Book Review - Yip Harburg

Before reading Harriet Hyman Alonso’s impeccably researched biography of E. Y. Harburg I was not familiar with the songwriter hailed as “Broadway’s social conscience”. Affectionately known as Yip, Harburg was the lyricist behind The Wizard of Oz and wrote such classics as “Paper Moon”, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and “April in Paris”. But as Alonso points out, we tend to remember composers rather than lyricists.

Harburg was renowned for his commitment to civil rights and swiftly realized that he could use satire to present his political ideas. In one interview he noted, “Words… make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. But a song makes you feel a thought”. Born on April 8, 1896, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Harburg’s early deprivation informed his politics. His parents were poor Orthodox Jews who had emigrated from Russia. His father worked in sweatshops. At the age of twelve, Harburg became a lamplighter for the Edison Company to pay his way through high school.

According to Harburg, musical theatre provided the perfect vehicle for conveying a political message because “a song follows you wherever you are”. His comments about the hit musical, Finian’s Rainbow (1947), reveal, most clearly, his desire “to foster a spirit of human rights advocacy”. He cites George Bernard Shaw and Hans Christian Andersen as influences: the former “taught us that truth can have many disguises” and the latter demonstrated that “if you don’t want to be jailed for the truth, tell it as you would to a child”. In Bloomer Girl (1944), Harburg linked anti-slavery with the women’s rights movement. In Finian’s Rainbow, he mocked “the folly of racism” together with greed, consumerism and corruption, and, for Jamaica (1957), he wrote the anti-nuclear song “Leave the Atom alone”.

During the McCarthy era, he was attacked by the conservative writer Ayn Rand, labelled a communist and blacklisted in Hollywood. The accusations were groundless and stemmed from a song he had written for the “Tribute to Russia Day”, held at the Hollywood Bowl in 1943, which was designed to raise money and awareness for the Soviet war effort.

Harriet Hyman Alonso has pored over numerous interviews and other source material, some of it previously unpublished. Tying together the most illuminating of Harburg’s reflections, and adding cultural context, she offers a comprehensive portrait of a man driven as much by his passion for human rights as he was by music.

Originally published in the TLS