Ernie turned out to be Yip’s son, and I think he was excited to find young folks like Mickey and me so engaged with his father’s work. Ernie was then in his early 30s (we were ten years younger) and he and wife Torrie had three young sons. They were the first of our friends to have kids, so they served as important role models for us newlyweds.

In June 1962, Mickey and I participated in the founding convention of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at Port Huron, Michigan. Afterwards, we embarked on a several-week car trip east, and one of our destinations was Martha’s Vineyard, where the Harburgs were spending the summer and Yip had a summer house. We were naturally excited at the prospect of meeting Yip.

It wasn’t hard to connect with him. He was elfin (like the leprechaun in Finian’s Rainbow, maybe). He twinkled and bounced. His conversation resembled the lyrics and satirical verse that poured from his pen. Immediately intrigued by the idea that a “new left” might think fresh thoughts about how to make social change, he was eager to hear about SDS and Port Huron.

One of the secrets of the old left was the numbers of Marxists who owned property in nice, even posh, resort locations. The Harburg place was nestled in a veritable nest of Marxists, or so it seemed to us. In particular, Yip’s neighbors included the editors of Monthly Review, and almost as soon as we arrived, Yip was eager to have us meet Leo Huberman. He took us to Leo’s abode, where we found the venerable working-class intellectual stretched out on a chaise lounge. Yip excitedly said to him, “Leo, you gotta hear what these kids have been up to! They’re founding a new leftwing student movement.” Leo turned out to be skeptical. Were we socialists? I asked him how he defined “socialism.” A society based on government planning and ownership, he declared. I wondered aloud whether American young people would have much interest in a vision defined in those terms.

Anyway, he replied, it was more important to defend Cheddi Jagan’s revolution (in Guyana) than to take on the impossible task of changing America. Besides, he said, “the world is likely to be blown up in the decade.” This was a conversation that amply validated SDS’ ambition to create a new left, as it reinforced the sense that veterans of the old were no longer able to lead.

Yip grew increasingly impatient with Huberman’s line of talk, and declared himself to be on the side of imagination and fresh thinking. Later, Yip took me on a walk down to the nearby boat harbor filled with yachts. Pointing to these, he said: “You guys might get a lot of recruits from the children of these people. They see the emptiness of owning things.” A most perceptive observation, I thought, since we’d met at the Port Huron meeting a surprising number of children of elite parents expressing a considerable guilt at the privilege they’d experienced growing up. Then Yip said something like: “I like what you’re trying to do, trying to help people see that rainbow.” This revealing comment made clear to me that the work he was doing as a writer of popular song was, for him, genuinely political — and radical. The rainbow — that was his primary symbol for personal and social possibility.

Yip wrote a number of “rainbow” lyrics over the years. One of the great songs in Finian’s is “Look to the Rainbow”: “Look, look, look to the rainbow. Follow the fellow who follows the dream.” If you juxtapose from “Over the Rainbow” this line — “Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream, really do come true” — you can see how he was striving to expand social consciousness with messages imbedded in deeply pleasurable popular songs.

Finian’s Rainbow overflows with such politically encoded songs. Some are pretty explicit, like “Necessity,” “When the Idle Poor,” and “Great Come and Get It Day.” But the whole work synthesizes satire and sentimentality in ways that challenge conventional political and social mindsets. We made a special trip to New York last year to see the premiere of the first Broadway revival of Finians in more than fifty years. It was an event that gave the lie to long-lasting suppositions that the play could never work for post-1960s audiences, given the ways that race and racism were expressed in it. The revival turned out to feel quite contemporary, partly owing to some ways the script was edited for it. Friends who saw it with us quoted several lines they’d assumed to be newly added (especially those referring to the “misbegotten GOP”); we assured them they were all in the original (a commentary on Yip’s political insight, and also on the unfortunate persistence of certain features of the American political landscape).

Yip was blacklisted in Hollywood, unable to work there for more than a decade — and never able to reproduce the level of power and achievement that he’d had with the Wizard of Oz. Ironically, though, that film achieved its enormous cultural centrality some twenty years after its 1939 release, it began to be shown annually on network TV and generations of kids were raised on it. The blacklist failed to block out one of the most political items in the history of popular culture. The original Wizard book was intended by its author, Frank Baum, as a populist allegory. Yip quite consciously remade it as a New Deal allegory. We can see the Wizard as a representation of political humbuggery, with more than passing resemblance to FDR — yet he tells the workers, farmers and intellectuals (tin man, lion and scarecrow) that they have within themselves the passion, courage and brains to solve their own problems rather than rely on illusions. It’s not for nothing that people have frequently celebrated political victories by singing ”Ding-dong, the witch is dead!” — one example of many ways that lines and moments in the film (mostly attributable to Yip’s creativity) have helped people express shared yearning and hope.

The blacklist, for some reason, never controlled Broadway in the ways that it dominated the film industry. Yip managed to produce hits like Jamaica and a number of commercial flops (most notably the quite explicitly political Flahooley) throughout the McCarthy era.

All of this work (he wrote some six hundred songs) is cherished by many, and continues to be produced and reinterpreted. The Broadway revival of Finian was an important example of that (it didn’t have a long run, but did get a number of Tony nominations, and the cast album is very worthwhile), and so is the continuous renewal of “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” Other revivals include a new CD of an early ’30s revue by Yip, Ira Gershwin, and Harold Arlen called Life Begins at 8:40, and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s recent stage production of the Wizard using the Harburg-Arlen film score.

For me, Yip Harburg’s greatest single musical contribution to political expression is the song he wrote early in the Depression: “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” It was in 1932, the first big popular song hit that dealt directly with the state of the society. I’m willing to bet that Yip and his musical collaborator, Jay Gorney, thought the song couldn’t possibly last beyond the Depression years. Sadly, it’s sung nowadays with quite a lot of resonance.

Forty years ago, Yip was asked to update the song, and he penned this verse:

“Once we had a Roosevelt
Praise the Lord!
Life had meaning and hope.
Now we’re stuck with Nixon, Agnew, Ford,
Brother, can you spare a rope?”
We could certainly make use of an updating of that, and we’re unlikely to hear from Yip, who died thirty years ago last March. Anyone want to try their hand?

Dick Flacks, a Jewish Currents contributing writer, is emeritus professor of sociology at University of California, Santa Barbara. His many writings on U.S. social movements include Making History: The American Left and the American Mind. He hosts a weekly radio show, Culture of Protest,” aired on Thursdays, 6 – 7 P.M. EST, at KCSB, and is coauthor with Rob Rosenthal of Playing for Change: Music and Musicians in the Service of Social Movements (Routledge, 2010).