Edgar Yipsel “Yip” Harburg, 1896 – 1981
Born: 8 April 1896, New York City
Died: 4 April 1987, Hollywood, California
Born Isadore Hochberg to Russian-Jewish immigrants, he was raised in poverty on the Lower East Side of New York City. At Townsend Harris High School, alphabetic order had him sitting behind Ira Gershwin; the two were fast friends, shared a love for Gilbert and Sullivan, and worked on the school paper. He became a socialist, and the initials of the Young People’s Socialist League became a part of his name: Edgar Yipsel Harburg. He had started writing light verse for newspapers before his electrical supply business failed following the crash of 1929 so he started writing song lyrics. One of the first was “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” which became something of an anthem for the Depression era. When the American Film Institute chose the Best Film Song of All Time in 2004 it was Yip’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, for which he won an Oscar with composer Harold Arlen. Yip not only wrote all of the lyrics for The Wizard of Oz, as the final script editor he wrote most of the spoken dialog. Although never a Communist, he was on the Hollywood blacklist which meant his talents were displayed only on Broadway for a decade. He wrote the lyrics for over 600 songs with more extensive writing and editing in dozens of revues, musicals, and movies. He died in an automobile accident on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard, he had a heart attack and lost control. Harburg was 84.
Yip Harburg quotes:
All the heroes of tomorrow are the heretics of today.
April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom, holiday tables under the trees.
Good St. Paul and Vincent Peale
Are men of wholly different steel,
Yet both of holy calling.
St. Paul is most appealing
And Peale is most appalling.
I am a rebel by birth. I contest anything that is unjust, that causes suffering in humanity. My feelings about that are so strong, I don’t think I could live with myself if I weren’t honest.
Ira [Gershwin] was the shyest, most diffident boy we had ever known. In a class of Lower East Side rapscallions, his soft-spoken gentleness and low-keyed personality made him a lovable incongruity. He spoke in murmurs, hiding behind a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles. Ira had a kid brother who wore stiff high collars, shirts with cuffs and went out with girls.
It’s easier to repent than to regret.
Leave the atom alone.
Lives of great men all remind us greatness takes no easy way.
No matter how high or great the throne,
What sits on it is the same as your own.
No matter how much I probe and prod
I cannot quite believe in God,
But, oh, I hope to God that He
Unswervingly believes in me.
Oh my heart is beating wildly,
And it’s all because you’re here,
When I’m not near the girl I love,
I love the girl I’m near.
Oh, innocent victims of Cupid,
Remember this terse little verse;
To let a fool kiss you is stupid,
To let a kiss fool you is worse.
Once I built a railroad, I made it run,
made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it’s done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?
Yip Harburg – “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (1931)
Somewhere over the rainbow,
Way up high
There’s a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby.
Yip Harburg – “Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The greatest romance in the life of a lyricist is when the right word meets the right note; often, however, a Park Avenue phrase elopes with a Bleecker Street chord, resulting in a shotgun wedding and a quickie divorce.